Opinions are the writer’s own and not those of Blavity's.
Getting schools open again may truly be a down payment on the education debt owed to communities of color.
The pandemic has thrown a wrench into my field, widening the disparities between affluent and low-income communities even more. To provide healing from historical trauma and systemic oppression, I believe a new deal needs to be made.
In my work as the Superintendent of the Sausalito Marin School District, I see first hand the need for equitable and inclusive education structures. Since September 14, 2020, my district has safely remained open six hours a day, seven days a week. My district has had zero in-school transmissions of the virus even as we serve a high density, low income, predominantly Black, brown and immigrant community. In my 21 years as an educator, I’ve never seen students more excited to be at school and more engaged with learning than ever before. Below, I share a few lessons and examples from our district that can inform how we open schools nationwide.
How did Sausalito stay open? We listened to our community.
My school and district leaders never stopped meeting in person. On March 16, 2020, we implemented an emergency command structure that resulted in a daily meeting to respond to the crisis. We always met outdoors, socially distanced with masks. This was key to our ability to get back on campus. In order for schools to reopen, school leaders need boots on the ground, every day. It allowed us the flexibility to work through challenges quickly, and then reflect and adjust when new information became available.
After working out tech distribution and wifi access for kids that didn’t have it, as well as food distribution, we started attending to other needs in our community. We realized that many community members weren’t wearing masks and often cited cost as a barrier. In response, we organized a mask drive in cooperation with a local nonprofit that resulted in thousands of masks being donated.
Partnerships with local food banks and businesses led to a bi-weekly distribution of free groceries to our community. We quickly realized that as everyone was sheltering in place, students and families could not access our community school services. Therefore, we created a website and a mobile app so they could; this cut response times for service dramatically and has served as a conduit for other governmental agencies and nonprofits to help our community.
Setting a Plan to Keep School Open
In order to reopen schools safely, we have figured out staggered arrival and dismissal, separate entrances, movement in hallways, health screenings to enter schools, mask-wearing for all, cohorted bathroom and recess time, and the elimination of the school cafeteria as a point of foodservice. All food is delivered directly to the classroom, where students eat and clean up before they go outside to play. We only have two cohorts on opposite ends of the playground during lunch recess. We have done all this to open schools in person with small class sizes.
Collaborative efforts are important for both teachers and students. Teachers have an hour of prep time to start the day, and an hour of collaboration time to end the day. Students work with classroom aides on a distance learning platform, while teachers collaborate for that last hour of the day. We allocated additional professional learning days to start the school year so staff could develop routines, procedures and positive behavior lessons for safe school operation.
Making Preparation a Priority
One of our biggest steps has been planning. We spent the first eight days of school focusing on how to behave safely in school, how to wear masks, walk-in line socially distanced, how to wash and sanitize our hands, how to safely play and learn outside and inside, along with all the other lessons around positive behavior expectations that we would do in a normal school year. Additionally, through a grant from our Health and Human Services Department, we were able to hire a full-time clinician who isn’t hindered by medical billing.
We started this school year with about one-third of our students on distance learning. Now, less than 10 students have opted to remain out of school. After starting the year with teachers providing synchronous instruction to students in person and distance learning, we have shifted to a model where one classroom is all distance learning and all the rest of our classes are in person.
The Benefits of In-Person Schooling
As mentioned above, my district has not had a single in-school transmission. Although we have had COVID positive cases at the time of this writing, three staff and six students were affected but none have been on our school site. The COVID case rates have stayed below 3% thus far, an outlier for comparable communities. Even in our county, the other high-density, low-income communities where schools stayed closed, case rates are five or six times higher than in our community. Some small studies are beginning to indicate what we suspected all along: keeping schools open, at least K-8, actually helps decrease community spread.
Our end-of-the-year assessment last year suggested that under distance learning, our ELA achievement fell off a cliff. We have given two assessments thus far this year and it appears that small class sizes, teacher collaboration and planning, and an hour of targeted intervention, along with attention on health and wellness, have not only mitigated the learning loss we saw from the spring, but we are cautiously optimistic that we will make more than one year’s worth of progress with the vast majority of students.
In conclusion, instead of the current catastrophic academic and social-emotional impact on the most vulnerable students in our schools, this is our opportunity to ensure they are the best-educated, most empathetic and creative generation this country has ever seen. We owe it to them. This is our opportunity to redefine our values and to create a system focused on relationships, sustainability, critical thinking, social justice, and student and family engagement.
We have it within our power to create a generation more adept at literacy and writing than any other, a generation that values and aspires to serve in the essential jobs that are keeping us all alive right now: education, libraries and other public services, transportation, food supply and healthcare. To ensure equity, an education new deal needs to be made.
Dr. Itoco Garcia is a solutions-oriented educator with over 21 years of experience, and a dynamic speaker focused on creating equity action plans in his community of Marin City. As the Superintendent of the Sausalito Marin City School District (SMCSD), he holds community involvement in the highest regard. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.