When I compare what’s happening during the pandemic at schools in South Dakota and in California, I feel like I’m looking at a “Tale of Two Cities.”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. . . ” is the book’s opening, as Charles Dickens goes on to chronicle the class system—the French aristocrats versus commoners.
For so many of us who grew up poor, we understand that the only way for upward mobility is through education.
In South Dakota, most of the schools have opened. Kids are playing sports. People are getting Covid, and when they do, they quarantine themselves – most do not die. Routinely the report of those who have it and those who have recovered is on the news.
However, on the reservations, schools (federally funded) have not opened, “out of an abundance of caution.” My cousin teaches on the Rosebud reservation. So few kids have turned to virtual learning that she was told that she should just drop the kids off her roster – about half the class.
The local newspaper, the Todd County Tribune, reported in late December that the school board was shown how few kids were tuning in. The numbers were so dismal that the board would not share the numbers with the newspaper. The plan was to talk to the tribal government and see if they had any ideas.
Over on the next reservation, I spoke to my niece and another co-elementary teacher, who have been teaching virtually this first semester.
My niece has exactly an hour to teach—that’s all that’s recommended for the second graders. She has a half an hour for reading, a half hour for math—and that includes the homework.
She finally met all of her students just before the New Year. As far as grading, it is difficult because who’s actually doing the work? And how does she teach writing? Kids have never had typing lessons at school.
The other teacher, fifth grade, is frustrated because some of her kids can’t get the internet to work, and many of the parents don’t have a lot of interest in helping kids with school—and there isn’t one device per kid.
Reservation high school students who are athletes (and seniors) transferred to schools where sports are played, so they might have a shot at an athletic scholarship.
Friday night news usually has clips of the high school games being played, and the basketball competition was intense in December. I also watched football, soccer and volleyball during my recent trip to South Dakota.
Contrasting this situation with Los Angeles public schools, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert in the United States, said in a December 30 online conversation with Governor California Gavin Newsom that schools can be opened safely. (Many private schools in California have already opened.)
Fauci said that it seemed “almost counter-intuitive” that schools “seem to be doing better when it comes to the level of infection” than out in the community at large.
“If you really want to get society back to some form of normality, one of the first things you have to do is to get the children back in school,” Fauci said.
As of January 11, the California Department of Public health reported 2,710,801 confirmed cases of Covid, with 29,965 deaths, about a one percent rate. Roughly 75 percent of the dead were 65 or older. Of those who are 17 and younger, there have been six recorded deaths. (Nursing home residents and staff have accounted for five percent of the state’s cases and 35 percent of the deaths. About 74.6 percent of all deaths are those in residents who are 65 and older.)
After his conversation with Fauci, Newsom said public schools could not open for classroom instruction until the average rate of infections in their counties over a seven-day period was less than 28 cases per 100,000 residents.
Seven school district superintendents, including LAUSD’s Austin Beutner, wrote in a letter that “While pleased that Safe Schools for All prioritizes the reopening of public schools with substantial funding, we cannot ignore that the plan fails to address the needs of the urban school districts that serve nearly a quarter of California students, almost all of whom live below the poverty level.” (GovernorLetter-on-Reopening-Funding-Proposal_01.06.21-final.pdf.)
The superintendents pointed out that “[Newsom’s plan would result in educational inequity with less affluent students, who are typically in neighborhoods with higher Covid-19 infection rates, continuing to work from home while students in more affluent neighborhoods return to school,” according to a January 6, EdSource story (“Education and the Coronavirus Crisis: What’s the Latest?”)
The Los Angeles Times wrote, “It’s entirely possible that low-income schools will receive the worst of everything – no new funding, kids still stuck learning from home – while those in more affluent areas open for business and get $450 per student per boot.”
I contacted Buetner’s office on January 7 and asked if there had been any further negation that would allow in-school learning for the poorest neighborhoods (those hit hardest by Covid). When I receive a response, I will update the story.
I agree with Fauci that public schools in Los Angeles need to open. It’s not fair to poor kids that their wealthy peers in Pacific Palisades are attending private schools and have been since September.