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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  1. Finn 3 months ago3 months ago

    Teachers do not have full control of their classroom. Many students are entitled, will not wear masks, or have difficulty staying seated for many reasons. Teachers can’t make make them since there is neither discipline nor behavioral supports or counseling in most elementary schools. My classroom is not big enough to space kids even 3 ft apart with 32 kids. Getting Covid from being in a classroom 6 hours a day with 32 kids … Read More

    Teachers do not have full control of their classroom. Many students are entitled, will not wear masks, or have difficulty staying seated for many reasons. Teachers can’t make make them since there is neither discipline nor behavioral supports or counseling in most elementary schools. My classroom is not big enough to space kids even 3 ft apart with 32 kids.

    Getting Covid from being in a classroom 6 hours a day with 32 kids with poor ventilation and keeping door shut due to intruders is not what I signed up for. Not to mention parents always send kids to school sick and then do not answer the phone when you call them (this type of parent usually just has the one number too and the voicemail box is full.) People claim concern about poor learning outcomes, but they just want their free baby sitting back. If they cared about learning outcomes, we would fully fund our schools. Kids were failing pre-Covid too!!!

  2. Marie 3 months ago3 months ago

    Our school district in CA is in a budget deficit despite being in one of the most affluent zip codes in the country (ineptitude at best/corruption at worst). They want to save money and virtual learning saves them money. They are unable to provide the funds to make our elementary school campus Covid compliant. The proliferation of surveys and opacity in sharing any data combined with a reluctance to explore any options and actually listen … Read More

    Our school district in CA is in a budget deficit despite being in one of the most affluent zip codes in the country (ineptitude at best/corruption at worst). They want to save money and virtual learning saves them money. They are unable to provide the funds to make our elementary school campus Covid compliant. The proliferation of surveys and opacity in sharing any data combined with a reluctance to explore any options and actually listen to the population they serve is a gross failing.

    I see the tide turning though with parents/guardians/taxpayers. They are demanding answers and accountability from their public school. In times of crisis, the inept reveal their ineptitude. Now to expose it and put people in place who have the ability to step beyond their stagnant comfort zone and into the new world.

  3. Paul Keefer, Trustee, Sacramento County of 3 months ago3 months ago

    Agreed. The data in Sacramento County indicates schools are not transmitting. The blunt analytics used by California clearly indicate we are avoiding the use of reliable data of schools opened with waivers. We should be promoting this data to expand opening. Why are we keeping this data a secret?

  4. Christopher A Rosa 3 months ago3 months ago

    Why should these teachers gets the vaccination first? They have abandoned our kids and parents. Many families forced to pay thousands of dollars to enroll their children in private schools. It was never about doing the right thing.

  5. Anna Walker 3 months ago3 months ago

    Bravo, Dr. Cherniss for your advocacy for students.

  6. Laura Ornstein 3 months ago3 months ago

    I would add to the article that just like before the pandemic hit, all students should come back to school. Letting some students stay home makes the learning inequitable. Teachers are trying to teach in person and provide learning for those opting to stay at home and this is a difficult task and not equal. Many of the at risk children are the ones being kept home by their parents. All school-age children should … Read More

    I would add to the article that just like before the pandemic hit, all students should come back to school. Letting some students stay home makes the learning inequitable. Teachers are trying to teach in person and provide learning for those opting to stay at home and this is a difficult task and not equal. Many of the at risk children are the ones being kept home by their parents. All school-age children should be required to return by whatever date but it should be everyone.

    If the risks are minimal there simply isn’t a reason for hybrid teaching/learning.

  7. Scottie 3 months ago3 months ago

    Hallelujah! Although we are currently in Tampa Bay, we’ve been planning to move to California for a few months. Unfortunately, we want to see California’s initiative to place importance on education. If they fail to do so, then we may never make it to CA.

  8. Gregory Lipford 3 months ago3 months ago

    While there is virtually no scientific argument against having schools open, it is an odd concept that there needs to be a sort of sequence to opening society and the economy. Indeed, it is economic health and physical health that are correlated in a society, and it should also be obvious that the long term health of public education requires a healthy economy. So let's reject the idea of sequencing and prioritizing the activities of … Read More

    While there is virtually no scientific argument against having schools open, it is an odd concept that there needs to be a sort of sequence to opening society and the economy. Indeed, it is economic health and physical health that are correlated in a society, and it should also be obvious that the long term health of public education requires a healthy economy. So let’s reject the idea of sequencing and prioritizing the activities of people and stick to the science of distancing, hygiene and safety in all areas of life.