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Terri Novacek is executive director of Element Education. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Deep down in their May 18 letter to lawmakers warning that they could not “in good conscience” return students to the classroom if the state follows through on proposed budget cuts, superintendents of the six largest school districts in the state also requested a change.

They asked lawmakers to “authorize school districts to earn average daily attendance using a three-year rolling average of ADA.”

Right now, schools are mostly funded using average daily attendance calculations. Each student carries with them a number. If they go to school, that school and school district gets their funding. Districts care deeply about getting kids into classes not only because of their commitment to learning, and their mission, but because funding doesn’t come if they don’t. If students go to charter schools, they take that funding with them and some of those charter schools aren’t part of the districts. Last year, we helped uncover one of the biggest fraudulent manipulations of this average daily attendance system in the state’s history.

So, in that letter, the districts were asking that the state protect them from what could happen to their funding not from the budget cuts but from the loss of students they may experience. It was a subtle acknowledgement of a real nightmare in the works for them.

An enrollment crisis is coming.

If even 5 percent or 10 percent of parents don’t send their kids to traditional schools this year, it would deliver a massive funding crisis for schools that have already been grappling with enrollment declines. The deadline to lay off teachers has already passed. It is difficult to imagine how they can rearrange and cut costs swiftly enough to absorb the change. Especially with increased costs to deal with the health crisis on the horizon.

But the enrollment crisis is coming.

The San Diego County Office of Education is advising districts to prepare for parents who are not comfortable sending their kids back to school yet. Some are worried that if they send kids to school, they may carry the coronavirus to a vulnerable relative. David Miyashiro, the superintendent of Cajon Valley Elementary School District, reported that hundreds of his families have left the region because of the economic catastrophe.

But there is also another challenge. Richard Barrera, a trustee for San Diego Unified School District, said that if the federal government (including the Republican-dominated U.S. Senate) does not bail out school districts like his, then next year they will not bring kids back to schools. Instead, they will continue doing distance learning as they have this year except it will be a “lesser” version.

San Diego Unified School District Trustee Richard Barrera speaks at press conference announcing school closures. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

If that is real, then we may watch an unprecedented re-alignment in education occur. This year, traditional public schools transitioned abruptly and awkwardly to online and remote learning based on the physical classrooms that already existed. But if we switch to online-only learning for the coming school year, then it could lead to a new online/homeschooling market where different providers compete to help parents deliver the best education possible.

Think about it. Traditional public schools are geographically based. They’re neighborhood schools. For decades, a reform movement has argued students and parents should not be victims of their location – they should not be destined for success or failure just because of the conditions of their neighborhood school. It has allowed students to choose better schools in other neighborhoods or magnet schools or charter schools that offer different approaches.

San Diego Unified has openly resisted this for years, and has declared there should be a quality school in every neighborhood – hoping to turn the tide of kids and parents who feel their best opportunities would be outside their neighborhood.

That was before COVID-19. If the largest school district in the region is now unable to welcome students to campuses, the geographic connections to schools will evaporate. Right now, the only argument for sending your child to an underperforming school is that it needs you: If you commit to your community, you can help it improve and, also, help your neighborhood advance. It’s what parents at McKinley Elementary did. It’s what parents have been trying to do at Sherman Heights and Edison Elementary.

The message is clear: With parent engagement schools like that, and the area, improve. It creates a community of higher standards and achievement. The community helps retain quality teachers and administrators. But if that interaction – that community – is literally prohibited, indefinitely, what keeps you at a “Knox Middle School”?

By all accounts, San Diego Unified’s online learning foray this spring has been as diverse as its student body. Some people and teachers are having great experiences. Some are not. At all.

If the district announces in coming weeks that this will continue and it will not welcome kids back to neighborhood schools, the most motivated and involved parents will seek alternatives.

It’s harder to picture how it won’t happen than how it will. Right now, the county’s public health order literally prohibits schools from reopening on their physical campuses.

“We’ve had the luxury of kind of doing a one-size-fits-most learning system. COVID-19 is going to force us to have a continuum of options to support students who may be more comfortable learning at home,” said Bob Mueller, who is coordinating much of this for the County Office of Education. The County Office of Education does not control school districts. It provides advice and shared support systems for them, and financial oversight.

Mueller listed for me all the types of families that may not return to school this fall – the ones with health concerns, the ones doing well with homeschooling, etc.

I added one to his list: the parents who are turned off by the prospect of sending kids back to a highly modified and restrictive physical campus.

Take Jody Madigan. She has a child in elementary school and one in middle school. She’s active in the PTA and has personally helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for Ocean Beach Elementary School, where my kids attend school also.

She said she watched school district leaders recently describe what school may be like in the fall and was so disturbed, she decided to enroll her daughter, Fara, into the homeschool charter Dimensions Collaborative. Madigan has a few months to decide what they will do but she didn’t want to miss a chance to sign up with a more evolved homeschool platform. And even if schools come back, she’s waiting to see what it will be like.

“I’m not worried about the virus at all. But if the kids are going to be limited in their interactions, cordoned off into squares where they have to play by themselves and wear masks, can’t play with their friends, what is the point of sending them?” Madigan said.

I asked what it would take to get her back.

“If they can play on the playground, that’s almost No. 1. If they’re so worried about germs and budgets I don’t want that to rub off on Fara,” she said. Her son, on the other hand, has had a good experience with distance learning in middle school and will stay with the school district.

Madigan is a stay-at-home mother and she says she can handle the educational challenge.

“I don’t need a teacher who is new to distance learning trying to help me. I want someone who is experienced,” she said.

Dimensions is one of two schools run by Element Education and chartered through the County Office of Education. If Madigan’s child goes to Dimensions, the state’s money will follow. Element Executive Director Terri Novacek said she’s seen a spike in inquiries from parents like Madigan over the last month. She’s capped enrollment at Dimensions at 1,200. It has 500 students now and 100 new applicants. Its sister school, Community Montessori, now has a waiting list.

She said she’s worried about people who just want a place to park for a while as they wait for schools to return. But she is hearing from people who had thought about homeschooling before and now feel like the situation has forced them to investigate it as a real, permanent option. Element offers learning plans that are all online, or all paper or involve visiting learning centers more often. Some parents are confident in what they’re doing and don’t need much guidance from teachers.

“We provide the level of support necessary for each student. Some once a day. Some once a month,” she said. The question she gets the most is about socialization, and she has a ready answer.

“I don’t want my kids marching in a group to a bell and being in a room with kids all the same age. That’s not the real world,” Novacek said. “My kids were educated by the community, by older children who mentored them and they are now very comfortable with adults.”

She makes an attractive case …  if you have the time. The nightmare for many parents, though, is that kids will be home this fall and they will still have to work. Even if districts open campuses to kids twice a week, what do you do the other three days? I keep hearing from parents who are considering organizing small groups of kids and hiring their own teachers to coordinate the distance learning.

They’re inventing schools.

Mueller doesn’t think 100 percent distance learning is likely to be the scenario in the fall, despite the warnings from Barrera and the districts.

“I don’t think anyone is considering complete distance learning, if they don’t have to,” he said. But the lift to get kids on campus is heavy. Imagine, for example, that the public health officer mandates temperature checks to get into a school. If a school has several hundred people, that could be a logistical nightmare.

“We have to buy thermometers, masks and hand sanitizer in a volume I cannot even estimate,” he said.

It’s not even clear when we will know what is planned for the fall. The county’s public health officer, Dr. Wilma Wooten, told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday that she and her colleagues anticipate outbreaks of the coronavirus to occur because of recent re-openings, increased activity and protests. That could stall, if not reverse, many of the re-openings she has allowed. And while UC San Diego is planning an ambitious testing and tracing regimen to allow the campus to re-open, Mueller told me he has heard of nothing of the sort for K-12 schools.

It’s leading to a great deal of anxiety for working parents who have no idea where their kids can go in the fall. Special education services have almost completely evaporated and summer camps have only now begun tentatively announcing re-openings.

When I asked San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten if her May 18 letter to state leaders was as stark as it sounds – that schools would not reopen if the funding cuts proposed were realized – she responded that they were, now, actually open. The current distance learning approach was school, despite the inequities and struggles and the teachers’ four-hour workday arrangement.

If it is school, it is going to lead to a re-imagining of what school is completely. And if it continues, the long link between your neighborhood and your school could be irrevocably severed for many.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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