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Thursday, January 21, 2021

COMMENTARY: California must ‘flip the script’ and reopen schools first

Credit: Sandy Tsosie, principal Montemalaga Elementary School, PVPUSD

Students are spaced out at Montemalaga Elementary School on opening day. The elementary school in Palos Verdes Unified School District cautiously reopened for in-person instruction this fall after the pandemic forced schools across California to close in the spring of 2020.

As our state and county leaders respond to the dangerous resurgence of Covid-19, we must look ahead to ensure that we put schools and students first. I believe school reopening must be prioritized above restaurants and bars, commercial business and almost every other sector of our economy.

While the evidence and science support the notion of imposing greater restrictions on most all sectors as conditions worsen, education is a sector of our economy that can and should reopen safely with restrictions. As educators, we are already equipped with policies and procedures which provide a safe learning environment for students and staff.

Masking, spacing, personal protective equipment and easy access to testing are all part of the recipe for a successful reopening. In the coming months, a wide-scale vaccination program for essential workers, such as teachers and staff, will only improve our outlook.

There are several reasons why it is better to reopen schools ahead of other sectors:

Schools are a controlled environment

When you go out to eat, go shopping, or engage in any other activity out in public, you have no control over the health practices and decisions of others around you. You can’t control who is sick, who is unmasked, or who is or has been engaged in risky behavior.

This is not the case at school. A teacher controls their classroom environment. All students are spaced out and wearing masks, as are all the adults on campus. Additionally, all students go through a prescreening process prior to entering campus. Schools have hundreds of procedures and protocols to quickly adapt to exposures and further keep their environment under control. As such, the chances of transmission at school are very low.

The consequences of learning loss are too severe

The tsunami of failing kids, student dropouts, decreasing rates of college-readiness and student mental health issues has yet to arrive on shore. This global pandemic has only exacerbated the two primary challenges impacting education in California: the failure of teaching and learning in our K-12 schools and a ballooning mental health crisis among our kids.

The pre-Covid education data demonstrates that students of California are already faced with a learning crisis. Of the six million students enrolled in K-12 schools, four million of them are at a learning disadvantage, including English learners, foster youth and those whose family income levels qualify them for free and reduced meals.

As such, three million students are not achieving at grade level in English and Mathematics. In addition, only about 50% of high school students are meeting UC/CSU Course Requirements by the time they graduate. Our state’s student population also includes over 800,000 students who qualify for special education services, many of whom have not received the same level of support as they did prior to this pandemic.

The remote learning environment will only widen the learning gap and increase the number of students not achieving grade level standards or meeting the necessary UC/CSU Course Requirements. Fewer of our kids will be able to go to college and more students will drop out (currently 1 in 10 high school students drop out prior to graduation).

Finally, our students with special needs, many of whom require a combination of several specialized services, will likely see deepening learning loss and developmental delays without in-person learning.

The student mental health crisis is getting worse

In addition to the academic cataclysm that our kids face, which could negatively affect them for a lifetime, there also exists a significant student mental health crisis. In 2019, California experienced a 34% increase in teen suicides. During the pandemic, cases of anxiety and depression are increasing at alarming rates, while parents and families are struggling to help their kids. Reopening school can remedy many of these mental health issues almost immediately and thus mitigate the unintended consequences that remote learning has caused.

In spite of these worsening learning and social conditions, the reopening of schools can offer impactful and immediate relief for our students.

The following recommendations, if implemented, will allow schools to reopen safely and will address the academic and social challenges our children now face:

  1. “Mask up” and open school

The state and county health departments have provided detailed reopening guidelines, which our schools are more than capable of following. The spacing out of staff and students, the face covering requirements and the sanitation policies and procedures will ensure that school will be as safe as, if not safer than, many other sectors of our economy.

  1. Vaccinate teachers and staff as essential workers

While the initial groups to be vaccinated will be medical professionals, our elderly population and those with pre-existing conditions, the next major group should be our teachers and support staff. School employees are essential workers, and by vaccinating them first we will greatly reduce the risk of transmission at school.

  1. Fund efforts to reverse learning loss and support student mental health

Kids need schools to intervene immediately. While this is not a condition of reopening, it is a necessary mitigation piece toward closing the ever-widening achievement gap and serving the mental health needs of our students. Free tutoring, both during and after school as well as free access to therapists and counselors should be provided to all students. Parents are already over extended in their efforts to balance home and work.

Leaders of this state must speak up and make school reopening the primary sector to reopen.

Flip the script; put kids first and reopen schools.

••• 

Alexander Cherniss is superintendent of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District in Los Angeles County. You can read the district’s guide for reopening schools here. 

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent diverse viewpoints about California’s public education systems. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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