Photo: John Fensterwald/EdSourcePhoto: John Fensterwald/EdSourceLinda Darling-HammondMay 4, 2020Every California parent, student and educator wants to know when schools will reopen, and for good reason. Children want to be with their teachers and friends. Educators, too, miss their students and want to see them in person again. And parents who are struggling to teach their children while worrying about the economy want and need to get back to work.
So, when will schools physically reopen? With Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement Monday that the state is getting ready to modify certain statewide stay-at-home orders, this question is now top of mind.
As he has in the past, Gov. Newsom emphasized that safety is the prime consideration in easing restrictions. “We’ll get through this,” he said, “but we have to do it together and we have to do it through the prism of public health.”
With encouraging data on hospitalizations, testing capacity and a new plan for contact tracing, the governor said bookstores, florists, clothing stores and other shops may reopen for purchase pick-ups on Friday. Manufacturing and other job sectors related to those retail operations can also start back up with proper safety protocols in place, he said. Counties with few Covid-19 cases can gear up even more businesses if local health officials sign on.
The gradual reopening of workplaces means the gradual return to work for parents. This will put pressure on schools to reopen. Also, there is urgency to address potential learning gaps created by the suspension of in-person instruction this spring. We know that distance learning had an uneven rollout early on in the shutdown. Even now, despite huge efforts by many districts and real progress, we have not yet closed the digital divide for thousands of students.
With this in mind, Governor Newsom last week suggested that some districts might head “back to school” as early as late July or early August.
That comment prompted a flurry of speculation and phone calls from parents and educators to local districts. Lost in the moment, however, was the list of conditions Governor Newsom spelled out that the state would need to meet before stay-at-home orders for schools are modified, conditions that were repeated on Monday.
First, there are the administrations’ six safety “indicators.” For an indicator to move from red light to green, the state must have the capacity to:
Monitor and protect our communities through testing, contact tracing, isolating, and supporting those who test positive or have been exposed;
Prevent infection in people who are at risk for more severe Covid-19;
Handle hospital and health system surges;
Develop therapies to meet the demand;
Support businesses, schools, and child care facilities in physical distancing; and
Develop a process for determining when to re-institute certain measures, such as the stay-at-home orders, if necessary.
In addition, there are stages to the modification of stay-at-home orders. We’re currently in Stage 1. Considerations for reopening lower-risk workplaces in Stage 2 include:
Hospitalization and ICU trends stabilize
Hospital surge capacity to meet demand
Sufficient supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) to meet demand
Sufficient testing capacity to meet demand
Contact tracing capacity statewide
We see progress across the board. As of this week, hospitalization and ICU trends appear to have stabilized. The administration has been working diligently to expand hospital surge capacity and assure an adequate supply of PPE, with an increasing supply flowing from major contracts that have been publicly announced. The May 1 testing goal of 25,000 tests per day has been achieved. And on Monday, the governor announced a partnership with UCSF and UCLA to train 20,000 individuals to bolster the existing contact tracing workforce.
Because of these efforts, some regions will be in a position to move, at least partially, to Stage 2 as early as this Friday. Even then, the focus will be on certain retail, manufacturing, and logistics businesses — not all businesses designated as Stage 2.
The combination of indicators, stages, and metrics may be hard to follow. But managing California through this pandemic is a complex problem demanding a nuanced solution. Cutting to the chase: the administration will be guided by public health data and the safety of Californians, accounting for local realities and prerogatives.
Based on those local realities, districts that want to offer summer school options may be able to do so and some that have discussed an earlier start to the school year for at least some students may have that opportunity.
To support the safety of children and adults, schools will likely operate quite differently. Looking at the contexts in other countries that have maintained or re-opened school successfully, we see a range of approaches to physical distancing and hygiene, as well as checking symptoms and tracing cases daily so that staff or students who have been exposed can stay home.
These steps help keep everyone safe. They also require us to fully close the digital divide so that all students and staff have the computers and connectivity for distance learning, which will be an ongoing need — both to enable students and staff to step out of physical school when there is a need to isolate and to be prepared for additional closures in case of a recurrence of Covid-19.
While thinking about changes to the physical school environment, we cannot ignore the changes to instruction and supports to address the effects of trauma, narrow gaps and remove learning obstacles for those most hard hit. All of these things will demand both creativity — which California’s educators have in abundance — and funding, which is a much bigger challenge.
It will be essential that we deploy the federal CARES Act dollars that should be landing shortly to support these needs and that we work with our representatives in Washington to support a larger allocation for education in the next recovery act that is under construction now.
As we have seen over these last two months, schools are the heartbeats of their communities: feeding children, supporting families, and, soon, working to get students back together and parents back to work. There can be no more important social mission than supporting education to support our communities as we figure out how to get back to school.
Linda Darling-Hammond is president of the State Board of Education in California. She is also professor Emeritus at Stanford University and president of the Learning Policy Institute.
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