Photo credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

A fifth grade student watches a lesson on her computer during school.

Photo credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

A fifth grade student watches a lesson on her computer during school.

January 6, 2021

My daughter goes to a public elementary school in Berkeley that is adjacent to a private school. She doesn’t actually attend – she zooms in – but the private school kids attend in person. Such comparisons can be found across California:

No wonder, then, that Congregation member Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach) alluded to the US Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, when he launched the network of “state-sanctioned segregation” of the Distance learning denounced.

The 1954 decision declared the separate schools “inherently unequal”. Instead of integrating their public schools, parents in eleven southern states gave them up for private “segregation academies”. O’Donnell could have had these in mind when he complained, “Some children can go, some cannot.”

Congregation member Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) introduced Act 10 to the Congregation to encourage reopening and fill the learning gap caused by distance learning. Beginning March 1, according to AB10, districts should “publicly adopt a plan to offer face-to-face classes within two weeks” after “public health instructions” allow them to open.

This is a step in the right direction. However, like the Brown decision, AB10 threatens to undercut the stated goals of its authors. The Brown decision stipulated that the integration should take place “with all deliberate speed,” which the southern school districts put into practice at all deliberations and without speed. AB10 is full of similar ambiguities. These include:

  • What “public health rules” must counties follow? California only allows school districts to reopen once a county has been in the red coronavirus for two weeks. Counties can, however, prohibit schools from reopening.
  • Why adopt a plan rather than implement it? The proposed legislation does not set a time for district reopening, only for “adoption of a plan”. Why not adopt it now to implement it if health officials allow it?
  • What counts as a reopening plan? Ting’s bill states that it is up to the districts to decide as much as possible. It can mean anything.

California Teachers Association head E. Toby Boyd insisted that he was “unwilling to covid sacrifice an adult.” The feeling is commendable, but its logic is deplorable. When the risk of a single death is enough to keep schools closed, schools are difficult to ever reopen, especially during flu season.

In the Brown decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren adopted the unfortunate phrase “deliberate speed” to ensure a unanimous court that would have ruled out more forceful language. Unless the authors of AB10 do a similar self-destructing appeasement exercise, they need to resolve the ambiguities of the bill.

Better still, they could team up with congregation member Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin). Its Open California Schools Act provides for “full-time in-person tuition” to be provided within two weeks of the time “state and regional health ordinances” permit. Kiley and Ting have the opportunity to join their efforts and bring non-partisan harmony into the impartial notion that education is best done in person. They also have the support of Governor Gavin Newsom’s new Safe Schools For All plan.

The stakes could hardly be higher.

In the 10 months that have passed since the pandemic that caused the school to close, we’ve learned that the cost of distance learning far outweighs the minimal risk of reopening. Wearing masks and social distancing, according to Dr. Jeanne Noble, Director of Covid Emergency Response at UCSF, is currently as effective as a vaccine (90%).

In addition, these two mitigation measures are supported by the governor’s plan. Among other things, it promises to provide millions of free masks and a distance learning option for parents who prefer, which in turn will reduce the number of students attending in person.

If personal schooling can be made work for some, it can work for all to the fullest extent possible, as health officials allow.

What the Supreme Court said about ending school segregation a decade after Brown can be said about ending distance learning as we near its one year anniversary: ​​”The time for mere” deliberate speed “is up.”


Mark Brilliant is Associate Professor of History and American Studies at UC Berkeley, father of two Berkeley Unified School District students, and a member of

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