November 30, 2020

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My first reaction when I heard L.A. schools won’t be open this fall? Tears. Lots of them

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Hamilton High School on Los Angeles’ Westside is among the Los Angeles Unified School District...

Hamilton High School on Los Angeles' Westside is among the Los Angeles Unified School District schools whose campuses will not open Aug. 18. <span class="copyright">(Los Angeles Times)</span>
Hamilton High School on Los Angeles’ Westside is among the Los Angeles Unified School District schools whose campuses will not open Aug. 18. (Los Angeles Times)

I’ll admit, I cried a bit when I heard that Los Angeles Unified School District students won’t be returning to their campuses next month. Instead, students will start the new school year they way the ended the last one — online and at home.

Like many parents, I’ve anxiously watched the calendar and the COVID-19 case numbers. In April, as California took its early victory lap for flattening the curve, I’d hoped my two kids could return to school full time in the fall. In June, as cases began to rise with reopening, I figured they’d have a couple days a week in the classroom and a couple days a week of distance learning.

Now, as coronavirus diagnoses and hospitalizations surge in L.A. County and the state starts to close again, it’s clear that most schools don’t have what they need to safely reopen their campuses. And so here we are again, back in home school.

I get it. There are too many risks to reopening all schools right now. Public schools do not have enough money, personnel and technical assistance to do regular testing and contact tracing or to redesign campuses to accommodate social distancing. Reopening schools too soon and without good safety protocols puts far too many people at risk, from teachers and school staff to children and their parents.

Still, the prospect of another few months, an additional semester or, God forbid, a full year of studying from home is enough to make many parents, and their kids, burst into tears.

Distance learning is a poor substitute for being in a classroom with an engaging teacher and fellow students. During the first season of distance learning last spring, after arguing with my third grader over his refusal to finish his work, he sobbed, “I hate home school. It’s all the boring parts of school and none of the fun parts.”

He was right. Sitting at home, staring at a screen, watching glitchy videos and trying to have a Zoom conversation is a dismal experience compared with the interactions and experiences that kids get at school and in the classroom. There are no games at recess. No lunch with their buddies. No field trips. Distance learning can easily suck the joy right out of learning.

And it’s no picnic for parents either. Working parents are expected either to find child care (good luck with that!) or, if they’re fortunate enough to work from home, to balance doing their job and supervising their kids’ lessons. (Also, good luck!) For so many parents, the schools are their child-care providers. Moms and dads can drop their kids before the first bell, and many campuses have after-school programs that run until 6 p.m. or later. That support system is gone, and yet somehow parents are expected to keep on working as if nothing has changed.

And these are just inconveniences compared with the very real concern that many children will face long-term consequences from missing so much time in school. Early research suggests that kids made little to no progress in their studies after the school closures. Affluent students were the most likely to have made significant gains in learning, low-income students the least. The expectation was that kids would make up for lost learning in the new school year, but how will that happen if students are stuck taking online classes at home again?

Perhaps the most frustrating piece of the continued closure is that we’ve had four months to plan and prepare for the return to schools, and what happened? Was that time squandered? It feels as though the Gov. Gavin Newsom and leaders throughout the state have dedicated far more energy in reopening restaurants, bars and tattoo parlors than in figuring out how to safely educate the next generation. Schools are essential but they’ve been treated like optional services.

And then there’s President Trump, who has pushed schools to fully reopen, never mind the rising coronavirus cases. The federal government could do so much more to help districts make their campuses safer for in-person learning. Why isn’t Congress and the Trump administration pouring money into the schools? They could make it possible for schools to perform regular testing and contact tracing. More dollars could pay for more staff, trailers and portable classrooms so schools could educate small groups of students, which would be safer.

Money would help, but it won’t solve everything. People need to take the pandemic seriously again and change their behavior to slow the spread of COVID-19. We can’t keep shutting down the economy and we can’t keep the schools closed until there is a vaccine.

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