In summary

The decision to reopen schools must be based on what makes sense for students academically and from a health perspective.

By Vernon M. Billy, Special to CalMatters

Vernon M. Billy is the chief executive officer and executive director for the California School Boards Association, which represents more than 1,000 school districts and county offices of education in California, ceo@csba.org. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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School trustees and educators serve our public schools because they care for children and are committed to their learning and growth. We’re eager to welcome students back to campus when we can do so in a safe and supportive environment – and not a moment sooner.

We don’t want to resume school at any cost or for the wrong reasons. We cannot jeopardize the safety of students because of the adult desire for a return to normalcy. And when we reopen schools, that decision must be based on what makes sense for students academically and from a health perspective.

Various parts of the state have experienced the COVID-19 pandemic differently. It makes sense that some regions and counties may reopen schools earlier based on local circumstances. But before we entertain the idea of resuming on-campus classes statewide, several conditions must be met:

  • State and local public health experts endorse the reopening of schools after 14 consecutive days of a downward trajectory of confirmed COVID-19 cases, per federal guidelines.
  • Testing is widespread and accessible to all Californians.
  • The state does not cut school funding, but increases funding to pay for current year and budget year 2021 COVID-19 related costs.
  • The state provides clear guidelines on what social distancing means in a school setting and, working with local school boards and superintendents, determines that implementation is plausible
  • The state provides funding and support for the actual costs and support needed to effectively implement social distancing measures on campus.   
  • The state helps schools obtain and supply the personal protective equipment needed for the safety of students, staff and community.
  • The state makes additional progress in providing access to technology such as broadband internet and computers that will be needed to resume school under a cohort/staggered/hybrid model.
  • The state has a plan in place and commitment to not cut school funding if a second wave of the pandemic forces the temporary closure of schools or a full-time return to distance learning.
  • The state provides additional childcare support so essential workers, including school employees, can return to the job knowing their children have adequate adult supervision. 

School boards, who are tasked with creating the policy for reopening schools, should – in coordination with health officials – be the drivers of when schools reopen. Even a normal return to school presents a significant challenge given all the unknowns facing school leaders. One thing we do know for certain is that our current resources and support are inadequate for a normal start and are grossly inadequate for an early start to the 2020–21 school year.

With that in mind, the state should aim for a return to school this fall, provided, at a minimum, the virus has a sustained downward trend and testing is readily available at that point. Hopefully, we will be much closer to the development of a vaccine as well. 

In the meantime, we should focus on building out the entire school system’s distance learning capacity, ensuring that schools have all the safety equipment they need, and protecting schools from budget cuts that would further diminish their capacity to serve students safely and effectively.

We must provide for the health and security of students and staff first, which, in turn, enhances the safety of the larger community. As educators, we are eager to resume school because we understand its importance to our children, to society and to the economy. But we also know the greatest lesson is understanding what really matters. Let’s not gamble with the health of our communities by opening up schools too soon or without the proper resources and processes in place.

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Vernon M. Billy is the chief executive officer and executive director for the California School Boards Association, which represents more than 1,000 school districts and county offices of education in California, ceo@csba.org. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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