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California Schools Must Spend $2 Billion COVID Funds to Help Remote Learning Loss

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A boy staring at a computer screen during a remote learning session in his room.
Mario Ramirez Garcia, 10, attends an online class in the bedroom he shares with his sister on April 23, 2021. “It’s funner in real school,” Mario said of distance learning. (Anne Wernikoff/CalMatters)

At the height of the pandemic, in the spring of 2020, Maria O., her husband and four children were quarantined in their one-bedroom apartment in South Los Angeles, each vying for privacy, quiet and adequate technology to work and attend school remotely.

There weren’t enough tablets or laptops, and Wi-Fi was glitchy. Her children ended up logging into online classes using their parents’ phones. While the children once loved school, they started falling behind academically. Everyone grew frustrated.

“People on the outside don’t know the impact that remote learning had on families like us,” Maria O. said. “It was hard and it was stressful. We stayed afloat, but it wasn’t easy.”

Maria O.’s family is among a dozen Californians who joined a lawsuit against the state, claiming that in many schools, remote learning was so inconsistent and ineffective that thousands of students — especially low-income, Black and Latino students — were denied their right to an education. She and other plaintiffs in the case were not identified by their full names in court documents and asked to remain anonymous when interviewed to protect their children’s privacy.

The case was settled this month in Alameda County Superior Court, which issued an order that the state introduce legislation requiring schools to spend the remaining $2 billion in COVID-19 relief funds to help students most impacted by remote learning recover academically and emotionally from the pandemic. That could include tutoring, counseling, after-school activities and other steps.

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The impact of school shutdowns

But beyond the settlement details, the case has drawn attention to the magnitude of learning loss during the pandemic. Despite herculean efforts by school staff to keep students engaged during remote classes, learning loss — especially among students who were struggling before the pandemic — is a crisis that could harm a generation of students, researchers said.

“We can measure the impact of lost quality instruction, but the implications of a traumatic few academic years are much bigger for student health, mental health and well-being,” said Joe Bishop, co-founder of UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools. “In the same way we rush to support families after a wildfire or school shooting, we have to deploy assistance to help students, especially youth of color, with the same sense of urgency.”

Bishop and his team at UCLA published a pair of reports on learning loss on behalf of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. They interviewed teachers, administrators, counselors and school staff at all levels. They found that remote learning exacerbated pre-existing inequities and that most educators believe the state offered insufficient guidance on navigating the pandemic.

But with California’s decentralized education system, the state’s authority was limited, said Elizabeth Sanders, a spokesperson for the California Department of Education. Still, the department provided ample assistance for schools under difficult circumstances, she said.

“Certainly, there were clear needs for support that students and families had during the pandemic. [The Department of Education] and Superintendent [Tony] Thurmond acted immediately to try to meet those needs,” Sanders said. “And when new needs arose, we stepped in to provide help every step of the way.”

For example, when some districts struggled to get laptops or tablets for every student, the state leveraged its connections to manufacturers to deliver enough devices to districts, even amid a global shortage, she said. In addition, the state provided a host of online resources for schools, addressing healthdistance learningreopening campuses, parents’ concerns and other topics.

Nonetheless, too many districts were “flying in dangerous conditions without a control tower or central place of support,” Bishop said. “They were largely left alone to weather the COVID storm.”

While some districts fared relatively well during remote learning, others struggled to meet students’ basic needs. That included everything from providing enough devices and Wi-Fi hotspots to addressing students’ mental health needs to offering adequate academic instruction.

“Schools and districts felt isolated and on their own dealing with this extraordinary moment in our history,” Bishop said. “They had to be public health experts, help parents find jobs and housing, provide IT support.”

The UCLA researchers also looked at solutions to a problem they say stretches far beyond the realm of schools. They said the Department of Education needs support from the Legislature and other agencies to create a long-term roadmap for recovery. It should include a comprehensive plan to address staffing shortages, expand mental health services and target services to students who need them the most, among other steps.

“Right now, there’s not a clear compass for where we’re headed and what we’re doing about it,” Bishop said. “Learning has been stagnant, but as a state, what are we doing about it? This is a question we need to answer.”

Parents’ frustrations

Kelly R., another plaintiff in the lawsuit, said she’s hopeful the settlement funds will help students across California regain lost ground.

During remote learning, her three daughters, who were enrolled in Los Angeles Unified, experienced shortened school days and large amounts of independent work they struggled to complete. Kelly R., a case manager, was working from home, and because the family lived in an airplane path, Wi-Fi was unreliable.

Her children were falling behind academically, lost their self-confidence and started disliking school, she said. This was especially frustrating, she said because just a few miles away in more affluent neighborhoods, students were attending in-person learning pods paid for by their parents and staying on top of their academics.

“It was stressful, discouraging. I had a sense of helplessness. I kept asking myself, what could I have done better?” she said. “Maybe if we had been in a different tax bracket, things would have gone differently.”

Compton Unified rebounds

Compton Unified, in Los Angeles County, has rebounded almost entirely from the pandemic, according to the most recent California Schools Dashboard data. Last year, English language arts scores surpassed the 2019 results, while math scores jumped 5.8% to nearly meet the pre-pandemic score. The graduation rate was 89% last year, two percentage points higher than in 2019. Chronic absenteeism was still high last year but lower than the state average of 24%.

Superintendent Darin Brawley credits a heavy investment in tutoring and mental health services, some of which pre-date the pandemic. The district used its COVID-19 relief funds to contract with four tutoring agencies and expand the mental health curriculum at all schools for families as well as students. It also operates 30 on-campus wellness centers that offer services such as mental health counseling, yoga and mindfulness and crisis intervention.

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Brawley also credits an early reopening plan. Some students, including English learners and those in special education, began returning to in-person school in October 2020, months before most other schools reopened.

“Because of that, our students have done a little better. The drops were not as significant,” Brawley said. “Although we’re not where I want us to be.”

Brawley said the settlement heartens him, but its success will depend on whether the money actually benefits students who were most affected by remote learning. Accountability and follow-up will be key, he said.

“This case is extremely important. You cannot deny that Black and brown and low-income students were significantly impacted by the pandemic,” Brawley said. “But the devil will be in the details.”

California’s education landscape

California’s learning loss was not the worst in the country by a long shot. California is actually in the middle of the pack nationwide, according to a report from the Stanford Graduate School of Education released last month. California schools have seen less dramatic recovery than other states, but the initial loss wasn’t as great.

Nationwide, the recovery for some districts has been remarkable, said Sean Reardon, co-author of the study and a Stanford University education professor. While some districts, especially those in low-income areas, are still behind, some have made significant strides to catch up. Overall, students have rebounded by 25% in reading and 33% in math, far exceeding students’ typical progress in a year, according to the report.

He said teachers deserve credit for those improvements, helping students stay on track academically while addressing a host of other demands.

“The question is, will the recovery be sustained as [COVID relief] funds run out this year,” Reardon said. “We also need to look at the strategy going forward.”

For Maria O., who works as a case manager, the effects of the pandemic still linger. Her children managed to stay afloat, thanks in part to tutoring and other support from Community Coalition, a South Los Angeles nonprofit focusing on social justice. But they’re not as enthusiastic about school as they once were.

Her son, who’s in high school, is especially disengaged, she said. Although he’s doing OK academically, he often wants to skip class, she said, and she worries about him.

“I didn’t take part in this lawsuit for my kids, though. I did it for the kids who don’t have the support that my kids do,” she said. “I want to give them a voice.”

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