There is growing pressure on public school systems to open their classroom doors and let students inside facilities that have been shuttered for most of the last year. That pressure will only increase as case rates fall heading out of winter. Very soon, school employees are going to have to return to classrooms and that will have to happen long before everyone is vaccinated against coronavirus.
In fact, it may be necessary before we drop into lower “tiers” of illness that at one time might have seemed appropriate but now seem arbitrary and too late.
Consider developments over the last week.
The city attorney for San Francisco has sued the San Francisco Unified School District and its leaders, alleging they have resisted opening despite public health advice that it would be relatively safe to do so. Gov. Gavin Newsom has reiterated his feelings that distancing, protective gear and other changes to the environment make reopening classrooms not only feasible but desirable.
And it’s not just the politicians responding to changing conditions. More importantly, much of the scientific community says schools should reopen too.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says teachers can do their jobs safely, in person, right now. Dr. Rochelle Walensky told the White House COVID-19 response team that data suggests teachers don’t need to be vaccinated before in-person learning resumes. And the Southern California chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics says the toll of remaining remote has become greater than the risk of gathering in classrooms, as long as certain precautions are taken.
There is no question our kids are suffering. They are falling behind in core subjects, missing out on socialization that could affect them for the rest of their lives, and they are losing access to a range of activities — from school bands to sports teams — that can be defining childhood experiences. And there is growing anecdotal evidence that the toll on mental health may be leading to a terrifying spike in teen suicides.
Meanwhile, there is data from private schools and elsewhere that it’s possible to go back to school in a more meaningful way. An eye-opening study in the journal Pediatrics followed 100,000 North Carolina public school students who returned to classrooms in the fall. As the Los Angeles Times reported, the study counted 773 cases of coronavirus among North Carolina students, staff and teachers over the period, only 32 of which originated at schools. While there have been outbreaks in some school settings, researchers found none in the North Carolina study.
This is not to say that teachers and others are wrong to be concerned about moving too fast. We know that kids may be asymptomatic virus spreaders. Younger students can’t take any of the currently available vaccines. If they do catch the virus at school, they can bring it home to much more vulnerable family members. Many public school staff members belong to minority groups that have proven, for cultural and economic reasons, to be more susceptible. Virtually every public school would struggle to make the classroom environment as safe as possible given the financial and space challenges that exist.
And let’s acknowledge that teachers are suffering too. They love working directly with kids, and the virtual environment often involves more work than ever before. Sometimes this debate is presented as a battle with unreasonable teachers’ unions. It is not. It’s a life-and-death debate among honest parties who want what’s best for all.
There is risk involved in opening classrooms broadly. We are all living with some risk every day due to the pandemic. Let’s give parents the opportunity to opt out of in-person learning for now and for allowances to be made for teachers with particular risk. Let’s acknowledge that expert guidance is changing. Demanding that everyone be vaccinated or that we reach a much lower case count before returning to the classroom are no longer tenable positions. Let’s get students back to Coastside classrooms sooner rather than later.
— Clay Lambert