This commentary was contributed by Diane Ortiz, MSW and executive director of Youth Alliance. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent BenitoLink or other affiliated contributors.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it new emotions and stress almost on a daily basis. Each week reveals the grim truth that public health officials still have much to learn about this virus, how to stop it and how to treat it. We have all been impacted in some way. The stark American truths about the value of life and death are seen in the disturbing impacts of the virus on people of color, the decades long divestment in education, health systems, and rural communities have converged with endemic structural racism to create a social and economic crisis unlike any we’ve seen.
Over the decades as the executive director of the Youth Alliance, I have seen how the lack of investment mixes with the criminalization of poor people, immigrants, youth of color, children with special learning needs, and youth from “those families” or “those neighborhoods” with devastating effects. It got a little better when the economy was strong. But now, during the chaos of a federal government who has backed off from a strong coordinated federal response amidst a global health crisis, how we respond locally matters more than it ever has.
Sheltering-in-place began in March and thousands of children across the state were required to stay home to be safe and begin what has been called “distance learning.” The sad truth is that distance learning is a myth except for those students who are independent learners, have access to technology and the internet, a quiet place to study, or access to adults who can help them with their learning. Parents have shared the stress that they and their children have experienced especially for those who have special learning needs, anxiety or other mental health issues, don’t have access to technology or the internet, or who are unable to help their child with their homework.
Instead, what has transpired has been what the parent members of the Dignity in Schools California coalition are calling the reality of “emergency education.” This emergency education has essentially resulted in education ending for thousands of students when schools closed their campuses. The valiant efforts of educators to shift to remote learning has still resulted in students they cannot locate or who are disengaged, and thousands across the state who are without access to computers or internet.
Locally, the lack of investment in rural infrastructure has had a crippling effect on our educator’s ability to educate students under this new distance learning paradigm with Wifi hotspots on back order until July and with that, unreliable connectivity even for those with access. Perpetual underfunding of the systems that impact children have handicapped our best leaders into creating patchwork solutions to make do as they all figure it out. Acknowledging this reality is required if we are really going to lay down a path that can create an equitable recovery for all of our people.
Parent members of the Dignity in Schools campaign from across California crafted a list of demands for education, including the call for an Education Emergency Relief Package. This coordinated and strategic investment is needed to deal with the dismal economic projections released from Gov. Newsom forecasting a $54 billion deficit by June 2021. That could translate to a record $18 billion revenue shortfall for California K-12 schools and community colleges. Families on the fringes are even more vulnerable of being locked out of the recovery as our teachers, counselors, after school staff and career technical education programs are slated to be cut.
We face a precarious future if we do not act now with targeted and scalable solutions to address these deepened inequalities of access to education and support. How can we proceed with school in the fall when such a great number of students didn’t even complete their last grade? What happens if students must continue this scenario if schools cannot reopen? We need to intervene and mitigate the stress on students, families and educators so that we don’t see a spike in student drop outs and lost potential.
Given the unpredictability of receiving additional federal funding, states and local governments must continue to rally together to respond and save lives. It is not enough to just get through this pandemic. Our response now and during this recovery will shape a generation of young people’s access to upward mobility. Our actions, leadership and unwillingness to allow some children and families to be more valued than others will be the decisions that can shape our community for the better. New revenue strategies and prioritizing universal broadband access into every community’s General Plan can help us begin to craft a path forward with young people at the heart of our recovery.
As students graduate, let’s celebrate their persistence and congratulate their determination to succeed in spite of the unbelievable curveballs they experienced. We can reimagine our path forward, but the students and parents who have been the most impacted need to be part of crafting the solutions if we really value equity. And it’s up to all of us to continue to hold our political leaders to account.
Even during this time of great sadness and uncertainty, we can find hope and comfort in knowing that our children and youth will be cared for if we act boldly and with justice at the center. I’ve witnessed love and resilient generosity in so many people during this health and social crisis. We will rise, but let’s make sure to reach back and help our neighbors, workers and children to rise along with us.