Urban school parents start speaking out for reopening


Crescenciano Mendoza has watched with growing anxiety as his 6th grade daughter Angeles struggles to understand her teacher through a computer video at their San Jose home — the mode of teaching for most students in the state’s biggest cities since the pandemic closed classrooms almost a year ago.

While other public schools — mostly in the suburbs — have at least partly reopened, his daughter’s campus in San Jose’s Franklin-McKinley School District remains in remote “distance learning,” widely acknowledged as inferior to in-person instruction.

On Thursday, Crescenciano joined another San Jose public school parents, doctors from a community health clinic and Mayor Sam Liccardo in urging schools to find a way to reopen more quickly. While many parents in urban districts where infection rates have been high remain leery about sending their kids back to school, as distance learning drags on and they watch their kids fall behind, more are speaking out.

“I don’t want my little girl to get infected,” Crescenciano said, “but for me, it’s more important that she get a good education.”

California has trailed most of the country in the number of districts returning to at least some in-person instruction, as Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers remain locked in talks over competing proposals to spur school reopenings. Legislative leaders’ offices indicated no significant movement Thursday.

In big cities where public schools remain in online instruction for most students, officials have taken different approaches toward persuading school boards to bring kids back to campus as infection rates fall after a deadly winter surge.

San Francisco sued the city’s school district earlier this month. The district this week reached an agreement to open before the end of the school year as long as the city is below the “purple tier” level for widespread infections and teachers are vaccinated. But it will be at least a month off before students are welcomed back.

Liccardo says he favors a collaborative approach. He pleaded again Thursday with leaders of San Jose’s 19 school districts and their teachers to come to some sort of agreement to reopen soon, and called for county health officials to speed vaccination of teachers. His office said about 2,500 people have signed his online petition calling for them to do so.

“Throughout this pandemic, public health authorities have urged us to follow the science,” Liccardo said. “Yet when it comes to safely opening our schools, it’s politics — not science — that has closed our schools and abandoned our poorest kids, all while opening bars, card clubs, and marijuana dispensaries.”

The clamor to reopen schools has grown with mounting evidence that schools offering in-person instruction have not driven COVID-19 outbreaks, and that students — especially the poor — are falling behind in distance learning.

Public health officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the California Department of Public Health and local health officials have encouraged prioritizing teachers for vaccines but said schools can open safely in the meantime with basic measures such as face masks and physical distancing.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has called for the state to provide 10% of its vaccine supply for teachers and school staff starting Monday, and noted that 35 of California’s 58 counties already are vaccinating teachers. State rules allow elementary schools to reopen at current virus levels, he said, and higher grades when infection rates fall to the second-highest “red tier,” as they have in Marin and San Mateo counties this week.

Nancy Albarrán, superintendent of San Jose Unified School District, the city’s largest, which runs downtown San Jose’s Horace Mann Elementary where Liccardo and the parents had assembled Thursday afternoon, said they have begun bringing groups of the neediest students back, as well as allowing athletics. The district has an agreement with its teachers to offer classroom instruction to all students after all its teachers are vaccinated or Santa Clara County reaches the second-lowest “orange tier” restriction level.

“We’re really excited,” Albarrán said. “We look forward to that day.”

She noted that in a survey on reopening last fall, only about a third of parents said they felt safe enough to send their kids back.

Mendoza said there are similar feelings in his daughter Angeles’ district. Outbreak levels have been higher in San Jose than in suburban cities like Palo Alto, Los Altos, Saratoga and Los Gatos where public schools have reopened. Though he works at a health clinic and understands children are at lower risk of getting or spreading the disease, he said many parents remain wary after seeing COVID-19 rip through their community.

“Most of them are afraid,” Mendoza said.

Sofia Santos, a San Jose parent whose three daughters attend a charter school that also has been online only and who joined Mendoza in calling for kids to go back to school, said the public health message about the safety of reopening schools hasn’t reached much of the Latino community. But she said a growing number of parents at her school are losing patience with distance learning.

“The moms had a virtual meeting,” she said through a translator, “and they want the school to reopen.”

 

 


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