East San Jose education leaders at odds with push to reopen schools
San Jose students take part in a lesson. Photo courtesy of East Side Union High School District.

    San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo’s efforts through his new advocacy organization to reopen San Jose schools is sparking frustration for some — particularly communities of color. 

    Liccardo launched a petition through Solutions San Jose — sending two emails within 24 hours — to gather signatures demanding COVID-19 vaccines be prioritized for teachers and to reopen elementary schools. Liccardo said the continual closure of schools has created a “separate and unequal” education system — unfairly hurting low-income families.

    But some education leaders in those vulnerable neighborhoods, including East San Jose, say they were left out of the conversation.

    Alum Rock Union School District Board President Corina Herrera-Loera said the mayor should’ve sat down with educational leaders to find out what they need to open schools.

    “If he would’ve focused on vaccinations first, then pushed on reopening schools, that would’ve made sense,” Herrera-Loera said. “If he had spoken with school leaders, elected officials on behalf of our constituents in a way the different districts could have input, I would’ve respected that a lot more. Do you even know what our needs are? It just doesn’t make sense.”

    Herrera-Loera said the mayor’s push to reopen schools is not rooted in the East Side’s needs. 

    “When he says things like, ‘We’re failing our most vulnerable children,” he hasn’t come and asked me as a school board president what we need,” she said. “He advocated to lower hazard pay from $5 to $3. If he wanted to support our families, especially on the East Side, he would’ve raised that from $5 to $10. He would’ve looked for money to help those families who are hurting the most.”

    Liccardo said he hopes to close the learning gaps suffered disproportionately by students from low-income families.

    “Not acting quickly and safely to reopen the public schools shows a lack of awareness of how much our separate-but-not equal system of remote learning is accelerating income and racial inequalities in our most vulnerable communities,” Liccardo told San José Spotlight.

    Not all East Side leaders are at odds with the mayor’s plan. 

    Gabriela Chavez-Lopez, president of the Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley, supports the mayor wanting to return students to in-person learning. Her 2-year-old son attends daycare in San Jose.

    “I don’t know what I would’ve done without it,” Chavez-Lopez said. “I think it’s time to return to school. I support the mayor’s push to do that as soon as possible.”

    Chavez-Lopez said parents, especially working mothers, have to get back to work. Students are not only falling behind academically, but also missing the social and emotional aspects of in-person learning.

    But as eager as parents are to see kids back in school, the safety measures are not there yet.

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    Reopening plans

    Officials from both East Side Union High School District and Alum Rock said they will not fully reopen until teachers and staff receive COVID-19 vaccinations. San Jose Unified School District’s labor agreements call for the county being in the orange tier or teachers and staff being fully vaccinated.

    The county is in the most restrictive purple tier right now.

    But there’s a glimmer of hope. Santa Clara County health officials last week announced education workers can receive COVID-19 vaccinations starting Feb. 28. 

    In two new bills, state legislators have proposed returning K-6 students to classrooms by mid-April in counties in the red tier. Although the bills call for these counties to offer vaccines to school site personnel, they do not require all teachers and staff to be vaccinated before reopening. All K-12 students who are homeless, foster youth, chronically absent or without internet would be required to receive in-person instruction by April 15. 

    SJUSD spokesperson Jennifer Maddox said vaccinations are critical for schools reopening, but it won’t happen overnight. A November survey showed only a third of families wanted to return to in-person learning.

    “Vaccines seem the surest way to get schools open,” Maddox said. “What we don’t know is how far in the future those appointments will be.”

    SJUSD has been in conversations with the county about using school sites and nurses to administer vaccines; about 35 of its nurses have volunteered with the county as disaster services workers. 

    East San Jose has been hit hardest by COVID-19 as many families include essential workers. 

    ESUHSD Superintendent Chris Funk said social distancing high school students is impossible when they take six different classes a day. Funk, who writes an education column for this news organization, said in-person instruction will happen after all school employees — not just teachers — are vaccinated.

    More than 64% of ESUHSD parents and 79% of staff recently surveyed said they aren’t ready to return to classes.

    Prioritizing East San Jose

    Herrera-Loera said ARUSD wants all teachers and staff vaccinated before opening.

    “During the coronavirus pandemic, some schools opened and closed,” she said. “We want to open our schools and keep them open.”

    Maritza Maldonado, executive director at Amigos de Guadalupe, said teachers in East San Jose should be front of the vaccine line before schools fully reopen. 

    “It would have been nice for Good Samaritan to have called Alum Rock School District or East Side and said, ‘We know how hard the pandemic has hit East Side and we want to prioritize your teachers,’” she said, referring to a San José Spotlight report that revealed how Good Samaritan Hospital allowed staff at an affluent Los Gatos school district to cut the line by pretending to be health care workers. “Kids are falling further behind.”

    Maldonado’s husband, Stan Rose, an education leader, said he’s also concerned about the push to get kids back to school before safety measures are in place and everyone is vaccinated. 

    “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for one person dying because I ordered people back to school,” said Rose, a former superintendent for Santa Clara Unified School District. “As a superintendent, you definitely feel the weight of that and school boards do, too.

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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