The California County Boards of Education held its first virtual annual conference Sept. 11–12. The format allowed some sessions to be prerecorded and available at any time, an advantage for those with busy schedules. Individual session topics included strategies for managing alternative school programs, such as juvenile court community programs; teaching and supporting students’ social-emotional health during the COVID-19 crisis; and a focus on providing equity for all students. For the first time, the 2020 conference also carved out specific time for members to connect with their regional directors, and one another, about issues specific to their areas.
The conference began with the General Meeting, during which CCBE President Janet Wohlgemuth welcomed attendees, summarized recent events and thanked trustees for all the work done to support districts and connect students to learning while schools have been closed for in-person instruction due to the pandemic. “We have had to tackle the school crisis for all of our students,” she told the virtual audience of just more than 100 attendees. “We are all looking forward to the day we can have our students back in the classroom. CCBE will continue to advocate for funding for county offices to help cover the costs that all COEs face to safely get our students back to school.”
CSBA President Xilonin Cruz-Gonzalez also commended the tremendous efforts of county offices of education in supporting districts. “We understand how critical county boards of education are to student success, especially in a time of pandemic, school closures, distance learning and wildfires in almost every part of the state,” she said. “Our current challenges exceed the capacity of local school districts to handle alone. School districts and the students they serve rely on county boards for information, guidance and support and to be the bridge between their local communities and the state.”
Keynote speakers cover digital divide and legislative recap
There is no question that as California — despite being the birthplace of some of the most impactful, global technological innovations in recent decades — has struggled to close the digital divide for students and their families, the COVID-19 pandemic may force the hand of state and Congressional leaders in finally tackling the issue.
In perhaps the boldest claim made during the conference, California State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond told attendees that in light of school closures, “One of the bright spots is I think we will end up closing the digital divide.”
Ultimately, the state needs to arrive at a place where broadband and internet are regulated in the same way as telephone services so that everyone has access, that prices are low enough for it to be affordable for all, and it is readily available even in rural areas, she said.
In addition to highlighting the work done at the state level to partner with private industry leaders to deliver laptops, tablets and hotspots to students, Darling-Hammond commended the creativity shown at the local level to provide for children and their families and keep them connected and engaged with their schools. Some counties have banded together to form distance learning consortiums to provide curriculum units and lesson plans as well as teacher training, while others have created digital equity task forces to purchase and distribute computers and hotspots, she said. And all the while, teachers are being trained to keep kids engaged and learning through a computer screen.
“We see this in districts across the state — everyone is rowing in the boat together, and chipping in and figuring out how to meet these extraordinary needs and connect kids and families to school,” Darling-Hammond said. “The creativity that districts and counties are showing in addressing the challenges of this moment is extremely encouraging.”
The second session on Saturday, featuring representatives from Capitol Advisors Group, surveyed the much-changed political landscape this year. The panel said that far less time was spent debating policy issues in the Legislature. In the end, after a lengthy recess due to the pandemic, about three-quarters of the bills proposed in January did not survive, including most education bills. The bulk of advocacy work by Capitol Advisors, CSBA and other education-related organizations focused on maintaining local educational agency budgets and flexibility.
“County boards and county offices really stepped up and helped us get the word out in meetings that were held all across the state with legislators,” said Capitol Advisor Founding Partner Kevin Gordon. “In my entire career I have not seen the Legislature and the Governor rise to the occasion the way they did this year in terms of trying to protect school funding.”
Founding partner Barret Snyder predicted that average daily attendance funding, the digital divide, police on campus and charter schools (including a moratorium on virtual charters) will be the key issues when the Legislature reconvenes in January 2021.
The conference also featured Zoom founder and CEO Eric Yuan in a conversation moderated by Joe Ross, San Mateo COE trustee. They talked about the exponential growth of users of the platform and Yuan’s decision early on in the pandemic to make the service free to K-12 students around the world. “Our number one responsibility is to care about our communities,” Yuan said. “This is our world and our corporate and social responsibility to care. We can’t always think about how to monetize it we have to think how we can help out.”