Distance Learning Reveals Disparities Between Public and Private Schools

On March 13, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order effectively closing schools for in-person learning across the state. A scramble for educational institutions to transition to online learning ensued on an unprecedented scale. Given the freedom to decide how to implement the program on their own terms, counties and districts across the state responded in unique ways. Even within cities, a rift emerged in the distance learning policies between public and private schools.

As soon as the March shutdown was announced, Berkeley High School (BHS) suspended class for three weeks and began to find ways to promote equal access to Wi-Fi, computers, food, and other essential services and goods for the learning of its students. BHS named equity as one of its greatest priorities and slowed the pace of the remaining school year accordingly. College Preparatory School (CPS), a private high school in Oakland, whose tuition is in excess of $48,000 per year, made a rapid transition to online learning. According to multiple students at the high school, course rigor remained just a notch below what it was before COVID-19.

Julian and Daniel Esler are identical twins. Daniel goes to BHS, while Julian attends CPS. Their situation highlights the differences between the needs and actions of the two different schools. 

“I think equity was really the issue that hurt Berkeley High in their ability to adjust quickly,” said Daniel. “They couldn’t responsibly start instruction without first distributing computers and Wi-Fi and setting up a food distribution program through the district,” he explained. While he understood the importance of those efforts, he knew that it was an obstacle for BHS last spring. 

This was not the case for CPS. Julian pointed to CPS’ one-to-one laptop program as one of the distinguishing factors between the schools in the switch to online learning. The program, which was in place well before distance learning went into effect, mandates that every student own a laptop of the same make and model. This, in addition to much easier access to Wi-Fi for most CPS students, led to a faster change. Julian also cites CPS’ lack of a cafeteria as another reality that made a fast transition to online learning possible. Students do not rely on the school for food during the normal year, so CPS did not need to provide meal distribution as part of their online learning plan.

Even after BHS’ multi-week break from school, the staff and students were not ready to match the pace that they had been working at before COVID-19. Students usually had only a little over two hours of Zoom classes a week last spring, most learning being asynchronous. In comparison, Julian called CPS’ change “exactly what you’d expect from normal school, just online.” He added that the main challenge facing CPS students was a strain on the community.

Yet Daniel remains optimistic about BHS’ return to school. “[BHS administration] put in the leg work over the summer,” he said, adding that he thinks “they did a good job setting themselves up to reduce those concerns over equity.”

Whether BHS will be able to bridge the gap left by the spring remains unknown. This fall, BHS is only giving students half the amount of instructional time as a regular school year, hoping to accommodate students who struggle with course load over distance learning. Contrastingly, CPS is returning to online school with full amounts of instructional time and clear intentions to uphold their standards for rigor. On September 25, CPS is evaluating a return to in person learning. A similar return is less likely for BHS due to its large size.

“CPS just has a lot more money to spend on each kid, this being a private school with an endowment,” said Julian. “To facilitate in-person learning … we just rented out a whole different campus.”

For BHS, a school grappling with record level budget cuts in the state of California, a solution as simple as renting out an entirely new campus doesn’t seem plausible in the near future.

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