Socially-distanced tables in a San Diego classroom. Photo by Chris Stone

Assembly Bill 104 appears to be state government’s band aid approach to addressing the horrendous effects California students are experiencing due to school closures and distance learning. It is abundantly clear that distance learning has not produced equal results for all students, and our low-income and at-risk students deserve better.

In an attempt to address these negative consequences, AB 104 gives parents or guardians of high school students enrolled in coursework during the 2020-2021 school year the option to replace their letter grades with a “pass” or “no pass” designation on their transcript.

The intentions of this bill may appear to be in the best interest of students. However, the unintended consequences, such as colleges outside of California not calculating a “pass” grade on a student’s transcript or the damaging effects of socially promoting seniors who are not workforce ready, may do more harm than good.

Lacking from AB 104 are two significant components that must be addressed to insure student success. First, the California Department of Education needs to officially extend the school year for all K-12 students so they can compete academically in a global economy. Without a doubt, many students at all grade levels suffered learning loss caused by school shutdowns and distance learning and extending the school year will give every student the opportunity to catch up.

Having an extended school year is not a new concept. Many countries have much longer school years than we do. In most of Australia, the primary and secondary school year lasts about 200 days. In Japan, the minimum number of school days in a year is 210. And in China, the average length of the secondary school year is 245 days. When you factor in student absences, children in the United States receive far less than 180 days of instructional time.

At-risk students have historically been marginalized by the public education system, and without providing them the additional instruction time they need to be successful, we are setting them up for failure. They will not be able to compete for jobs in a global market with students who spend much more time in the classroom. High school graduates are now competing for jobs with graduates from other countries, and our students are being surpassed by their counterparts in many developed countries in math and science.

The second component missing from AB 104 is meaningful student internships with businesses supplemented with education dollars. Businesses that provide internships can partner with local school districts and together they can develop a work-related curriculum for those students who were most impacted by the school shutdowns.

When students do not have the basic skills in reading, writing and mathematics, inevitably they will be passed by their counterparts who are proficient in those subjects. Merely socially promoting students with a “pass” grade who do not have the academic skills to compete with other job applicants with will hurt them more than help.

School closures were intended to keep students safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, but for many students this ushered in a different set of dangers: anxiety, depression and other serious mental health conditions. Moreover, the shift to remote learning in schools has disproportionally set back students of color academically, widening the achievement gap and putting our underserved population of students at an even greater disadvantage when it comes to competing for jobs in a global economy.

Despite multiple warnings from counselors, educators, psychologists, parents and medical professionals on the harm school closures will have on students, politicians and government bureaucrats in California chose to shutter K-12 public schools throughout the state. And while some other states kept their schools open without any serious medical issues in children under 19, our public schools remained closed.

Many private schools and a handful of charter schools chose not to completely shut down and instituted effective COVID-19 safety procedures. Their efforts resulted in academic success among their students at all grade levels.

Our elected officials need to modify AB 104 by extending the school year and providing meaningful student internships. Without providing additional time in school and investing education dollars in student internships, AB 104 merely sets up students for failure in the real world. That is something we cannot afford to see happen.

Mark Powell is president of Parents For Quality Education and a former member of the San Diego County Board of Education.

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