As students across the South Bay begin returning to the classroom, lawmakers and education leaders are pushing legislation to make classrooms safer, more supportive and equitable.
The Santa Clara County Office of Education recently introduced its legislative package, which includes bills to increase mental health care access, guarantee additional funding for early childcare and incentivize schools to include students with learning disabilities in general education classrooms.
Senate Bill 508, introduced by Sen. Henry Stern of Los Angeles and sponsored by the county’s office of education, would require health plans to collaborate with schools to provide mental health services to students. It would also make services more accessible by expanding the network of school-based mental health practitioners and the use of telehealth.
“This bill is needed now more than ever given that during the pandemic, rates of intentional self-harm, major depressive disorders and substance abuse overdoses have increased significantly among 13 to 18-year-olds,” said Mary Ann Dewan, the county’s superintendent of schools.
The South Bay has seen a rise in mental health crises since the beginning of the pandemic, with counseling centers reporting increased reports of anxiety and depression across all age groups.
According to the California Children’s Trust, there has been a 227% increase in calls to the California Youth Crisis Hotline during the pandemic. And California provided fewer mental health services to children under 19 than any other state — both before and during the pandemic, according to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The legislative package comes as Santa Clara County schools beginning reopening up for in-person instruction.
San Jose Unified School District, which is the city’s largest school district, serving more than 30,000 students across 41 schools, will welcome students back on April 21. Families have the option to opt-in or out of in-person learning in the fall, and students will be assigned cohorts to limit class sizes and maintain social distancing.
The East Side High School District will bring students back on April 19. The district is home to 23,000 students. The district will limit indoor instruction to 16 students per class, with a maximum of 1,000 students on campus at any given time. The district has laid out a plan for distancing desks, using outdoor and non-classroom spaces for instruction to help with social distancing and daily COVID-19 screening for staff and students.
“The benefits of opening our schools for all students that would like to come back for in-person instruction on campus far outweigh the costs of keeping them closed,” said the district’s Board President Van Le. “For those students and families that are not ready for in-person instruction, they will continue with distance learning. We are committed to keeping our staff, students and families safe and healthy.”
The Santa Clara Unified School District, which is home to more than 21,000 students, will go through a staged reopening that began Monday and continues through April 6. The district allowed first and second graders on campus Monday. By April 6, all grades will be allowed on campus with physical distancing. Students have the option to learn in a ‘hybrid’ model that includes remote and in-person learning.
On San Jose’s east side, the Alum Rock Union School District will partially reopen with students from preschool to eighth grade on campus the week of April 12. The district serves more than 9,000 students.
“We are working with site staff, administration, and the bargaining units to set up the needed arrangements,” district officials wrote on its Facebook page. “Please note that ‘phased basis’ in our interpretation means that different grade levels will have different beginning dates.”
Parents have the option to continue distance learning through the end of the school year. At a district board meeting last week, district Superintendent Hilaria Bauer said only about 1,800 students had opted into in-person learning.
A list of schools that have opened under the county’s waiver system can be found here. Several districts, including Milpitas Unified School District and Los Altos School District, have been approved to open to grades pre-K through sixth since the fall.
The office of education also targeted early childcare and learning in its legislative package, as families across the South Bay struggled to balancing work-from-home life with parenting and distance learning. A report presented to county supervisors in March showed only 43 percent of employees with children feel they successfully balance work and childcare all or most of the time.
Assembly Bill 1294 would make permanent a childcare subsidy that’s funded care for more than 10,000 children across Santa Clara County. The education office also sponsored AB 568, introduced by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, representing AD-7 in Sacramento.
The bill would use data about early childcare to help identify existing gaps and inequities in the availability of, and access to, early learning and care programs to more equitably distribute state resources.
“The big picture is that we all know that early education matters,” McCarty said. “Santa Clara County has been a leader in this space for a number of years.”