My Berkeley Law faculty colleague and fellow BUSD parent Steven Davidoff Solomon has written an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal claiming that our public school district has botched the response to the coronavirus by “leaving every child behind” in the name of equity. Noting that his own family sends one twin daughter to a private religious school and the other twin daughter, who has special needs, to a Berkeley public school, Solomon expresses dismay that the private school was better equipped to make an overnight switch to online education than the large public school district. Attributing the phased (as opposed to instantaneous) transition to entirely remote learning to a refusal to educate any students unless everyone can be educated equally, Solomon attacks BUSD for letting “everyone drown to satisfy abstract notions of equality.”
With respect for my colleague, I nevertheless have to respond by calling bullshit.
Let’s put equity aside for a minute, and just consider what it means for a cash-strapped public school district with 10,000 students and 800 classrooms to switch to an entirely online, remote instructional program with no notice. There is no existing online curriculum, let alone one teachers have been trained to use. At least 40% of teachers have suddenly assumed primary caregiving responsibilities of their own children. Many families don’t have enough computers for each child to use at the same time, and of course some don’t have any at all. Our wonderful teaching force is, thankfully, unionized and cannot be directed to dramatically change their working conditions without negotiation. We also need to consult with the hundreds of teachers who will be doing the work as we create an entirely new mode of education from scratch. Our IT staff is excellent and experienced but under-resourced, and suddenly tasked with a brand new job of supporting hundreds of teachers’ transition to online instruction. We have legal (not to mention moral) obligations to our students with disabilities to provide them equal access to the remote learning we are developing, or face costly litigation. Our district office has been decimated by years of budget cuts because of inadequate state funding for public education. And, the shelter-in-place has made even day-to-day operations fraught with challenge. For example: we still have not figured out where the mail is being delivered. (This is a real problem, on the UC campus too. The law school, where Solomon and I both teach, has not been getting any mail at all.)
Private schools face almost none of these challenges. Their teachers can be required to do whatever is asked of them. Many have one-to-one laptop programs, where each student has a computer at home. The schools are much, much smaller. The admissions offices can choose whether to admit students with disabilities. (For the record, and just to be clear, I don’t know if that is why Solomon’s daughter with special needs attends public school, while his other daughter attends private school.) Private schools are generally far better resourced than public schools. I assume these small schools are getting their mail.
Is anyone really shocked that private schools are more nimbly switching over to an all-remote learning environment than public schools?
Before I get to the equity point, I want to say: given all these challenges, I am so proud of what our BUSD staff has accomplished. Our heroic Nutrition Services staff has continued providing meal service to families in need; we have distributed hundreds of Chromebooks to families that don’t have them; and we have worked closely with our teacher leaders and the union to develop a remote learning plan that will start on Monday. Within five working days of the state issuing its guidance to school districts about distance learning, BUSD published its comprehensive plan to the community. I can tell you that, other than health and safety, and keeping basic operations of the district going, district staff have been working on literally nothing else for the last three weeks. They have been working around the clock on this plan. If you want a sense of the complexities involved, I urge you to watch the Superintendent’s report at the emergency board meeting we held last week (skip ahead to minute 55). (Dr. Stephens is also conducting a district-wide Town Hall on Thursday, April 9 from 6:30 to 8:00 pm, which can be accessed at this link: https://zoom.us/j/440709412.)
So, I admit to being a little defensive about the whole “look at how much better the small private schools are doing than the big public schools” argument, which just seems absurd to me. We’ve been tracking what other public school districts are doing, and national reports on distance learning, like this recent piece from US News, point to how complex a task this is for all districts. While it is true that a few districts (some in states that have properly invested in public education) have figured it out quicker than we have, some have had to walk back initial promises of a very robust online program (this is true of some private schools too, by the way), and most are in the same boat we are in. We are trying to learn as much as we can from any district that is doing anything better than we are.
Another thing to keep in mind: just as it is a false comparison to point to a private school, with its exclusive admissions practices, as a standard for a public district, it’s also a false comparison to use anecdotes about the stellar practices of individual teachers in other communities as a standard for a comprehensive district-wide plan. These just aren’t the same. Reports from other communities – and even from very affluent communities like Palo Alto – point out that the transition to online learning for entire school districts isn’t like a light switch. Even communities with high levels of family privilege are experiencing the difficulties of such a large reworking of classroom instruction.
I am not at all defensive, however, about our commitment to equity. It is our legal obligation – but also our mission, and the reason most of us work in public education – to serve every Berkeley child who wants to attend public school. This means providing equal access to education for children with disabilities. It means providing equal access to students who don’t have a computer at home, or whose parents do not speak English. Students who are now working themselves to make up for the lost income of a parent. Students who are, suddenly, full-time caregivers for their younger siblings. Students who can no longer escape abusive homes by leaving for school. Students who don’t have a private room in which to engage in online learning, or who don’t own headphones. Students who don’t sleep under a roof.
Look at our BUSD Distance Learning Plan. It doesn’t say nobody will be educated because income inequality exists in Berkeley. It thoughtfully attempts to provide instruction to all students in the district, taking into account the enormous challenges in doing so. The district hasn’t only been trying to mitigate the inherent unfairness of the COVID-19 pandemic by serving meals and distributing Chromebooks: staff is also designing weekly curriculum for all students, re-working grading policy, responding to the community’s need for ongoing communication, studying Special Education law, training teachers on interactive technology, and offering its facilities to potential first responders. This is hardly paralysis.
And let me be one of the first to say: it is not going to be a smooth transition for any large public district. The logistical and technological challenges alone make my head spin. (Just think for a minute about the Berkeley High master schedule and how difficult that would be to replicate online at all, let alone in a situation where many teachers are also now full-time caregivers.) I am co-homeschooling three kids right now, while trying to work full-time. I get it. I am hoping for a robust and engaging remote learning experience for all BUSD students. But we have to be patient, and realistic.
Most important, we need to learn the right lessons from this crisis.
What we need to truly see, and commit to even more urgently addressing when the crisis is over, is the deep economic divide that this pandemic has exposed, a divide that the inevitable recession will certainly exacerbate. Public educators are, of course, aware of this divide, and they choose to be public educators because of the urgency they feel to address it. That sense of urgency is what is driving our need to set up online learning in the most equitable way that we can.
If, instead, the lesson we learn from this crisis is that a commitment to equity is a drag on more privileged students, well, then, shame on us.