The pressure is mounting across the country for schools to reopen.
The Federal Government has provided financial resources to schools to help pay for the personal protective equipment needed to provide a safe environment for employees and students to return. Gov. Gavin Newsom presented a financial incentive in his January budget proposal for schools to reopen by Feb. 1. That proposal has lost steam as it needed the Legislature to act to approve the budget to fund the proposal.
Rochelle Walensky, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), announced that vaccinations are not a prerequisite for reopening schools. This is her opinion based on recent data; however, it is not the official policy from CDC.
The argument for reopening schools stems around teachers being vaccinated. People forget that schools are little cities and employ not only teachers, but counselors, secretaries, custodians, child nutrition workers and a host of other support staff and community based organizations.
With community spread, the question is not about contracting COVID-19 while in stable cohorts at school (which is much easier to accomplish in the primary grades), it is about what happens when individuals leave school and attend after school programs, family functions, etc.
When I talk about reopening our schools in the East Side, it is about all school employees having access to vaccines. You cannot reopen schools with just teachers.
Vaccine supply is critical. Until the federal and state governments are able to have vaccine supply lines running seamlessly, educators will be struggling to schedule vaccine appointments, which will be similar to the scheduling difficulties encountered by people over the age of 65.
On Feb. 2, Kaiser announced they canceled 5,000 appointments, which included my parents who are in their eighties. The supply line and the criteria for vaccine eligibility has been a complete disaster. Yet, the cry to reopen schools before educators are vaccinated grows stronger.
Schools are not like grocery stores or restaurants with outdoor dining; those workers are not exposed to a group of individuals for six hours per day in a confined, indoor setting. Most people are in and out of the grocery stores quickly during this pandemic and restaurant dining is outdoors.
The other argument is that since the vaccines that have emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration are for people 16 years and older, it is critical to provide testing for students in order to track the virus in our schools.
Until there is an over-the-counter COVID-19 test that is widely accessible for testing at home, there is no way to provide weekly testing to our students. How would we test 22,500 students in ESUHSD? How could we afford to do that? We currently have a contract for $1.9 million to test up to 3,000 staff members on a weekly basis. The funds and the testing capacity are just not there for schools to test students.
Therefore, without the ability to test students, we must be able to have all our workforce in our district vaccinated before we can reopen our schools and get back to some sense of normalcy.
Our goal has always been to get back to in-person instruction as soon as possible. Based on current conditions, following the Santa Clara County Public Health Department Reopening Schools Framework and the lack of widely accessible vaccines, ESUHSD will continue to follow our current plan Phase 2 and Phase 3.
We continue to provide in-person support for our most underserved populations, which include but are not limited to students who have special needs, foster youth, McKinney-Vento (homeless youth) and our short-term English learners. We also provide support for students who do not have broadband and/or a safe and quiet place to study. Additionally, we offer in-person support for tutoring, mental health and college guidance support.
To provide the best safety in reopening schools, all school personnel need to get vaccinated, and we all need to continue to wear a mask and minimize social gathering.
San José Spotlight columnist Chris Funk is the superintendent of the East Side Union High School District. His columns appear every third Monday of the month. Contact Chris at [email protected] or follow @chrisfunksupt on Twitter.