Students at Lafayette Elementary School watch an instructional video about colors during the first day of San Diego Unified’s reopening plan at elementary schools. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Students at Lafayette Elementary School watch an instructional video about colors during the first day of San Diego Unified’s reopening plan at elementary schools. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Long before the pandemic arrived, the concept of learning loss – and its disproportionate impact on low-income students – was taken as a given in education circles. Kids lose some skills and knowledge over the summer, but children from wealthy families who can afford camps and other enrichment activities lose less.

San Diego Unified, for example, touted summer learning programs like the one at Chollas-Mead Elementary and advocated for more funds to scale out such programs.

But now that the coronavirus has upended education as we know it, the concept of learning loss – because it’s happening in the middle of the school year – is suddenly controversial.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, whose AB 104 attempts to address learning loss during the pandemic, told us from the outset: “Nobody wants me to do this bill.”

But for now, AB 104 is still alive, and its details have been fleshed out a bit – though it has yet to face a committee hearing.

It attempts to support students whose learning has been disrupted by the pandemic both by providing funding for them to obtain resources and support, and by mitigating potential impacts – including by allowing students to request pass/no pass grades and creating processes for parents to request that their children repeat their grade level.

Both pieces – the funding, and the other mechanisms to blunt the pandemic’s impact on learning – are controversial.

Any time funding for schools is in play, there will be disagreement about how it’s allocated. AB 104 would require the state superintendent to allocate funding for school districts, charter schools and county offices of education to address learning loss, and would require those entities to develop plans outlining how the money will be used. The bill specifically designates English-learners, migrant students, homeless students, low-income students, foster youth and disengaged students as those eligible to receive support.

“We want this to go directly to these students who are disadvantaged and disengaged. The students who need it most – controversial, right?” Gonzalez said. “Everybody loves equity a little bit, but not a lot of equity. Like, ‘Oh, we can have equity after we all get a little something.’

Though there’s not yet any officially registered opposition to the bill, it’s clear not everyone thinks repeating a grade is a good option for students or even that they agree learning loss has taken place.

In December, my colleague Will Huntsberry reported that San Diego Unified board president Richard Barrera wasn’t willing to concede that students have necessarily experienced learning loss during this school year: “Barrera also disputed the notion that many students will necessarily be far off grade level at the end of the school year. It still remains to be seen, he said.”

San Diego Unified’s own data has showed, though, that more students are failing classes this year compared to last year. That is true across the county – and beyond – as well.

In San Francisco, where things have gotten so bad that the city is suing its own school district over its lack of reopening plans, the school board president appeared to brush off concerns about learning loss and said students are merely learning different things, like the value of family.

“They are learning more about their families and their cultures, spending more time with each other,” San Francisco Unified school board president Gabriela López said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “They’re just having different learning experiences than the ones we currently measure.”

Gonzalez said she’s heard teachers suggest that students should be advanced to the next grade level even if they haven’t learned the requisite skills for the grade they’re in.

“I had a second grade teacher tell me, ‘What’s the big deal? They’ll learn what they didn’t learn in second grade in third grade.’ I was like, Whoa, hold up. … It’s not OK for kids to move on in some grade levels when the foundation of what they need for the next grade level, they don’t have. What is the plan to have it?” Gonzalez said.

Montgomery Steppe Will Be Part of New Reparations Task Force

Senate leader Toni Atkins, who represents San Diego, made the first two appointments this week to what will become the state’s task force studying reparations for Black Californians.

The task force was created by a law passed last year by then-Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, who’s since become secretary of state. The measure requires the state to assemble a nine-member task force that will study the lingering negative effects of slavery on the country and descendants of slaves in particular, and suggest remedies, including compensation.

Atkins appointed San Diego City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe, who’s worked as a civil rights attorney and has advocated for criminal justice reform during her time in office. Atkins also appointed Sen. Steven Bradford, who succeeded Weber as chair of the Legislative Black Caucus. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon gets two appointments (though only one more can be a member of the state Legislature) and Gov. Gavin Newsom will fill the remaining four slots.

The group’s first meeting must take place by June 1.

When it’s fully formed, the task force will have some significant powers and resources as it undergoes its work: The law grants it access to administrative and legal help from the Department of Justice, and the power to subpoena witnesses and documents.

Golden State News

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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