Santa, California children need more this Christmas than you can fit in the sleigh. But could you at least give every Californian under 18 their very own barstool?

Why universal barstools? If our kids are going to get back to education and socialization anytime soon, their best shot lies in restaurants and bars—the places that adults care most about keeping open these days.

Yes, St. Nick, turning the bars into havens for those too young to drink legally is not a great idea. But it’s way better than anything California has offered its kids during this pandemic.

Our state’s grown-up Scrooges, giving short shrift to data showing low COVID transmission rates for kids, miss few opportunities to damage children’s academic, social, and mental health. So we’ve closed the schools (and, at times, playgrounds) and imposed distance learning that produces educational regression and screen addiction. We’re keeping children away from friends, coaches, mentors, and even their beloved grandparents, aunts, and uncles. (Also on the banned list: you, Santa!) 

The message is clear: Adult wish lists are what matter this COVID season. And no Elf on the Shelf watches representatives elected exclusively by California adults (who won’t let children, even 17-year-olds, vote) flout the COVID rules of their own making. 

This dismissal of child interests isn’t new. It’s seen in government budgets that favor seniors, in public indifference to school shootings, and in our go-slow approach on climate. And it isn’t going away. Barring an organized resistance by children, our best hope for saving kids is to smuggle their interests into policies that protect adults first.

Which is why my three sons and their fellow kids needs those barstools for Christmas. Let the kids dine out as they study. 

(That’s likely not possible this month, with restaurants and bars closed by state order. But with lawsuits and local governments protesting these closures, you can bet that these establishments will reopen soon.) 

Under a kids-in-bars policy, BYOB—bring your own barstools—would make sanitation a cinch. School lunch funds would cover whatever kids order. Outdoor dining space could be used for kids to study or for teachers to hold classes. For online lessons, eateries often have better Wi-Fi that kids can get at home. Restaurant wait staff, while untrained as educators, would represent at least some adult supervision for the many California children now left home alone.

Now, Santa, adults love to argue that the COVID chaos will soon end, and that kids’ lives will be back to normal. But that talking point is a monstrous lie.

When the pandemic is over, the damage to children will remain, and adults aren’t about to repair it. Santa, perhaps you could bring California real plans to compensate for lost instruction time, to assist the majority of kids performing below grade level, to address declining social skills and soaring anxiety (including an escalating suicide rate), and to find all the student dropouts. 

Because our state and schools don’t have such plans. Instead, they use the pandemic to justify doing less for kids. 

The most blatant example is the just-released Master Plan for Early Learning and Care, prepared by consultants at the state’s direction. It’s supposed to make real Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature promise of a “cradle to career” system for child development, But it’s actually a betrayal of 25 years of promises for universal child care and preschool—and an example of why you can’t be too cynical about adults. 

The master plan offers no real plan. Instead it proposes consolidations of existing programs, a titanic shifting of deck chairs that could damage those pre-schools and day-cares that managed to survive the year.  It reverses previous commitments to provide universal pre-school (only some 3-year-olds would get it, and 4-year-olds would get it only after an endless phase-in). Worst of all, this master plan proposes no public funding source for expanding early childhood services, other than imposing complicated new fees on overburdened families.

If California cared about its kids, we’d be making child care universal, seriously enforcing mask mandates, and vaccinating teachers and child care providers first. And we’d have plans to make amends for this useless year: free before- and after-school tutoring, and a new schedule that keeps public schools open for the next four summers, from 2021 to 2024, until students have gotten all the instructional time lost in 2020.

But in California, a place of progressive promises and regressive realities, such ideas will be dismissed as too costly and unrealistic.

In that case, Santa, I have one request. Could you get the elves to design a new version of our state seal? It would be just like the old one, except that it replaces “Eureka” with our real motto: “Screw the Kids.”


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