I’ve been volunteering at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank over the past four months. I’ve gotten used to the flow of it: packing food into bags and boxes, and handing it out and talking with folks (from a distance) as people queue in a long line. Even after numerous times volunteering, I’m always devastated by how many people are in line with their children, just trying to get food to feed their families for another day. It’s deeply upsetting to see the impacts of COVID-19 and the economic fallout on families and children, many of whom were also experiencing food insecurity far before COVID-19.
As we have a national discussion about returning to school in the fall, and what remote learning means particularly for our most vulnerable children, I wanted to lay out some of the work I’ve done to support our youth.
We must fight for the next generation of Californians in our school system and beyond, particularly low-income kids and kids of color who are often forgotten and marginalized.
School funding and ending the digital divide
I’ve co-authored various youth- and education-focused bills in my time in the Senate, and I was an early supporter of removing large commercial properties from Prop 13 in order to secure major increases in school funding. These are important steps, but we need to do more.
COVID-19 and remote learning have brought to focus the immediate need to end the massive digital divide between low-income communities and wealthier communities. Right now, many kids from low-income families who are supposed to participate in remote learning in the fall don’t have adequate access to the internet to do school work or participate in classes. That puts them at a distinct disadvantage to their wealthier peers, more of whom are also likely to have parents who may work from home or who can afford childcare, tutors, and high quality computers and internet to facilitate access to remote learning.
And these students are often subjected to an uphill battle regarding schooling, even outside of COVID-19 and the havoc it has created — be it from a lack of school funding that impacts the quality of education and inflating classroom sizes, or a lack of quality STEM education and opportunities. We are also losing so many great teachers — who are often overworked and teaching in classrooms double or triple the size that they should be — because of low pay. Increasing teacher pay and school funding will improve education for all of our kids.
Kids of all socioeconomic statuses have struggled to keep up with school during this pandemic. Remote learning is tough, and we were not prepared. We have to move forward with a singular focus to make sure we don’t lose significantly more time educationally, and that the technology gap between low-income families and wealthier families narrows rather than widens.
I spoke to Stevon Cook, an SFUSD Commissioner who is also the former CEO of Mission Bit, which provides free coding education for high schoolers in San Francisco.
“COVID-19 has magnified the existing technological inequality that our students from low-income families face,” he said. “A remote learning system where some kids have access to wifi and computers and some don’t will worsen the long-term ramifications of the digital divide. As a state, we must step up and provide more quality STEM education access, computers and wifi to students from all backgrounds. I look forward to working with Senator Wiener on these vital issues as we enter the 2020–2021 school year.”
I’m committed to ending the digital divide and investing in our schools, our children and our communities. It’s time to make sure every child in California has access to wifi and a computer, especially in times when we’re asking families to participate in remote schooling.
Anti-poverty and anti-hunger work
During my time in the Senate, I’ve worked hard to support our most vulnerable youth and students across California — those whose families struggle with poverty and food security. I focus intensively on CalFresh access to ensure families don’t have to send their kids to school hungry. Tragically, California ranks near the bottom among the 50 states in the percentage of people eligible for food benefits (known in California as CalFresh) who actually receive them. There are various reasons for this failure, including our fragmented system and it being way, way too hard to sign up for CalFresh benefits.
To make it easier to sign up, I authored SB 882, which would have simplified the CalFresh application to allow people to sign up by phone. Unfortunately, the bill was killed in the Senate Appropriations Committee this year, but I’m committed to this critical fight. Previously, I passed legislation to expand and simplify a program where CalFresh recipients can buy fresh produce at half price, since so many families struggle with access to healthy foods.
Teri Olle, an anti-poverty advocate, weighed in on this issue. “We simply can’t expect our kids to focus — let alone excel — in schools if they are worried about when they’ll get their next meal,” she said. “And when it comes to COVID-19, we’re seeing food insecurity and poverty worsen dramatically. Many eligible Californians are not receiving CalFresh benefits, and I’ve greatly appreciated Senator Wiener’s work to simplify and expand CalFresh access. Our kids needed this before COVID-19, and will certainly need it during and after.”
No kid will be able to learn productively in school if they are worried about food security or if they’re hungry. Parents can’t help their kids with remote learning or homework if they have to stand in a massive line at food banks to feed their families. I will continue the fight to make sure our kids and families can focus on school instead of meeting basic needs like putting food on the table. This includes expanding our anti-hunger programs during COVID-19, in which San Francisco and other cities and counties have been providing qualifying families with lunches while kids aren’t in school. We are a wealthy country and state, and no one should go hungry — it’s simply unacceptable.
Youth homelessness and mental health for our kids
Youth homelessness rates are at an all-time high, and COVID-19 is making homelessness worse. At least one in 25 San Francisco public school kids is homeless. Our most vulnerable kids (those who identify as LGBTQ, who struggle with mental illness and/or substance use disorder, come from low-income families, or from communities of color) are most at risk of falling into homelessness.
That’s why I authored and passed SB 1004, to focus mental health resources on young people, particularly middle school and high school students. We need to provide kids with mental health support before they fall into crisis and end up on our streets. The lack of mental health support in our schools due to funding cuts is a bigger and bigger issue — one that has long-term ramifications. I also authored and passed SB 918, the Homeless Youth Act, to increase resources for homeless kids and to increase the state’s focus on this growing and vulnerable population. We also need to make sure every school has a social worker or guidance counselor instead of a cop.
Zak Franet, a youth advocate who experienced homelessness as a teenager, summed it up well: “As a formerly homeless youth, I speak from personal experience when I say that it is critical that we provide our youth with supportive mental health programs and resources before they reach a crisis point. SB 1004 and SB 918 are keeping our kids and transitional age youth off the streets and on a path to success.”
It’s hard to overstate how critical it is to meet the basic needs of our youth. Without the basics — food, a roof over their heads, mental health support, and so forth — they will struggle mightily.
California’s next generation of kids has a tough road ahead with the challenges we are facing with COVID-19 — and that’s on top of the issues that already plagued our state. I am committed to supporting policies that advance equity in our educational system and work to solve the root causes of this inequity.