Opinion: ‘Follow the science’ and reopen schools in San Diego and elsewhere

Jessica Wong

The editorial board operates independently from the U-T newsroom but holds itself to similar ethical standards. We base our editorials and endorsements on reporting, interviews and rigorous debate, and strive for accuracy, fairness and civility in our section. Disagree? Let us know. Eleven months since many students set foot in […]

The editorial board operates independently from the U-T newsroom but holds itself to similar ethical standards. We base our editorials and endorsements on reporting, interviews and rigorous debate, and strive for accuracy, fairness and civility in our section. Disagree? Let us know.

Eleven months since many students set foot in a classroom, decisions to reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic remain difficult and divisive at the local, state and federal level. As a teacher in City Heights pointed out in a commentary in this week’s The San Diego Union-Tribune, low-income residents often live in homes with multiple generations of families. While kids have not been at particular risk from the virus, that’s not true of the grandparents with whom they share living quarters.

Those valid concerns need to be balanced against the urgent warnings of pediatricians, who have worried since lockdowns began about the immense toll that keeping children out of school has on their mental and physical health. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement last year urging adults making decisions about reopening schools to realize the long-term damage that kids would face. Now, the United States is just days away from the tragic milestone that COVID-19 has killed 500,000 Americans (and counting). Overshadowed by that figure is the fact that 50 million public school students have been mostly stuck at home for months.

On Friday — finally — the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for safe reopenings of schools. They called for universal mask wearing at school, maintaining at least 6 feet of social distance, frequent hand washing, cleaning and ventilating school sites, and contact tracing, isolation and quarantine rules. These are similar to measures undertaken in the nations that never closed schools (including Taiwan, Nicaragua and Sweden) and the dozens that reopened last year.

In December, with vaccines on the way, then President-elect Joe Biden said “a majority of our schools” would open in his first 100 days as president. Last week, his aides said the goal was actually half of the nation’s elementary schools providing “some teaching” in person “at least one day a week.” A Politico analysis called it “a goal so modest and lacking in ambition as to be almost meaningless.”

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s aides hinted for days that a major announcement was coming on Friday. Instead, the state released online maps showing the status of school reopening decisions.

Locally, San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten and local teachers union President Kisha Borden put out a joint statement Thursday that said pandemic decisions would “follow the science” — but the announcement was vague and didn’t offer many specifics or much hope for frustrated parents.

Local politicians are also discussing the issue, but could all be doing more. District Attorney Summer Stephan warned that child exploitation and unreported child abuse are bigger problems in the pandemic. San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria has joined other mayors to ask that schools reopen after staffs get offered first COVID-19 shots. And Supervisor Nathan Fletcher suggested vaccine prioritization could be given to school employees in districts that are open or have signed agreements to reopen.

Community spread is being mitigated in grocery stores and other locations deemed essential. What is more essential to a community than the education of its children? These discussions have gone on long enough. All districts need reopening plans now.

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