When the whole world froze and California began its initial COVID-related shutdown, I was working as a tutor at a private tutoring company in Santa Monica. Many of my young students were worried about the virus (particularly when Tom Hanks contracted it), and some were excited to get to “go to school” from the comfort of their own bedrooms; some were even jazzed about the notion of not being graded for their work. Similarly, my siblings (in middle and high school) were keen on the idea of online schooling. Getting to go to school in your pajamas while not getting graded for your work? What could go wrong?
Fast forward a year later–I no longer work at the tutoring company, but I know that young students like my siblings are repulsed by online schooling. When I ask my brothers how school is going, they both respond by telling me that it’s very confusing due to the online medium, and that teachers do little to help. While this is anecdotal, it serves as a prime example of the quality, or lack thereof, of the public school system in its current form amid the pandemic. My brothers are lucky, though. They attend public schools that are considered some of the top in the state. Their schools provided each student with a Chromebook, and they have reliable access to WiFi. If they need help with a subject in school, they have two older sisters and two parents who can help them out. Other students are not so lucky.
Public schools in California have been suffering since before the pandemic. Schools that were already underserved prior to COVID-19 have fared worse than ever after one year of lockdowns and online instruction. According to Policy Analysis for California Education, “some students in California are suffering much more during this time than others. Without aggressive and bold actions, these students may never catch up.” Additionally, new data reported by the California Department of Education demonstrated that eleven California school districts experienced an 89% surge in chronic absenteeism in students in elementary school compared to 2019 levels–that doesn’t include absenteeism among middle and high-schoolers. Along the same lines, many students who struggled to keep up with schoolwork for a variety of reasons (home life, learning disabilities, etc.) prior to the pandemic have completely fallen off the wagon. Bellwether Education reported that an estimated 3 million of the most “educationally marginalized” students nationwide have not experienced any formal education since the pandemic began in March 2020. In California, this means that 40% of secondary school students–including students of color, English learners, students in foster care, students with disabilities, and homeless students–did not access online educational materials on a daily basis from March through May 2020. These numbers are not likely to have changed as online education continued through March 2021.
Even students who were considered to have actively participated in and attended online education did not receive quality instruction. The “activity” measured in a report by the L.A. Unified School District (“LAUSD”) only considered whether a student “interacted with” online educational materials; “interacting with” online materials does not include assignment or assessment completion. As a result, in addition to the 40% of students in secondary school who did not participate in online instruction, 25% of students were deemed “active” but did not participate; only 14% and 10% of middle and high-schoolers, respectively, completed assessments; and only 15% and 20% of middle and high-schoolers, respectively, completed assignments. These metrics do not account for students who copied their homework or cheated on tests, nor does it account for students’ comprehension or mastery of standard concepts.
Although the California 2020-2021 budget trailer bill SB98, signed on June 29, 2020, required distance learning options to provide a “…level of service and school connectedness” comparable to in-person instruction, this clearly has not occurred. Existing issues in the public school system have been exacerbated in the past year. For example, inconsistencies in the quality of education in wealthy neighborhoods versus poorer neighborhoods have only intensified, with students in lower income households attending online school 10-20% less often than their wealthier peers. In these communities, disadvantaged students, a disproportionate number of whom are black or Latino, are receiving the short end of the stick. After all, while a wealthy white student in Calabasas can afford to buy a personal computer for schoolwork and receive extra help from a private tutor, a poor black student in East LA likely does not have the same luxury.
In addition, the performance gap among girls and boys in the academic setting has worsened, and, unsurprisingly, this gap is more stark among children in disadvantaged communities. According to a 2016 report in The Washington Post, the academic performance gap among girls and boys has escalated since 1950, in part due to the way schools educate their students. In recent weeks, as vaccination rates have risen and COVID-19 infection rates have plummeted, many school districts have returned to partial in-person instruction. In order to open in-person instruction, students in many school districts (including my brothers’ school district) are now required to attend in-person school only two days per week, wear a mask the entire day, remain in a single classroom with a district attendant (not a necessarily a teacher), and complete all schoolwork on laptops. Teachers do not need to teach in-person, but rather may continue teaching remotely. Students also are not granted a lunch period or recess. This is a problem for young, rambunctious boys, many of whom already struggled with the stringent structure of traditional schooling. The rigidity of traditional schooling, now replaced by the rigidity of “COVID-safe” in-person instruction, specifically disadvantages boys with already challenging childhoods; in the aforementioned report, The Washington Post noted that strict school schedules and instruction are “particularly pernicious for boys, leading to lower test scores, more behavior problems, lower rates of employment in early adulthood, and even higher rates of incarceration,” all of which are problems that are disproportionately higher in minority populations.
As schools opened back up, Governor Gavin Newsom signed bill AB-86, portioning over $4.5 million to school districts, county offices of education, charter schools, and state special schools for unspecified “certain activities,” as well as $2 million for optional in-person learning to unspecified pupil groups at an unspecified time. Why was money not assigned specifically to bettering online education or preparing schools for in-person re-openings? Why wasn’t money directly apportioned to schools in communities with unfavorable tax brackets that do not have as many resources as schools in wealthier areas? Additionally and surprisingly to me, the state of California–a state vulnerable to emergencies like earthquakes, fires, landslides, and tsunamis–seems to have no explicit, specific emergency-preparedness plan for education (based on my research). Rather, the state follows general guidelines provided by the U.S. Department of Education and FEMA regarding how to adapt to an emergency, and use these guidelines to teach 4th graders and 4th grade teachers how to act once a disaster occurs; however, based on my research, the state does not seem to have any specific plans on how instruction would continue in any one of these potential catastrophes. I reached out to the California Department of Education, and was directed to the same resources I’d found in my own research, which included school safety planning resources, which delineate how schools can react safely in the event of an emergency, but does not include plans on how instruction would continue after a catastrophic event. This communicates to me that educating California’s children is not a priority for the state or Governor Newsom. If education were a top priority, there would exist explicitly outlined instructional plans for each potential catastrophic event that could potentially occur. At the very least, the state would have created an organized, explicit instructional plan for the 2020-2021 school year. Unlike when the pandemic initially struck, the state had three months (May through August) to prepare for the 2020-2021 school year by coordinating with teachers, considering education standards, contemplating various student situations, and discussing the most effective ways to benefit students. What were Newsom and the Department of Education doing during this time?
Simultaneously to the reintroduction of in-person schooling, Newsom issued equity metrics and goals for COVID-19 vaccinations, meaning the communities hardest hit by the pandemic–largely poor black and Latino communities–will be vaccinated at double the rate of the rest of the state, and will be included in the priority tier. These communities have been impacted for a variety of reasons: socioeconomic status and its health implications, the number of essential workers in a particular community, lower Vitamin-D levels among African-Americans and Latinos, and more. Some individuals like UC Riverside professor Richard Carpiano have noted that “many aspects of privilege” make some (wealthier) communities more averse to COVID-19, while “vulnerable, underrepresented, and historically discriminated and marginalized communities” were more harshly affected. Regardless of why poorer communities were harder hit, it is reasonable and scientifically sound to vaccinate the most vulnerable populations. Many scientists argue that this method would not just benefit those being vaccinated, but would benefit the state as a whole.
However, Newsom and his supporters have injected a moral element to the vaccination process, with fellow Democrat Senator Richard Pan noting, “There’s certainly a social justice part about this.” Newsom himself also stated that those who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic must be “disproportionately benefited” by the vaccine roll out, and the California Department of Public Health asserted that “equity is a pillar” of the state’s approach to vaccinations. Newsom’s supporters applauded his oh-so-brave act of vaccine equity, with Executive Director of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network Kiran Savage-Sangwan praising the governor by saying, “Increasing the supply of doses and targeting Black, Indigenous, and communities of color, allows us to move toward safely reopening, without leaving anyone behind.” By the same token, Chair of the Legislative Balck Caucus Senator Steven Bradford noted that, “Since the beginning of the pandemic, the virus has magnified the systemic and structural racism our communities have experienced in the criminal justice, education, and health care systems for generations…I applaud the Governor for decisively taking action to respond to this injustice.” While I am not making a moral argument about Newsom’s vaccination roll out plan on its own, I do believe that Newsom’s inconsistency with the way he approaches inequalities in different sectors (i.e. education) is questionable to say the least.
Vaccine equity illustrates a clear impression that Newsom is helping the underserved; however, it seems a bit convenient that he chose to help the underserved in a way that would include easily quantifiable metrics of exactly who he has aided and when. Where is the action toward extinguishing the inequalities that exist in the public education system and preventing students of color from being left behind (to borrow phrasing from Savage-Sangwan)? Where is the action to bolster the quality of the public education system for all? Why hadn’t Governor Newsom been “serving” underserved communities through educational reform in his prior two years in office? Like the vaccine roll out, a proper, quality education not only benefits those being educated, but the entire society in which those individuals exist. More educated individuals means more people reaching their full potential, more people contributing to society and the economy at large, more people inventing new things that would benefit the world scientifically, artistically, and intellectually. Newsom surely understands the value of education–after all, he sent his own four children to private schools in Sacramento amid the pandemic. As a father, this sort of move is understandable. What father wouldn’t try to get his children the best education possible? But as a governor (effectively the head of the public school system and Tony Thurmond, the head of the state’s Department of Education), his actions are unacceptable, glaringly hypocritical, and downright disrespectful to Californians. By sending his children to private school, Newsom reveals his knowledge of the abysmal quality of California’s public education system, as well as his lack of dedication to improve it. While Newsom has claimed to consider the experiences of people of color in regards to COVID-19, it seems to me that he has not considered the many children of color who will have to contend with the impacts of their governor’s incompetence in regards to education. In my opinion, if Newsom truly cared about equity as a “pillar,” he wouldn’t choose to act in favor of communities of color only when his actions so easily paint him as an appealing candidate for a gubernatorial reelection or (God forbid) a presidential election. Instead, he would aid underserved communities when it was inconvenient, challenging, and complex; he would do so without seeking endorsements from fellow politicians.
Overall, I believe Newsom’s claims to care for underserved communities to be unfounded, revealing his true political intentions: to use underserved communities as a pawn to further his political career, without actually making a concerted effort to lift those communities up. If he and his administration truly cared about the fate of the poor (a disproportionate number of whom are black and Latino), he and his administration would work to give poor children equal educational opportunities to wealthier students. Not only would this reveal true dedication to equality, but it would lift up the entire state of California. Furthermore, the pandemic has illuminated the laziness that exists in Sacramento’s Capitol Building, and illustrates how little politicians actually care about the well being of the citizens they are supposed to represent.