There has been considerable pressure nationally and locally to reopen public schools, as many recognize that online teaching does not meet the educational needs for students who need to be working directly with teachers in classrooms.
Locally, there was a move to prepare to reopen on Jan. 25, 2021 – a date that the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) submitted to the county as its reopening date. But that proposal was canceled as the COVID-19 tsunami spread uncontrollably across the county and the state.
“Our plan is to reopen schools in phases beginning when our county is in the Orange tier of our state’s color-coded tracking system,” said OUSD Supt. Kyla Johnson-Trammell, in a December 14 letter to the community. “Alameda County and most of California being in the most restrictive Purple tier, and the coming holidays, (makes) it is highly unlikely that we will move into the Orange tier in time for the original proposed date.”
When and how schools can be reopened comes down to what steps are necessary to protect the entire school community: teachers and other school employees, parents and students and vulnerable adults who live with students and their families.
Recently, there have been many reports that allege without much evidence that the pandemic does not have a severe impact on children and schools.
But Florida data scientist Rebekeh Jones, writing in U.S. News & World Report on December 2, said that the data shows that “in-person classes contribute to the virus’ spread.”
In what some say was an attempt to silence her, Jones was fired in May by the Florida Department of Health after she helped create the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Jones said she lost her job after she refused requests to manipulate data to suggest Florida was ready to ease coronavirus restrictions. A spokesperson for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at the time that she “exhibited a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the department.”
On December 8, Florida state law enforcement agents raided Jones’ home with weapons drawn, carrying out a warrant as part of an investigation into an accusation that she sent an unauthorized e-mail message on a state communications system.
According to Jones, “Our database …showed there had been nearly 250,000 student and staff cases (of COVID) across the U.S. since Aug. 1…In our opinion, the data suggests schools are NOT safe and DO contribute to the spread of the virus – both within the schools and within their surrounding communities.”
Locally, teachers, members of the Oakland Education Association, say the schools will reopen when the science shows it is justified, based on what the public can learn from health experts rather than politicians and corporate communications’ departments.
On Monday, the union released on an online panel discussion on the safe reopening of schools. Besides a parent and a teacher leaders, speakers included Dr. Robert Harrison, MD, MPH, a clinical professor of medicine and associate director of the occupational environmental medical residency program at UC San Francisco Medical Center; and Theresa Pistochini, an engineer and manager at UC Davis Energy Efficiency Institute, who talked about the air quality measures needed to allow staff and students in school buildings.
In his remarks, Harrison said, “The (latest) surge is unprecedented. We are in the third wave of COVID-19… higher rates of positive cases, greater rates of hospitalization, and in the last (few) days, a record number of deaths across the country.”
To reopen the schools, he said, “We need to drive those (rates) down across California from Purple to Yellow, which is the safest tier.” These community efforts will lead to a path to “safely reopen schools,” he said.
“First and overarching is that we have to control community transmission,” Harrison said. “We have to look at schools as a workplace, but they are also a community,” he said, pointing out that the schools touch 20 million people in California, half of all the people in the state. “It’s bigger than just the teachers.”
To drive down community rates, we need to do what other countries have done, “a layered defense against the virus,” Harrison said. That means widespread testing, contact tracing, and financial support for families so they can afford to stay home if they are exposed to the virus.
Ventilation expert Pistochini talked about the need to take steps to improve indoor air quality.
“COVID-19 can be spread indoors through airborne transmission,” she said. “The virus can infect others who are more than six feet away in an enclosed space with inadequate ventilation.”
Though face coverings reduce the amount of particles that get into the air, “indoor respiratory aerosols can build and remain airborne potentially for hours,” she said.
These particles can be removed from the air, but that requires improved ventilation and filtration systems, expenses that may be difficult to handle for many school districts that are already trying to survive on austerity budgets.
Speaking at the end of the discussion, OEA President Keith Brown said, “This December we are experiencing some of the deadliest days in U.S. history, but I do feel we have a light at the end of the tunnel. But we cannot let our guard down prematurely.”
To watch the OEA-sponsored panel discussion, go to “What Does a Safe and Equitable School Re-Opening Look Like?” at /www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fKmL0tXRgs