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The mantra needs to shift from “we’ll open when it’s safe” to “we’ll open on April 12 and make it safe.”
San Diego Unified’s announcement that schools will reopen on April 12 is welcome news. Schools will offer in-person learning for all students of all grades who wish to return. As a former board member and a practicing clinical psychologist, I applaud the announcement of a specific date, which needs to be honored. When we announced school closures on March 13 no one could have imagined that we would not yet have returned one year later.
As a former board member, I appreciate the difficulty of reopening. At the end of last school year we began to focus on opening in the fall and we were set back by a surge over the summer. In the fall, the rollout of Phase 1 for high-needs students was much slower than expected. Then we were faced with another surge of cases in the winter. It was difficult to find the right balance between COVID safety (amid the fears of parents and teachers) and the academic need for students to be in school. Furthermore, as a psychologist I have dealt with children, adolescents, parents and teachers who are struggling with social isolation, depression, anxiety and family tension.
At this point the position of the “open now” groups and the “safety first” groups are merging. We must look at risk management, rather than waiting for a risk-free environment. The school district has spent millions on PPE, as well as major modifications to the ventilation systems to prevent airborne transmission. The testing and tracking issue has been resolved with the assistance of UCSD. Vaccines are now available for all school staff. Plans are in place for social distancing at each campus. The financial aspect of paying for all of this is being resolved by state funds and federal stimulus funds for schools.
It is the responsibility of the district to set the date for reopening. The district must negotiate with the employees only on the impacts and effects on them of reopening. One example is increased workload due to working with in-person and online students simultaneously, which is a very legitimate issue. As another example, the district negotiates with the unions on the impact and effect of layoffs, but not on the actual issuing of layoff notices, which is a district prerogative. Conditions will never be perfect, and we have reached the point of ripping off the proverbial Band-Aid.
The Biden administration is pushing for all K-8 schools to be open within its first 100 days, which is May 1. Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature have targeted April 1 as the opening date for elementary schools. San Diego Unified is waiting until April 12, but it includes all grades. It will effectively be better than the national and state guidelines.
To really be effective, elementary students need to be on campus all day. Students may need to rotate in and out of the classroom to keep classes small, depending on the number who opt for in-person school. Aides can be hired to supervise the time away from the teachers. A very short school day does not meet the needs of our parents, especially low-paid essential workers. Middle and high school students can adapt better to a part-time schedule.
The mantra needs to shift from “we’ll open when it’s safe” to “we’ll open on April 12 and make it safe.” Our schools will have all of the above mitigations to make it safe regardless of whatever color tier our county happens to be assigned in April. As long as we are not under a severe shelter-in-place/stay-at-home order, our schools can safely reopen. In some cases our students will be safer at school with mitigations than out in the community without mitigations. The reality of psychological damage to our students is becoming greater than the risk of COVID-19, not to mention the disproportionate learning loss being experienced by our highest-needs students.
Parents are understandably skeptical about reopening plans after so many postponements. Parents and teachers need to hear very specific information about schedules and procedures. Parents need a few weeks to make plans. The March 16 anniversary of the school closures would be a good point in time to lay out those plans. As a community, we need to show strong support for the board’s decision to reopen on Monday morning, April 12, so that our students and teachers can experience a successful reopening without any further delay. The frosting on the cake will be outdoor graduation ceremonies for our seniors in June after spending their last two months together.
John Lee Evans, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, is past president of San Diego Unified School Board. He lives in University City.