Not one day.

Our kids should not lose one day of school, not a single day of instruction, to the coronavirus. Or to anything else.

Let me be clear: I’m not arguing against closing schools in the midst of the pandemic. Flattening the curve of infections comes first.  

But the coronavirus must not be an excuse for permanently losing critical days of actual instruction. 

California must guarantee that our schools make up every single day of instruction now being missed. Such make-ups could come later in the spring if public health officials say it’s OK to open before the school year’s end. Or those days could be made up with mandatory summer school—or by adding days to the next school year.

But California school districts are pointedly refusing to make any such commitments. Instead, 99 percent of our districts, serving six million students, have cancelled instruction indefinitely, without any plans of making them up. 

With Gov. Newsom saying that schools likely won’t reopen during this school year, the Golden State is hurtling towards the permanent cancellation of more than 50 days of instruction—nearly one-third of the 180-day school year.

Losing those school days would be a betrayal of our children.

In education, nothing is more important than instructional time with good teachers. Studies show that kids don’t catch up after missing extensive amounts of school; poorer kids are most at risk. 

Even in good times, California fails to give its children enough instructional time. The state refuses to provide full-day kindergarten. And for grades eight and below, a full school day is really only a half-day, with five hours or less of daily instruction.

Officially, California is supposed to provide 180 days of school. But during the Great Recession, the school year was shortened to 175 days, and some districts less. As the nonprofit news site CalMatters has shown, individual school districts now routinely cancel instruction for various reasons. 

Even in this context, the speed with which California abandoned instruction during the COVID-19 crisis is stunning. Before many schools had closed, the education lobby—including school boards and teachers’ unions—successfully lobbied  state to keep funding the school districts even if there was no actual school. 

Of course, Newsom publicly demanded that schools keep teaching students online, but that’s a fig leaf.   It’s clear that little education will happen with the schools closed. Many students, especially poor ones, don’t have the technology or parental supervision to take classes from home.

Another reason why online education won’t work now is that state politicians, bowing to teachers’ unions, previously imposed rules to discourage online education, including a moratorium on virtual charter schools.  Ironically, state’s most dependable online educational system is the system of state assessment tests, which California officials have now cancelled. The tests should be reinstated, precisely so we can  determine what this lost instruction time cost kids.

Taken together, our educational decisions during this pandemic send two unmistakable messages: that education is non-essential, and that we Californians are on our own. 

I am now the failed teacher of my three boys, whose public elementary school has been closed for two weeks. On my first day as their instructor, my first grader shoved my fifth grader into a coffee table, forcing me to cancel classes and take the injured party to urgent care.

I can’t get my boys to complete the few assignments their teachers have sent home, or even watch more educational programming on PBS, as state officials  advise. One problem: I am frequently distracted by having to do my own job from home.

My sorry “teaching” and the uneven instructional efforts of other caregivers are no substitute for actual instruction. But the state will still count this time as instructional. 

That’s why we must demand the full replacement of all missed days of instruction. Yes, the politicians will claim they don’t have the billions that make-ups will cost. But education is the state’s constitutional duty, and California owes it to its children—and our collective future—to find that money. 

Put this way: if this crisis is used to justify billions in bailouts to businesses from airlines to banks, then there’s no financial or moral reason why our kids should lose any of the instruction time they’re owed.

Not one day.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.