Parents Demand Schools Reopen but Is It Safe?

Scores of parents and students paraded in front of Pasadena City Hall Tuesday voicing their demands to open schools, immediately. | Photo by Terry Miller / Beacon Media News

Teacher vaccinations are important but not a prerequisite for reopening, CDC says — at least in elementary schools

By Terry Miller

Scores of parents and their children descended upon Pasadena City Hall Tuesday afternoon to voice their support for opening schools immediately.

A parent of Pasadena Unified children, Erika Foy organized the rally. She said: “It is hard to believe our kids are on day 340 of Zoom learning. Why? We now know in-person schooling can be done safely to protect kids and teachers with the proper masking, social distancing protocols and hand washing. There is substantial data that now shows in-person learning is not associated with accelerating community transmission when these protocols are followed. Our kids are suffering tremendously and pediatricians from San Francisco to San Diego are calling on schools to open. We currently have school districts closed all throughout California with no indication they will reopen anytime soon.  Are you ok with school not opening till next fall? Did you know the L.A. Zoo is open but our schools are not?”

Foy says she and other are advocating for children across the state. “As Dr. Maya Kumar, an adolescent medicine specialist at Rady’s Children’s Hospital. recently said, ‘Schools provide much more than academics to children; they are central to the development of their identity, independence and their sense of right and wrong,’” Foy quoted.

“We also agree when she says, school is where children learn how to interact with other people and develop such life skills as empathy, negotiation and respect. You cannot obtain these skills through Zoom. More importantly and concerning though, is the fact that keeping schools closed is catalyzing mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders with kids everywhere. In fact, school-age Americans are 10-times more likely to die by suicide than COVID. Where is the sense in this of keeping kids [in] lockdown?” she asked.

“We have 70 plus days till the end of the school term and we want to see kids go back grades K-12.  Kids in California don’t have a union to represent their needs and our current public health measures are putting too much of the burden on them — academically, emotionally and physically. We need to prioritize our next generation to ensure they have a chance at a healthy development to succeed as adults. It is time to get kids back to school, sports, clubs and putting purpose back into their lives. Science shows us it can be done safely, and we owe it to our kids to try. Distance learning cannot replace school especially after 340 days. The time for our leaders to advocate for kids is now,” Foy stated emphatically.

However, PUSD Superintendent Brian McDonald says there is no reopening timeline set out for PUSD presently.

The debates over schools reopening in the midst of the pandemic are troubled, to say the very least.

Arcadia Unified School District’s chief communications officer, Ryan Foran, said that the district has placed its safety priorities on their web site but no clear indication of when schools will resume in person learning. The extended policy can be found at AUSD.net.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last Friday provided a roadmap for reopening schools but it cannot force schools to reopen. Emphasizing mask wearing and social distancing, the C.D.C. did say that “Access to vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction.” Even after teachers and staff are vaccinated, schools need to require masks in schools and physical distancing.

They said that evidence suggests that many K-12 schools that have “strictly implemented mitigation strategies have been able to safely open for in-person instruction and remain open.”

The agency also said schools “should be prioritized for reopening and remaining open for in-person instruction over nonessential businesses and activities.”

According to the C.D.C., evidence suggests that K-12 in-person school attendance is not a primary driver of community transmission. “Although children can be infected with SARS-CoV-2, can get sick from COVID-19, and can spread the virus to others, evidence indicates that children are less susceptible than adults, and may be less infectious,” the agency said. Despite this, “International and domestic experiences have demonstrated that even when a school carefully coordinates, plans, and prepares for delivering in-person instruction, cases of COVID-19 may still occur.”

Not everyone necessarily agrees that schools should be reopening, and with new variants being announced and studied, the question of safety is paramount.

Earlier this month, five unions representing California school employees — California Teachers Association; California Federation of Teachers; California School Employees Association; Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Council 57 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) — issued a set of conditions that could make reopening this academic year unlikely.

“Their reopening plan would require that the state offer vaccinations to school employees before they return for in-person instruction and make it a priority to vaccinate all employees in schools that have opened already,” writes John Fensterwald for EdSource. “It also would prohibit the state from ordering schools to reopen before Covid infection rates have dropped to the level with the lowest risk of transmission — the yellow tier — on the California Department of Public Health’s four-tier color-coded system for regulating commercial and school activities.” Under current guidelines, K-6 schools in counties in the purple tier can reopen if they meet certain thresholds.

There’s broad agreement that in-classroom learning is more effective and helps mitigates isolation and disparities in access to technology. Even the five union said “California teachers and classified employees want nothing more than to be back in our physical classrooms and school sites and know first-hand there is no equal substitute to regular, in-person learning.”

But teachers, school staff and many parents and students worry school districts and local government entities haven’t done enough to safely return. “This path must be safe for the entire school community: students, staff, and school families,” wrote the five unions. “Safe conditions extend beyond the walls of our school sites.”

On Friday, Fifth District Supervisor Kathryn Barger sent Governor Gavin Newsom a letter urging him to immediately reopen schools. “Next month will mark one year since the vast majority of our children were in the classroom. The impacts of this on our youth, both academically and mentally, is tremendous, and for many the toll will be insurmountable,” said Barger. “I am writing to ask for your consideration to allow for the immediate opening of all K-6 classrooms, and reconsider prohibiting counties in the purple tier from opening grades 7-12.”

L.A. County schools had previously been allowed to apply for a waiver from the state to resume in-person instruction for grades TK-2 but that program expired on Jan. 14. Under current guidelines, schools that did not already have a waiver have to wait until case rates fall below 25 daily cases per 100,000 county residents for five consecutive days. Grades 7-12 cannot resume in-person learning while the county remains in the purple tier.

On Tuesday, L.A. County’s adjusted case rate dropped to 20 cases per 100,000 people. LA County’s adjusted case rate has remained under 25 new cases per 100,000 people for five consecutive days, meeting the state requirements for schools to open on-site learning for grades TK-6. Students in these grades are permitted for on-site learning if the school is in full compliance with state and county directives:

  • Masking and distancing will be required for all staff and students.
  • Infection control happens everywhere.
  • Each classroom must form a stable group with fixed membership and they may not mix with other groups, meaning all onsite school activities will happen with this same cohort of students and adults. The size of the stable group is dependent on ensuring optimally 6 feet of distance between students and teachers.
  • Schools are required to immediately report to Public Health clusters of three or more positive cases of COVID-19 that have occurred within 14 days of one another.
  • Schools are required to complete and post the County’s school re-opening checklist that demonstrates compliance with all required safety protocols.

The state added the following additional requirements:

  • Schools must complete a COVID-19 Safety Plan that includes establishing the CAL/OSHA COVID-19 Prevention Program.
  • Schools are required to consult with labor, parent and community organizations regarding re-opening plans.
  • Schools must ensure sufficient ventilation in classrooms and shared spaces per the ASHRAE (American Society of heating, refrigerating, and air conditioning engineers) guidance on ventilation and have an appropriate professional evaluate the ventilation system in regards to the ASHRAE guidance.
  • Schools are required to have a testing plan that includes symptomatic testing and surveillance testing.

All schools wishing to reopen must submit plans to the L.A. County Department of Public Health and the California Department of Public Health certifying that they have implemented a full range of safety measures to permit a safe reopening.

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