As the world continues to grapple with the immediate crisis and long-term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Children’s Partnership remains committed to ensuring marginalized children have the resources and opportunities they need to lead healthy and productive lives, both in the present moment and beyond. School districts in California were among the first in the nation to close as the virus spread across our communities in March 2020. In the aftermath, our children have borne the brunt of the impacts of those closures – in learning, safety, access to food, and opportunities for healthy social and emotional development. As California schools consider whether, when, and how to re-open, their responsibility and commitment to the educational achievement and well-being of the children in our most marginalized communities must remain our top priority.
Schools Provide Critical Child and Family Supports
California is home to nine million children – the vast majority of whom are children of color, and half of whom are part of an immigrant family. Nearly one in five of the state’s children live in poverty. Opportunity gaps in learning and stark disparities in healthcare access are well-documented for children of color, immigrants, and low-income children in California and elsewhere. As California schools continue to shift their funding and programming to better serve our most marginalized students, they have become critical resource hubs for children and families.
As a result, school closures have upended our state’s ability to serve the whole child in a variety of ways. Prior to the closures, about 2.3 million California students received meals through the National School Lunch Program, Special Education services provided critical access to curriculum and age-appropriate developmental skills for 725,000 kids with disabilities, and nearly 2,000 school-based clinics in California provided greater health care access to children who otherwise may go without. Schools are also key access points to technology for students whose families otherwise may not have afforded, helping to close the Internet and technology gap, at least for students while on campus. Schools also play a critical child welfare and safety role, with staff serving as mandated reporters for suspected child abuse and neglect and campuses serving as a physical and emotional refuge for children whose families may be in crisis. California schools’ role in child protection makes the stark national drop in child abuse cases in the wake of the pandemic particularly alarming. Here in Los Angeles, officials reported only 662 child abuse reports filed in April, as compared to the same week in 2019 (1,352). It is reasonable to assume that families are feeling a deeper level of crisis than prior to the pandemic and that the halving of child abuse reports does not indicate a dramatic decrease in actual child abuse and neglect.
Let Community Voice and Science Lead; Follow With Equity-Driven Resources
School closures undoubtedly save lives as California continues to grapple with the pandemic. Yet, adding to the urgency of the current moment, California still has a responsibility to those children and families whose lives have been made orders of magnitude more precarious by the virus and the resulting school closures. Those children who have been unable to receive regular meals and go hungry, who are unable to see speech or behavioral therapists, who are not receiving timely and important health screenings, are disproportionately impacted by the current school closures.
When weighing the risk and benefits to re-opening campuses, it is imperative we listen to the families who stand to be most impacted, positively and negatively, when and how schools re-open. Seventy-three percent of parents of color believe school re-openings should be delayed to ensure the risk of getting coronavirus is as low as possible, compared to 60 percent of white parents. This makes sense, as communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by infection from the virus, are more likely to work in essential services where viral exposure is heightened, as well as have reduced access to critical testing and healthcare should a member of the family be exposed or get sick. We also know that children and youth cannot learn if they are in an environment that feels unsafe. That kind of toxic stress inhibits their ability to access curriculum, develop positive relationships with peers and adults, and takes an emotional toll on children, their families, and the adults who work with them.
As stated by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA) and AASA, The School Superintendents Association, in order to safely reopen schools, “science and community circumstances must guide decision-making,” and federal resources are needed “to ensure that inadequate funding does not stand in the way of safely educating and caring for children in our schools.” Schools and communities must have the financial resources necessary to eliminate access gaps in education programming, food services, technology, and other support services, including special education, health, and mental health services. Until science tells us it is safe to open schools, our efforts should be directed not towards opening schools but minimizing the negative impacts of school closures.
Shared Responsibility to Children and Families
Finally, the reopening of schools is not a question for schools alone to answer but for all of us. To meet the moment, strong leadership from the Governor, Legislature, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the California Department of Education, the Department of Health Care Services, and the Department of Public Health, along with our federal lawmakers and administrators is necessary but not sufficient. This moment also requires a sense of shared responsibility from each of us as California residents and community members to heed the advice of public health officials as we aim to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Our children’s safety and well-being are inextricably linked to our public schools, which, in turn, depend on our state and national response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. We stand ready to assist our state leaders in any and all efforts to position our public education system to adequately serve children and their families – particularly in those communities hardest hit by the pandemic and its repercussions. The ability of our children to emerge from this crisis healthy and educated depends on our public systems and government leaders – and on each of us – to fully invest in their recovery and resilience.
 Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll, July 27, 2020. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/report/kff-health-tracking-poll-july-2020/