Why San Jose schools aren’t opening for the rest of the year
Steffanie White, a fifth-grade teacher at Washington Elementary School, protested outside of San José Unified School District this summer when the district was considering reopening campuses. Photo by Katie Lauer.

    Saying they are ill equipped to take on the burden of testing students for COVID-19, San Jose officials extended distance learning through the end of December — and may not reopen classes until 2021.

    San Jose Unified School District Superintendent Nancy Albarrán said there are now more COVID-19 cases than in March when schools first closed, especially in San Jose. As of Sept. 16, Santa Clara County recorded 19,683 cases of COVID-19 and 288 deaths.

    Currently, schools are responsible for testing students and staff, in addition to contact tracing. But Albarrán said the district doesn’t have adequate funding or staff to source the quantity of tests that would be required or provide contact tracing for positive cases.

    SJUSD spokesperson Jennifer Maddox said testing by large health care providers needs to be ramped up and contact tracing is the realm of the county.

    “I don’t think anyone realistically anticipated school districts would be able to handle the burden of testing,” Maddox said. “We can provide devices, instruction, online classrooms, connect people to the internet and provide meals service. But when we start to reach into testing for a pandemic, it goes beyond our capabilities and expertise.”

    To reach its decision to extend online learning through December, the school district considered feedback from a survey, negotiations with labor groups, discussions with health officials and county data on viral transmission.

    About 60% of survey respondents preferred a plan that would remain consistent through at least the end of the semester in December.

    “We know that consistency is critical to our families,” said Jodi Lax, associate superintendent of instruction. “We absolutely recognize that in-person learning is the ideal experience for students and teachers and want to welcome students back to campuses when it is safe to do so.”

    Parent Holly Case said she wasn’t surprised with the school district’s decision and that schools don’t have enough space or manpower to open during the pandemic.

    Case said she prefers her teenage daughter continue with distance learning safely at home but couldn’t imagine how hard it would be if she had a young child and had to juggle helping her with schoolwork while working.

    According to the California School Sector Specific Guidelines and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, schools may reopen for in-person instruction if they are in a local health jurisdiction that has not been on the county monitoring list within the prior 14 days.

    The school district was confused by the county’s prohibition on activities such as indoor dining, movies and gatherings while allowing K-12 schools to reopen without clear guidelines.

    “It’s hard to reconcile that indoor gatherings aren’t safe but having 30 children in the classroom is,” Maddox said.

    Maddox said the state hasn’t increased funding enough to account for the reduced class sizes and additional staff and cleaning service returning to school during the pandemic would require. She also doubts the district would be able to procure enough COVID-19 tests as they’re difficult for even health care providers to get.

    The district assured families they could choose distance learning even if in-person instruction is offered, Maddox said.

    About 40% of parents said they preferred distance learning in the district’s most recent survey.

    “It will depend on how much progress we can make in the next couple of months whether or not we can safely reopen in the new year,” Maddox said. “The other challenge is that we’ve seen some districts start to open and in the first week or two they get a positive case and the whole thing shuts down.”

    In addition, because of upcoming holidays and the likelihood of people traveling in and out of the county, Maddox said it didn’t make sense to open now.

    “We are extremely disappointed that we don’t feel we can safely bring students back at this point,” she said. “We know in-person learning is best for our students and especially those with special needs. It’s difficult for them to succeed with distance learning. But we do feel it’s the right decision for our community at this time. We hope conditions in the county continue to improve so we can welcome students back in 2021.”

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].

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