Here in Oakland Unified, we are on our winter break, usually a time when our students, staff and families are joyfully free of school and preparing to come together to celebrate the holidays or just enjoy some much needed time off.
As we all know, this year is different with the pandemic hanging over our heads.
I call on Governor Gavin Newsom and the health officials advising him to move educators closer to the front of the line to get the COVID vaccine sooner rather than later, because educators and school staff here and across the state do critical work every day.
It seems clear that after having spent the past nine months in distance learning with their children at home, many people have a much greater appreciation for how important our schools are. They educate, support families’ ability to work, provide food to children in need — the pool of which is significantly larger and deeper now because of the pandemic — serve as counselors and a bridge to services in the community, and they help our students connect with each other and adults in countless important and profound ways.
In a nutshell, schools are our students’ lifeline to the world around them and their futures.
Fully opening schools is what everyone in our community wants — our students, staff and families all want schools reopened. I’m right there with them. The simplest way to do this is to first get this now out-of-control pandemic under some semblance of control, which will come as more and more people get the vaccine.
Thus far, we have taken small steps, opening learning hubs for special education students and for some students who have had the biggest challenges working through distance learning, including homeless and other harder-to-reach students. Safety has been our first priority, with staff and students wearing masks, using hand sanitizer, washing their hands and exercising social distancing. These in-person learning opportunities have made an immediate difference, with some students consistently attending classes for the first time since before the pandemic.
It’s wonderful that the vaccines were so quick in development and are now rapidly being administered to frontline workers including all hospital staff across the country as well as residents of long term care facilities in phase 1a. Then comes all those in phase 1b. Right now, educators have yet to be prioritized in phase 1b. On behalf of Oakland teachers and school staff, and their colleagues across California, I am calling on Governor Newsom and state leaders to move our educators into phase 1b, so they receive the vaccine sooner rather than later.
Teachers and school staff are frontline workers, and all of us want our schools to reopen as soon as possible. That includes President-elect Joe Biden who has called for schools to reopen, as has infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci — but to do so safely.
Since long before the pandemic, California and the nation have been focused on overcoming a teacher shortage. Our recruitment staff in Oakland works enthusiastically every year to find the right amount of teachers for our students. And OUSD employees, like so many workers in this country, include older adults and many with pre-existing conditions. That further amplifies our teachers’ need for the vaccine.
It’s vital that our students return to the classroom to receive instruction and social interaction they can’t get virtually, while schools reopening can help jumpstart our flagging economy by allowing more parents and guardians to leave the home to go to work.
There are countless reasons to reopen schools, and all of them are also reasons for giving teachers and other school staff the vaccine as soon as possible.
Dr. Kyla Johnson-Trammell is superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District.
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