Dewan: Back to school and COVID-19
Lincoln High School in San Jose is a part of the San Jose Unified School District. File photo.

As a lifelong learner and long-time educator, I always look forward to beginning a new school year. The energy and excitement of new beginnings often accompany the start of the school year. With the 2021-22 school year now or soon to be underway for Santa Clara County’s 250,000 young people, there is a sense of hope mixed with some anxiety as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our Santa Clara County school campuses are welcoming students back to full, in-person instruction. Schools provide more than just academics to children and adolescents. In addition to reading, writing and math, students learn social and emotional skills, develop friendships, learn to problem solve, get exercise, receive health screenings and healthy meals, participate in enrichment activities, access the internet and have access to mental health and wellness resources, as well as other essential services.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has emphasized the effects schools have on children’s social and emotional development. They found a direct correlation between students’ feelings of connectedness at school and their mental health and wellbeing. Youth who feel connected to their classmates and school community experience lower levels of depression, social anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

These healthy connections also translate into advanced development in other areas. Studies show that socializing and developing friendships help children learn more about themselves, help them build empathy and cope better with stress.

One of the most important priorities for schools is building a welcoming, physically and emotionally safe, relationship-centered school environment. According to the National School Climate Center, “A sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and learning necessary for a productive, contributing and satisfying life in a democratic society.”

Helping students develop a strong connection to the classroom and school community while cultivating a feeling of belonging helps students engage in their learning and be motivated to regularly attend school.

As schools are welcoming students back to full, in-person instruction, they are implementing measures to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 to protect everyone’s physical health. These measures include consistent use of face coverings, frequent hand washing, indoor ventilation, regular symptom screening and limiting or restricting visitors and non-essential personnel.

Vaccinations continue to be our best protection against COVID-19 and the more contagious Delta variant. Persons age 12 and older are eligible for the vaccine. Vaccines are widely available and to protect our children’s health and to maintain the safe operations of schools, all eligible persons need to be vaccinated. Vaccination rates for youth ages 12 to 15 are lower than for all other age groups in Santa Clara County.

COVID-19 vaccines are safe and they are effective in reducing infection and preventing serious disease, hospitalization and death.

On Aug. 11, the California Department of Public Health issued a new health order requiring schools to verify the vaccine status of all their employees and implement regular COVID-19 testing of unvaccinated workers. This new order is designed to support schools with a successful return to full, in-person instruction, reduce the spread of COVID-19 in schools and protect the health of our children and staff. While the order took effect on Aug. 12, schools will have until Oct. 15 to fully comply.

San José Spotlight columnist Mary Ann Dewan is the superintendent of schools for Santa Clara County. She has more than 33 years of experience in the field of education. Her columns appear every third Monday of the month.

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