Ensuring Equitable Access to Education

Following Governor Gavin Newsom’s statewide declaration of a State of Emergency as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond, issued a statement to all fifty-eight County Boards of Education advising schools to close for the remainder of the year.

In response, schools across the state scrambled to move students and teachers to online-based curriculum learning—the process itself revealing obstacles and inequities that will be a feature rather than just a bug of remote learning. As a result of an uneven distribution of access to digital devices and the internet, this crisis has laid bare the economic and racial disparities that persists and preclude equal access to the essential public good of education.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health recently released reopening protocols for K-12 schools, providing guidelines informed by public health experts for school districts that decide to reopen. Despite the release of suggested protocols, Thurmond continues to advise against schools opening physically in the Fall of 2020 and LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner announced that distance learning will continue as COVID-19 case incidence worsens. Many other educational institutions from school districts to universities and colleges have all announced similar intentions.

As the pandemic persists, the need to keep students on track developmentally grows ever more urgent. Recently, Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Mark Ridley-Thomas co-authored a motion to obtain additional support and resources from the state for students, especially the most vulnerable students such as students with special needs, students in low-income households, non-English speaking students, and homeless and foster youth students. These vulnerable students were measured to have much lower rates of online participation, according to a study conducted by the Los Angeles Times.

“We are directing the County Chief Information Officer and various County departments to identify how to best establish expanded access to cellular and Wi-Fi in County unincorporated property to help minimize the digital divide that disproportionately affects communities of color,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas about the motion’s efforts to expand accessible connectivity.

“The communities experiencing increases in COVID-19 cases and unemployment due to extended closures are the same communities that are negatively impacted by distance learning,” noted Supervisor Barger.

The motion requests the state to provide additional support to students with clear guidelines for: distance learning educational requirements, equitable access to technology, access to safe community resource centers for those who do not have an environment conducive to learning, contingency plans for distance learning disruption, and to ensure the continued operation of childcare centers while adhering to public health mandates.

The proposal also includes establishing partnerships among the Los Angeles County Office for the Advancement of Early Care and Education, Office of Education, Department of Mental Health, and youth-focused community based organizations to communicate available resources, address the full range of needs of children, and explore other alternatives to site-based learning.

Alternatives to site-based learning have been gaining traction as resuming normal instruction soon seems unlikely. “Pods” and “microschools” offer potential sustainable alternatives to adapt educating and caregiving to the home environment. These alternatives are flexible to the needs of families and allow for safe socialization and in-person teaching.

“We know that learning is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor, so we must be attentive to the gaps in resources to serve the social, emotional, and intellectual needs of every child. This motion seeks to address the barriers families and children face in this critical moment,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

“We must help children return to a sense of normalcy and equip them with the tools they need to learn and socialize even under the constraints of the pandemic,” Supervisor Barger said.