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It seems as if lately I’ve been hearing a rising choir of voices reassuring us that the kids might actually be OK.

Last week, San Diego Unified school board vice president Richard Barrera told me he thinks it’s possible that students in the city may not have fallen massively behind in significant numbers this year.

And this week the National Education Association presented the topline results of a recent survey under the banner “Most students ‘doing OK.’” The survey showed 28 percent of kids are doing well, 56 percent are doing OK and “only” 16 percent are struggling.

Here’s the commonality between those voices (Jesus, help me for pointing this out): They both represent teachers. NEA is a national union of educators with 3 million members, and Barrera is closely aligned with the teachers union here.

Teachers have an interest in presenting the narrative that teachers are doing a good job helping kids stay safe and academically up-to-date during this pandemic. And let me be the first to say, I believe in the spirit of this message. I believe teachers are working as hard as they can.

But the kids are not doing OK.

Chronic absenteeism across the state may be surging by as much as 220 percent. Whole classes of second-graders are falling behind in reading. The achievement gap is widening. And some experts say that 20 percent or more of students may be so far behind they should not move on to the next grade level.

Research out of the University of Oregon draws a terrifying line between a family’s financial wellbeing and children’s development and learning.

“We have been really been quite horrified to see the rates at which families are struggling to pay for basic needs,” said Philip Fisher, a professor of psychology who is leading the research. “If a parent is worried they don’t have enough money for food and bills, then subsequently we see their distress level increasing and passed on to their children. We refer to this as a chain reaction of hardship.”

When children have these increased levels of stress it makes it far more difficult for them to learn. Combine that with the fact that online learning is a poor substitute for in-person teaching – as Barrera and many teachers have pointed out – and it’s obvious that large groups of children are not getting the learning experiences they need to thrive.

(One last note on Fisher’s research: Ever since August when federal unemployment from the CARES Act ended, a full 40 percent of families say they’re worried about paying bills and affording basic necessities. For Black and Latino families, that figure jumps to 60 percent. Children in these families were more anxious, fussy, defiant and afraid, the parents reported. “It’s like watching structural racism hit you in the face,” said Fisher.)

Knowing that the kids aren’t OK, the question should be what we do about it.

I recently wrote about some people who have suggested a do-over of the school year. Barrera has suggested an infusion of cash to make class sizes smaller and bring in mental health workers to schools. (Fisher thinks both these ideas have merit, but that any remedy must consider the unequal damage inflicted by the pandemic.)

If teachers and public education advocates want to implement the kind of expensive and widescale plan that might equitably restore the damage done by the pandemic, then we need to be real about assessing the damage, instead of trying to have it both ways.

When you say, “We’ve done a great job here and the kids have mostly stayed on track,” it resonates much less when you add, “We need you to make a massive investment in our system that is sorely needed.”

Trying to restore all that’s been lost in the pandemic will require a massive investment. But the country and President-elect Joe Biden and Congress might be a little more likely to make it if we say it more clearly: The kids, and really the rest of us, are not OK.

What We’re Writing

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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