Schools in ‘Survival mode’

State superintendent says 2021 must address inequities among students

Courtesy Photo.

California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond held a virtual briefing on Dec. 17 in which he called for a focus on recovery efforts after students return from winter break.

Citing the current death toll of 160 Californians per day, Thurmond reminded the public a stay-at-home order is in effect and that students, many on distance learning, are feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that first closed schools in most districts on March 13.

“Let’s face it: right now, given most of our counties are in the purple tier, most schools are on distance learning and we know there are unavoidable impacts of being on that distance learning. A million students in our state don’t have access to high speed internet,” Thurmond said.

There is no question, he said, that a forthcoming vaccine “represents an opportunity to get our schools open” and said he is calling for educational staff to be at the front of the line for that immunization.

However, as the first doses of the newly approved Pfizer vaccine arrived in California on Dec. 14, State Governor Gavin Newsom announced:

“Vaccines will be administered in phases by prioritizing groups according to risk and level of exposure. Initial doses will go to California’s essential health care workers and those among our most vulnerable in long-term care settings” and a timeline has not yet been established to indicate when school personnel would be on schedule for immunization.

“We need to look at how we can support our schools in the meantime,” Thurmond said.

Already, $2.1 billion has been disseminated to our collective school districts, Thurmond said, and another round of mini-grants meant to reduce learning gaps that can be used with families were released this past week.

Funding from those grants, up to $20,000 each “must be used to advance equity and to close equity gaps. For example, grantees can address equity and opportunity gaps by utilizing the funds to target educators’ or students’ needs with in-person instruction or distance learning,” Thurmond said when he first announced the grants on Dec. 16.

Also this week, Thurmond said, the Department of Education posted webinars intended for educators that focus on social-emotional learning gaps.

“We know the pandemic has affected everyone with depression and suicide rates but especially our students,” Thurmond said.

Anticipating a post-winter break attendance slide, he said school districts will identify students who have not checked in.

“We also have to be providing rigor to those students who have thrived through distance learning,” he said, although “We’ve had to shelve some programs and move into survival mode” for the duration of the pandemic.

He closed by imploring Californians to do “everything we can to stem the surge, give schools a chance in the new year to open safely” so educators can focus on learning loss recovery when they return to school in January.

“We are in the most difficult of circumstances,” Thurmond said.