In summary

California’s plans to allow schools to reopen raises questions and concerns; teachers’ union outlines five criteria to safely reopen for in-person classes.

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By Jeff Freitas, Special to CalMatters

Jeff Freitas is president of the California Federation of Teachers,

Uncertainty has become the new normal in our daily lives, but one constant must remain: an unwavering commitment to the safety of California’s students, educators and communities.

Unfortunately, as we approach the beginning of the new school year, the state of California has almost 500,000 positive COVID-19 infections, which is striking when compared to the few hundred positive COVID-19 infections back in March when our schools initially closed to in-person instruction. Without definitive, scientific standards for a safe return to classrooms, at this time no California school is safe to reopen for in-person instruction. 

On July 13, the 120,000 educators of the California Federation of Teachers outlined for Gov. Gavin Newsom and state leaders five clear criteria to give our school communities the assurances that students won’t get sick at school only to bring the virus home to their working parents or medically compromised family members.

Our criteria for physically reopening schools include the following: 

  • A significant decline in new cases of the virus both statewide and in the school’s home county; 
  • Regular, accessible testing and tracing to prevent further spread; 
  • Adequate personal protective equipment and strong social distancing standards;
  • Schools must work collaboratively with employees and the community as they develop plans for returning to in-person instruction, and 
  • Policymakers at the state and the national level must provide the funding necessary for safe schools.

Instead of clear answers, Newsom’s school reopening plan raises more questions and creates more confusion. Schools are allowed to resume in-person instruction after meeting constantly shifting county benchmarks, and elementary schools can still reopen with a “waiver” that, thus far, has zero criteria attached.

Our students and our educators deserve better than a reopening plan that puts us all at risk, especially as positive test rates are exceeding 10% in some areas and are nearly double statewide what they were just six weeks ago. Moreover, once re-opened, a school would not be required to close again even if a county was placed on the monitoring list for its rising case numbers. The only trigger to close after a school has re-opened for in-person instruction is for 5% of students to test positive, which for an average size school means that 30 to 40 students test positive – 30-40!

As a math teacher, I always demanded that students “show their work.” With the lives of students, educators and families at risk, we must hold the governor and our state lawmakers to that same standard. Scientific evidence on how kids spread COVID-19 is preliminary at best and inconclusive at worst, making any waiver that does not adhere to strict scientific protocols positively reckless. 

Last week, in response to President Donald Trump and several governors across the nation trying to force students back into unsafe classrooms, the 1.7 million member American Federation of Teachers announced that it will support educators who strike for safer schools. California educators sincerely hope that decisions made by the state do not force us to take such steps to protect our families, our students and our school communities. But, as the president of the California Federation of Teachers, I will stand with the members of CFT and use every avenue we have to make sure our students and educators are returning to learning environments because science tells us it’s safe, not because it’s convenient or helpful for the economy.

Reopening schools must provide students, parents and educators with peace of mind that schools are safe places to learn. And make no mistake, everyone wants to return to in-person instruction. But until it is safe to do so, educators with the California Federation of Teachers will continue to provide the best distance learning possible and provide the support every student needs to succeed now and throughout their academic life. 

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