Dan Walters: School closures may be killing our kids
Throughout California, academic grades for children forced into makeshift learn-at-home arrangements rather than receiving classroom instruction have plummeted — and that’s among kids who are actually signing on via computer.
Too many public school students still lack the necessary equipment and internet access, but even when they have them, they may be left on their own as parents, unable to work from home, go to their service jobs. Thus, what used to be called truancy, just not participating, is also rampant.
What’s been happening, or not happening, in the huge Los Angeles Unified School District typifies a statewide syndrome.
“The drop in grades, which also is affecting other school systems, was disclosed Monday when LA Unified released a chart based on 10-week interim assessments,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “Poor grades surged in the district’s lower-income communities, which also is where student attendance rates are lower and where the COVID-19 pandemic has hit especially hard.”
“The attendance figures and interim assessments don’t reflect the desire or capability of students,” District Superintendent Austin Beutner said in broadcast remarks. “They’re eager to learn and every bit as capable as they were before school facilities closed. But the struggle to cope with COVID-19 and online learning for children and their families is very real.”
As the Los Angeles experience underscores, this catastrophe mostly affects children in low-income families, just as COVID-19 has a disproportionately heavy health impact on those same families. And even before the pandemic struck, those children were already, as a group, falling behind their more privileged peers — a syndrome dubbed the “achievement gap.”
The long-term effects of truncated educations are obvious. The achievement gap, already yawning, will widen even further, dooming more children to lives of economic struggle, and the state will be deprived of the well-educated workforce it needs for 21st century prosperity.
It may be even worse. An academic team examined the potential effects of interrupting classroom learning and reported last week that it will mean a greater loss of life in the long run.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, estimates that 24.2 million children aged 5 to 11 each lost a median of 54 days in school last spring. That, the researchers said, translates into 5.53 million fewer years of life due to lower educational achievement, nearly four times the estimated 1.47 million years of life that would be lost had schools remained open.
“In this … model of years of life potentially lost under differing conditions of school closure, the analysis favored schools remaining open,” the study concluded. “Future decisions regarding school closures during the pandemic should consider the association between educational disruption and decreased expected lifespan and give greater weight to the potential outcomes of school closure on children’s health.”
Most schools remain closed because local education officials and their unions are at odds on the conditions of reopening. The latter are seeking virtually impossible guarantees of protection before returning to the classroom.
It’s nothing short of educational apartheid, not fundamentally different from the separate-but-unequal segregation in the South during the pre-civil rights era.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has been unwilling to intervene — apparently not wanting to confront school unions. However, he’s insisted that his management of the COVID-19 pandemic is driven by science and equity, not politics, and in this case, now we have a scientific conclusion that continuing to keep children out of school could shorten their lives.
Newsom and other decision-making adults must get all kids back in the classroom ASAP. It’s a matter of life-and-death.
Dan Walters of CalMatters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.
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