PPIC’s Speaker Series on California’s Future invites thought leaders and changemakers with diverse perspectives to participate critically, constructively, and collaboratively in public conversations. The purpose is to give Californians a better understanding of how our leaders are addressing the challenges facing our state.
PPIC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it support, endorse, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Any opinions expressed by event participants are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect any position of the Public Policy Institute of California.
About a year after the first pandemic-induced shutdowns, the question of how to handle the state’s public K–12 schools remains fraught. Vaccinations are ramping up, but concerns about equity, learning loss, and physical and mental health persist. At a virtual event last week, CalMatters education reporter Ricardo Cano talked with a panel of education experts about the challenges and opportunities ahead.
The discussion took place as the state legislature was debating Assembly Bill (AB) 86, a framework for reopening that includes incentives for schools to begin in-person instruction in April.
Suzanne Kitchens, president of the California School Boards Association, noted that “the term reopening is a misnomer in many cases.” Some districts have already reopened their schools, she said, and schools across the state have found ways to provide instruction and support to California students and families.
Joe Boyd, executive director of the California Teachers Association, said that the biggest challenge to ramping up in-person instruction has been the surge in COVID-19 infections. In addition to vaccinating teachers and school staff, he added, the state should prioritize “getting vaccines into our hardest-hit communities.” Perhaps the biggest question, he said, is whether communal vigilance will continue: “If we want our schools to open and stay open, then that means that as a community we’re going to have to stay vigilant.”
Ron Williams, president of the California Association of School Administrators, said that bringing middle and high school students back to schools is especially difficult. “The challenge comes in when you come into secondary school, where you have students moving every 47 to 56 minutes with a new cohort.” A hybrid instructional model that allows for both in-person and distance learning “will make a significant difference,” he said.
Despite concerns about shifting state guidelines and varying local conditions, the panelists agreed that AB 86 will be helpful. “This bill is addressing some of [our challenges], and we are grateful,” said Kitchens. But she also noted an equitable recovery effort will take time and resources. “We need to make sure that these students who have already lost a year do not lose any more,” she said. “Just like a financial meltdown . . . this is a multiyear recovery.”
Pointing to a PPIC report on school facilities, Boyd said that COVID-19 has highlighted longstanding space and ventilation issues that can’t be fixed overnight. “We’ve got to accept the fact that you don’t just suddenly change an entire building.”
Williams noted that post-COVID schools might not look exactly the way they did before. While there are many challenges, there are also some opportunities. For example, in his district, “virtual academies” have served many students well: “We have some students who learn well in that environment.” As California’s schools move forward, he added, “we have to become greater entrepreneurs in meeting the needs of our students.”