Analysis: How Schools Can Ensure an Equitable Recovery from COVID

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We are now roughly a month into California’s efforts to safely re-open schools and return to full-time, in-person instruction.

While California has one of the lowest COVID-19 transmission rates in the nation and a high vaccination rate, the reopening of schools has proven rocky. We’ve seen confrontations between parents and school board members over mask and vaccine mandates. Many families and school officials remain concerned about COVID transmission, yet also don’t want to see schools close again. Research shows fully remote learning resulted in huge educational losses, with a disproportionate impact on students of color. Educators and policymakers are rightly working to prevent further learning loss through safety measures and public health guidance aimed at keeping school in person.

I wanted to better understand how the reopening effort is playing out on the ground, particularly in districts where socioeconomic and linguistic disadvantages made remote learning especially harmful to students. I spoke with educators from Oakland Unified School District and Los Angeles Unified School District — two public-school districts that primarily serve students of color — to hear their views on what’s going right with school re-openings, and what could be done better. While by no means an exhaustive account of the reopening effort at all California schools, these teachers’ personal insights offer a window into common challenges and opportunities facing our public education system as it attempts a return to normalcy.

A starting point for my conversations was a simple question: How are things going? I posed this to Elizabeth Haugen, a long-time humanities teacher at Oakland Technical High School, along with another teacher from Oakland Unified and one from LA Unified, both of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from their respective districts. All welcomed the return to in-person instruction and said they are now able to better address the individual needs of students, a stark contrast to the prior academic year which was mostly remote.

“I love being back in the building,” Haugen told me. “I love being back with students.”

All the teachers noted that some students suffered more than others during remote learning and agreed these students will need significant support to recover from academic losses. The LA Unified educator, who teaches high school and has many English language learners in his class, said a lot of these students couldn’t log onto Zoom to do remote learning during the pandemic. Often, they did not have high-speed internet or tech-savvy parents who could help them sign on. This led to many students simply not attending online class, he said. Further, students with disabilities and special needs were often unable to get the nuanced and individualized support they had received in person, he said.

His comments highlight the need for policymakers and school administrators to recognize disparities when evaluating the potential costs of any future return to remote instruction and when deciding how to allocate resources for future academic support. As the educators I spoke with illustrated, the pandemic greatly exacerbated the existing digital divide and highlighted the need for additional technological resources and access to broadband in low-income communities color. Black and Latino students disproportionately face limited computer and internet access, a disparity that hindered equitable education access during the first year of the pandemic.

The teachers I spoke with are also concerned about their health and safety and that of their students. At Oakland Tech, students are not required to undergo weekly testing for COVID-19. Both Oakland teachers I spoke with noted that staff do not know the vaccination status of their students.

“We have absolutely no idea what percentage of our students are vaccinated,” Haugen said.

This situation makes instructors nervous, given that social distancing is often impossible with full classrooms, and some students struggle to wear their masks consistently, she said. Both Oakland teachers said contact tracing efforts have been mixed, and notifications about positive cases in their classrooms are often delayed. Added to that, there are not enough substitute teachers in the district to fill in for instructors that become ill, which creates additional stress and uncertainty, they said.

Oakland Tech and other schools in OUSD have offered pop-up vaccination clinics for students to increase vaccination rates. The OUSD school board went further in late September by approving a student vaccine mandate for students ages 12 and up. Importantly, students are still able to get personal belief exemptions if they speak with a medical professional about vaccination. I believe this exemption may ultimately serve as a loophole for families who are opposed to vaccinating their children, but the vaccine mandate is a major step forward toward improving safety for students and faculty in the district.

The recent addition of a statewide vaccine mandate for students ages 12 and up will bolster safety at schools in OUSD and throughout California; however, the mandate will still allow personal and medical exemptions for students. Additional precautions such as investment in air filtration and testing infrastructure will be necessary to protect students under 12 who cannot yet get the vaccine, and those who remain unvaccinated.

Instructors at Oakland Tech said they would like the district to be more transparent about whether and under what circumstances schools would need to close again, and about the extent of its investment in air filtration to slow the spread of COVID. Ultimately, they said they want solutions that increase safety and slow the spread of COVID to prevent a return to the inequitable learning environment their students endured last school year.

I reached out to OUSD for comment and received a response from John Sasaki, OUSD’s director of communications. He noted that the district does not currently have a threshold for closing an entire school, unless directed by the county. Sasaki said that the district’s quarantine protocols have helped manage COVID cases that occur at school sites and prevented school closures. In response to air filtration concerns, he noted that changes were made throughout the district during the pandemic in preparation for the return of full-time, in-person instruction. This included the installation of highly efficient filters in all HVAC systems and air purifiers in classrooms and shared spaces in all schools. Further, the district has provided guidelines for staff to open windows and doors to ensure adequate air flow and ventilation. During our conversation, Haugen did note the provision of air purifiers, but said she had not received clear guidance on how filters should be changed and whose responsibility it was to change them.

While some schools and districts may be struggling during the reopening process, LA Unified offers a model blueprint for how school districts can invest and shift policy to continue in-person instruction while also fostering a safe and healthy learning environment for faculty and students. LAUSD made a $350 million investment in testing capacity to provide rapid, accurate, weekly testing to students throughout the district. Regular testing has been shown to significantly reduce COVID transmission in schools. LAUSD’s investments have paid off with roughly 97 percent of students returning for classes in late August.

So far, none of the district’s schools have closed. There are currently 20 school-linked cases and 1,136 active cases in the district according to an LA Times tracking project. In a school district of more than 460,000 students, that’s a significant achievement. LAUSD went further by being the first large school district to implement a vaccine mandate for students before the announcement of a statewide mandate on October 1. The LAUSD teacher I spoke with said the district’s COVID protocols along with the new vaccine mandate made him feel safer and confident in the belief that his students will be able to remain in-person and continue learning without disruption. It is important to note that LAUSD is the second-largest district in the nation, which gives the district more resources than smaller districts such as OUSD.

LAUSD provides an excellent example of how adequate preparation paired with necessary investments can greatly reduce COVID transmission and preserve in-person learning. The early announcement of vaccine mandates by both LAUSD and OUSD were promising steps toward keeping students and staff safe and ensuring schools remain open. The creation of the statewide vaccine mandate will further bolster local initiatives and should create a safer environment for students throughout the state.

California is a national leader in keeping schools open so far. To continue this momentum and keep students in class, school districts throughout the state should bolster their COVID prevention efforts and foster safer instructional environments. Weekly testing and further infrastructure investments offer a pathway to keep students in person. The new statewide vaccine mandate offers promise for protecting students and increasing vaccination rates; however, school districts across the state will need to support access to vaccination sites and information for their students to get more shots in arms.

The digital divide and existing inequities in the education system harmed many vulnerable students of color throughout California last school year. The Delta variant threatens to upend the progress that has been made as schools reopen. Now is the time for California leaders to protect students of color from falling further behind.

Denzel Tongue writes a column for the California Health Report about the intersection of racial justice, public policy and health equity. He is a master of public policy candidate at The Goldman School of Public Policy and a California Initiative for Health Equity Fellow.

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