The panels covered topics including state and federal support, student achievement, services and operations, and community engagement. While both panels shared their disappointment in the federal aid provided so far and the urgent need to address student achievement, the different focuses of the panels illustrated how challenges differ for districts depending on their size. For instance, the small LEA group spent much of the time discussing how the lack of people power and internet access affect distance learning, while the larger districts spent more time discussing how their LEAs would secure enough personal protective equipment if and when schools open for in-person instruction.
Long Beach Unified School District trustee Megan Kerr said the lack of an adequate federal response has forced LEAs into a difficult position. “The reason that we’re all making these really difficult decisions at a very local level is because of a complete collapse of a response from the federal government,” she said. “We have a federal government to ensure that we’re safe at the end of the day, and since that didn’t happen, here we are, very locally making decisions around student health, parent health, worker health.”
Mike Walsh of the Butte County Office of Education also expressed these concerns for the districts in his county. “I would be far happier with the federal and state response if the financial support was there so we can practice all of the safety precautions we are being asked to do,” he said.
Earlimart Elementary School District trustee Abigail Solis pointed out the intense need for more federal funding, especially in underserved areas. “Let’s just be honest here — small, disadvantaged communities, underserved communities, small districts — we didn’t have enough before the pandemic. Imagine how we are supposed to make it work now. We absolutely need more funding,” she said.
For small and rural districts, the biggest barrier to student learning is the lack of an internet connection, but that is not the only issue. Staff capacity also topped the list of concerns. “We simply do not have the capacity and people power of larger school districts,” said Galt Joint Union ESD trustee John Gordon. “With limited funding, we’ve had to cut half our assistant principals, we’ve cut our coaches — so we have fewer people carrying a much larger load.”
Each represented LEA in the small district panel has issues with internet access for at least some of their students. “This pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities in our most disadvantaged communities throughout the state,” said Earlimart ESD’s Solis. “We have swept this issue under the rug for far too long. Internet access is a basic right — if you cannot do school, if you cannot apply for a job, if you cannot access healthcare because of lack of internet — then there is a fundamental issue there.” Solis shared that Earlimart ESD, located in the Central Valley, is ensuring students have internet access at home by purchasing two antennas that they will set up on either side of town that will pick up and share the schools network with the community.
CSBA CEO & Executive Director Vernon M. Billy called for leadership at the state level to help mitigate these connectivity issues. “We need a vision and leadership from elected officials at the state level to say, ‘We are going to put our money where our mouth is and help our small and rural communities in working with private sector companies to build the infrastructure,’” Billy said. “As we think about education in the future, regardless of this pandemic, this is a necessity, and you, as boards, shouldn’t have to figure out how you’re going to get access to your students in the 21st century.”
In the medium and large district panel, internet connectivity was not a large item of discussion. Instead, panelists focused on ways to mitigate learning loss in the new school year. “Learning loss is very independent right now, and it’s so important that we as districts are finding ways to make sure that we’re assessing these students through formative assessments to see where they are,” said CSBA President and Azusa USD trustee Xilonin Cruz-Gonzalez. “How are we going to accelerate their learning by making sure that we’re targeting and giving them the information they need and the learning they need to be able to accelerate?”
All represented districts in both panels expressed some concern with purchasing and maintaining a steady supply of PPE when schools do reopen for in-person instruction. Kerr of Long Beach USD, described what an undertaking it is for a district of their size. “We have 15,000 face coverings to support staff, we have two face coverings per student — we have 70,000 students — we have 80,000 gallons of hand sanitizer ready — that’s two gallons per classroom — we are ordering gloves and face shields for students and staff who are communicatively diverse, we have 22,000 antiseptic wipes on hand and 700 thermometers. So, for a district like ours, the scale is immense, and that’s just to get us started for the year.”
Santa Rosa City Schools trustee Laurie Fong emphasized the need to work together on advocacy at the state and federal levels for needs such as PPE and internet access. “We need to stop being silos, we need to work together and support organizations like CSBA to make a lot of noise at the state and help the state make a lot of noise in Congress,” she said. “We’re all scurrying around trying to pay for things we think the CARES Act might pay for, but it really hasn’t come through yet.”
Both panels highlighted the importance of incorporating diverse parent, student and educator voices in plans to start the school year and how it will look. They agreed it’s important to do this fairly often due to the constant changes happening as a result of COVID. Districts have been doing a better job than ever of communicating regularly and through different platforms than before the pandemic, and when the pandemic slows, panelists expressed the need for LEAs to continue regular communication and deep engagement with stakeholders, which can truly benefit teaching and learning.