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Guest Opinion | Erika Foy: Reopening Our Schools – Let’s Stay Safe and Get Creative

Published on Monday, September 14, 2020 | 10:56 am

On March 19th when Governor Newsom shut down the state to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19, he said, “this [lockdown] is not a permanent state, this is a moment in time.” We are now coming up on six months of a “moment in time” here in California. While many of us are neck-deep trying to navigate the logistical and emotional complexities of distance learning for our kids, the Department of Public Health for LA County recently added insult to injury by suggesting we also cancel Halloween, as if our kids haven’t already had enough loss and disruption. When they walked back their idea of Zoom Halloween parties just a day later, LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn was quoted saying, “be safe, practice physical distrancing, and get creative about how you celebrate with your kids this year.” I wish we would adopt this same approach to getting our kids physically back into school. Why can’t we be safe, practice physical distancing, and “get creative” with that? 

The fact is that September is going to come and go in Pasadena without our children returning to classrooms, and nobody can say what the resulting long-term effects will be on their physical and mental states. What we do know is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came out with a six-page report addressing the importance of reopening American schools this fall, where they specifically state that COVID-19 “poses relatively low risk to school-age children” and that ”there have also been few reports of children being the primary source of COVID-19 transmission among family members.” 

The CDC has suggested that it is safe to reopen schools when the positivity rate is below 5%, however we are seeing states all across the nation opening their doors despite even higher rates of positivity. Currently, 41 states have given the decision-making power of reopening schools to local authorities or school districts. But Gavin Newsom, along with governors in Hawaii, New Mexico, and West Virginia, has decided rather than giving cities or districts local control in opening school doors, he is only allowing openings to occur from county to county after stringent hurdles are crossed. 

As of August 31st, each county is assigned a risk tier based on adjusted case and test positivity rates. Tier 1 is widespread risk and Tier 4 is low risk. LA County is currently listed Tier 1, with a positivity rate of 3.7% and a case rate of 8.1 (for every 100,000 residents). While our test positivity rate qualifies our county to be listed Tier 3 (moderate risk), our case rate needs to come down to 7 before schools in the county will be allowed to open). Many local districts are concerned with this strategy; recently the Orange County Board of Education filed a petition with the state Supreme Court questioning Gavin Newsom’s policy of keeping schools closed. 

On September 12th, California as a whole is currently at a 3.7% COVID positivity rate, ranked 16th best in the nation just below Wyoming. This should be fantastic news. And yet, any movement toward re-opening our schools remains very slow. Let’s compare this to Texas, which has a 6.7% positivity rate and yet they have state-ordered in-person instruction available part-time or full-time. School districts there must provide daily, on-campus learning, although 

local school districts can temporarily limit on-campus instruction for the first four weeks of school and beyond with a waiver. 

Other states have figured out ways to stay safe and get creative with their school openings as well. Our neighbors in Arizona require schools to provide “free on-site learning opportunities” and support services for students who need access to a computer or a supervised place to be during the day, even if the school system has opted for full-time distance learning. And districts in Missouri were required to open by Aug. 24, but could receive a waiver from the state’s department of education to open later if necessary. Even still, Missouri students must be in school at least two days a week. Our governor clearly has the ability to lead us in a direction where our kids can get some in-person instruction, yet he doesn’t seem to be making an effort to draw us to all water. I just don’t get it. 

What we need to remember is that the CDC says extended school closure is “harmful to children.” It can lead to severe learning loss and can be detrimental to children’s developmental, social, and emotional skills. But what really had me incensed is the fact that extended closures can be harmful to children’s mental health. On September 11th, Pasadena Star News reported that our “teen help line is taking more abuse, suicide and lonliness calls.” To make matters worse, according to a recent survey from the CDC, out of more than 5,000 respondents who were contacted in late June, 25.5 percent of young adults between the ages of 18-24 reported having “seriously considered suicide” due to the pandemic. That is one in four. This prolonged lack of normalcy for kids and young adults is doing irreparable psychological damage to the point that suicidal thoughts are increasing. This is unacceptable. 

On September 8th, our Governor held a news conference where he said he wanted to “address climate change head on” and that he had “no patience for climate deniers.” Where is this passion and urgency when it comes to addressing the needs of our kids and their mental and physical health? We have kids struggling today and climate change has been going on for years. If we can’t solve today’s problems, how can we solve tomorrow’s? 

I have no patience for the lack of solutions from our state’s leadership. Teachers and local administrators are working tirelessly to manage this difficult and unprecedented challenge. They are doing the best they can with both hands tied behind their backs and they deserve more proactive support and guidance from the state as well. The governor wants to be “slow and stringent” with his management of the virus, but there is an urgent need to return to some level of normalcy for our children and young adults. Their mental and physical health depends on it. It is time to get creative and safely reopen our schools.

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