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Coronavirus Is Causing A 'Learning Loss' Crisis -- So California May Cut Short Summer Break

A student writes in his notebook in an L.A. Unified School District classroom in San Pedro on Aug. 21, 2017. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)
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Since the coronavirus pandemic forced campuses to close in March, many educators have feared the crisis would stunt millions of students' academic growth.

Earlier this month, one leading K-12 testing organization forecasted that some students would be "nearly a full year behind" -- particularly in math -- when they return from summer break.

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So on Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom suggested a radical solution: cut this summer break short.

Newsom said state officials are considering asking the schools to begin the 2020-21 school year much earlier than normal -- perhaps even as soon as late July.

"There's been a learning loss," Newsom said in a press conference, "and you can either just roll over and accept that, or you can do something about it. So that's our thinking -- if we can maybe start up the school year a little earlier, that would help close that [learning] gap a little."


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State officials haven't made any definitive decisions to change the school calendar yet. Newsom said he wanted to float the idea publicly so parents, students and teachers can start preparing for a possible early start.

Soon after Newsom's announcement, the Los Angeles County Office of Education announced that it is immediately forming a task force of school superintendents to explore the options.

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"Today, the Governor explained his parameters for potentially starting the new school year in July or August," County Superintendent of Schools Debra Duardo said in a statement. "A summer start would be conditional and require precautions being in place at our schools, including social distancing and safety protocols for our students and staff."

The announcements from Newsom and Duardo highlight how much uncertainty schools face in the coming months.

Dr. Sonia Angell, the director of the California Department of Public Health, said any decision to reopen school campuses must be based on public health conditions -- including the availability of coronavirus testing, contact tracing and personal protective gear. (Superintendent Austin Beutner has said the L.A. Unified School District can't reopen without these conditions met.)

Once campuses do reopen, Newsom has suggested that some physical distancing measures may need to continue. That might mean schools will have to stagger students' schedules and limit student interaction at meals, recess, assemblies or gym classes -- but how schools will accomplish this is still a "conversation," Newsom has said.

"Clearly, for now, we still have more questions than answers," state schools superintendent Tony Thurmond said in a statement. "But now is the time for us to problem-solve and plan for the future."

Gavin Newsom speaks at election night event on Nov. 6, 2018 in Los Angeles. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)


The most critical uncertainty of all, though: how will schools pay for any of this?

School districts are dependent on the state for the bulk of their revenues. But state budget officials have forecasted this year could end with a $35 billion budget shortfall, easily enough to wipe out California's estimated $17.5 billion rainy day fund. The state budget picture next year is even worse.

But just how much funding K-12 schools stand to lose in the crisis isn't clear, various officials told a State Assembly subcommittee meeting on Tuesday.

"Because of the delay in April tax filing deadline," said Edgar Cabral from the state Legislative Analyst's Office, "and such significant uncertainty about what's going on in the economy, it's going to be a very difficult time to send clear signals [to school districts]" about what the next budget looks like.

Five of the state's largest districts have argued schools shouldn't lose anything.

On April 15, the leaders of the school districts in L.A., San Diego, Long Beach, Sacramento and Corona-Norco sent a letter to Newsom, begging state lawmakers to preserve K-12 funding -- and even pass a state budget this year that includes a cost-of-living adjustment "above the statutory level."

On Tuesday, Assembly Budget Committee Chair Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, wondered whether school districts understood the "looming recession scenarios" state budget-writers face.

"The conversation seems to be around whether the COLA's coming," Ting said, "and not regarding potential cuts and whether [districts] are prepared to offer suggestions on what to do."

Uncertainty about state finances is likely to persist through the summer. Both the state and school districts must pass budgets by the end of June -- but on Tuesday, lawmakers suggested that the state will have to make revisions based on more up-to-date revenue forecasts, which may not be available until August.

"The budget cuts are probably going to be significant," said Assembly Education Committee Chair Patrick O'Donnell, D-Long Beach.

A padlocked gate at Dayton Avenue Early Education Center, an L.A. Unified School District campus in East Hollywood, on April 1, 2020. (Kyle Stokes/LAist)


Newsom said even laudable -- and costly -- efforts to to set up distance learning programs and distribute laptops are "still inadequate" to prevent some students from falling behind while they're stuck at home.

Research is beginning to validate these concerns. NWEA, the nonprofit testing organization, released a white paper on April 9 suggesting that students are likely to return in fall between half-a-year and a full-year behind in math.

In reading, "some students will return in fall with about 70% of the learning gains relative to a typical year," the organization said.

In a Tuesday legislative hearing, Linda Darling-Hammond, the chair of the State Board of Education, suggested that this national forecast may be a little too pessimistic. California set an expectation that distance learning should continue early in the crisis.

"California has a better start on these goals," Darling-Hammond said, "than many other states that closed schools and have done nothing to continue education for their students."

But Darling-Hammond also acknowledged many students are likely to be knocked off-pace by the pandemic -- and other experts told lawmakers the effects of the disrupted school year will be even worse for children in special education, English learners, or students who are already behind.

"We should expect achievement gaps to grow as a result of COVID-19," said Heather Hough, the executive director of the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) research center.