Linda Darling-Hammond gives insight, advice for fall reopening

Education leaders should spend the first few weeks of the fall semester encouraging attachments in their respective communities, according to California State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond.

During an Aug. 10 conversation with Public Policy Institute of California President Mark Baldassare on the start of another one-of-a-kind back to school season, she advised districts to be in the moment, forgiving and relational.

“We can start the school year really on the human level with the human touches that are going to be needed for everyone,” Darling-Hammond said.

Though online options remain, most students across the state are making their way back to campuses — some for the first time since the onset of the pandemic. Pathways for learning recovery and a focus on physical activity, expressive art and social-emotional learning and supports are being pushed, Darling-Hammond told Baldassare.

Because of recovery funding from the federal and state governments, “for the first time in a very long time, California school districts can do much of what they can envision to support children and we are just really emphasizing that the first order of business is that support for a whole child, restorative reentry to school,” she elaborated.

Of course, having proven mitigation strategies like mask wearing, hand washing and proper ventilation alongside testing and contact tracing are also key elements of a safe return. Cohorting was also highlighted as a way to keep as many students as possible healthy and on campus.

Though a lot of care and planning has gone into safely reopening schools for full, in-person learning, the delta variant is a growing concern for families.

She advised district leaders to keep in close contact with parents through multiple communication methods and to them informed on what schools are doing as well as what they can do at home. This is in addition to each district’s mitigation plan that should be publicly available.

While the state is requiring anyone on school campuses to wear masks while indoors, it is not requiring physical distancing (though some local educational agencies are), Darling-Hammond said.

Just a day shy of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement that all TK-12 school staff will need to provide proof of full vaccination or submit to weekly COVID testing by Oct. 15, Darling-Hammond called vaccine mandates a “very smart idea” when asked about the possibility of one for teachers.

Currently, roughly one-third of youth over 12 (the youngest eligible) are vaccinated, according to the SBE president. With vaccine approval for those under 12 on the horizon, likely in late fall or winter, she said there is a desire to get more middle and high schoolers vaccinated.

Because of distance learning, the pandemic has been a time where great strides and investments have been made in closing the digital divide — an effort that will continue.

“We’re trying to take the stance that even though people will be back to school in person, we should continue to be sure that every child has devices and connectivity at home so that they can do homework,” Darling-Hammond said.