In summary

It’s time to put our children’s well-being at the center of this discussion and get them back in the classroom.

By Leda Dederich, Special to CalMatters

Leda Dederich is a public-school parent from Berkeley, Leda.dederich(at)gmail.com.

Late in the evening of March 12, 2020, I received a message from the superintendent of my children’s school district announcing the immediate closure of all campuses. The closure would last three weeks. It was meant to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

As our community hunkered down, my husband and I told our kids that this could be fun! Even though I’m in treatment for metastatic breast cancer, which means being the 24/7 mom on duty has an added layer of challenge, I welcomed the extra family time. We slept in, relaxed our screen-time rules and took on overly complex baking projects.

By late April, schools across the nation were closing. Teachers scrambled to develop “distance learning” plans. Parents scrambled to balance work and other obligations with supervising their children’s at-home learning. I scrambled to figure out how I could possibly homeschool two young children, one of whom has special needs, while also undergoing cancer treatment.

But, despite the shock and inconvenience of it all, I thoroughly understood our collective predicament. We would all have to rise to this challenge together.

That was 11 months ago.

In October, things got so bad for my dyslexic 5th grader that I pulled him from school entirely. My 2nd grader now breaks down in tears several times a day. A recent letter signed by Bay Area physicians put my kids’ situation into context: Every day, doctors are seeing more children hospitalized with acute mental health crises, suicidal thoughts and eating disorders stemming from depression, anxiety and social isolation.

My husband and I no longer joke about this being “fun.” We are barely holding it together. In the meantime, to our dismay, private schools all around us are open for in-person instruction. Public schools in other states and wealthier public school districts in California are also open for in-person instruction. Parents with means are fleeing. A friend of mine temporarily moved to Hawaii so her children could attend public school in-person. They are thriving.

There is no reason all public-school families in California should not be thriving too. When basic safety precautions are in place, the risk to anyone of contracting COVID-19 in a school setting – child or adult – seems tiny. And public health officials, from my local district to the World Health Organization, agree that this risk should not outweigh the actual harm being done to children.

Despite this, parents are currently stuck in the middle of an epic standoff between school districts, government officials and teacher unions. Union leaders insist on defining the safety measures required to return to work, even when they are not in accordance with public health guidelines. 

Unfortunately, when the CDC finally released its guidance on school reopening last week, they included one of the unions’ most controversial demands – tying on-campus learning to community infection rates. Some experts are denouncing this and other aspects of the guidelines because, again, some evidence confirms that transmission rates in schools can be kept low even when community infections rates are high. 

Enough with the political games. We need you all to step up, figure this out and get our children the help they need and deserve. Science should be guiding decisions about when to reopen schools, not politics, misinformation or fear.

I believe in the power and promise of public education. But in this moment, nearly a year into this distance learning fiasco, I have had it. The educational leadership in our state has failed California’s public-school families. They have failed my children. They have failed me.

That schools remain closed despite evidence that they can and should be open is a moral failure. It’s harming our children – particularly those who were already the most vulnerable – and it’s risking the long-term stability of California’s public education system.

To those who have the power to make this right, your bureaucratic paralysis must end. It’s time to put our children’s well-being at the center of this discussion, stop with the excuses and get them back in the classroom.

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