OC Board of Education Gets It Wrong

For background: https://voiceofoc.org/2020/07/oc-board-of-education-recommends-return-to-school-without-masks-or-social-distancing/. Image above by Julie Leopo for the Voice of OC.

I’m so saddened by the votes of Orange County Department of Education board members Tim Shaw, Mari Barke, Dr. Lisa Sparks, and Dr. Ken Williams. I don’t question that they want what’s best for kids. But the board majority made two big mistakes: they curtly dismissed a clear preponderance of scientific evidence and seemed to lack empathy for concerned teachers and many frightened parents.

Also, as a teacher who worked even more hours during online learning than my overtime-laden schedule when campus was open, I disagree strongly that distance learning was an “utter failure.” There were definitely significant problems; I had to address many of them. That’s not surprising, really; it is to be expected in a regional, national, or global emergency of historic proportions where everyone is making things up as they go because the whole thing is without precedent. During the lockdown, any educational progress at all was a win. But to call online learning an “utter failure” is really a straw man argument, because we learned a lot through the experience and wouldn’t do it all the same way again.

I do agree strongly that it’s better for the vast majority of kids to be physically present in school, together with their teachers. I did have students who struggled during regular school and really excelled during quarantine, but they were in the minority. Yet online learning can be greatly improved with patience, training, collaborative troubleshooting, and funding. It should not be flushed at the cost of the lives and long-term health of our older students (whose vulnerability increases as they get older), our teachers (who are totally vulnerable and, in a few cases nationally, have died), and students’ and teachers’ families (who can still contract COVID-19 through kids and adults coming home from school).

I propose that we push pause on starting school for two or three months. That will give Orange County residents – who largely, as far as I can tell, failed to take seriously rules about masks and social distancing – another chance to get it right. And if things get better with COVID-19 in our area, instead of the current situation of being worse than any other time during the pandemic, then we can carefully open up schools again. On the other hand, if the virus continues to kick our collective butts, schools will have more time to figure out and implement solutions to some of the deficiencies of last semester’s emergency learning experience.

The OCDE board is correct when it says that its guidance isn’t binding for any school district. But that obscures the fact that districts do indeed take OCDE decisions seriously, and often defer. We can get this right, but the OCDE board made things harder tonight.