Many Schools Are Open But Proposed Legislation Would Set Them Back

As we approach a full year since California schools shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19, parents are wondering when their children will ever see a classroom again. As families raise their voices, the governor and the majority leadership in the Legislature have released competing plans to reopen schools.  

Getting kids back in school is vital, but both plans ignore one little-known fact:  Many schools in California are already holding classes in person. And, far from helping, both plans would hinder these schools from continuing to provide safe, in-person instruction.

While most California students have been learning remotely this school year, many school districts are open, especially in rural areas, according to data recently released by the California Department of Public Health. In the northeastern California counties that we represent, a majority of schools have consistently been open, many operating on full-time schedules and doing so successfully since August.

These schools and their committed faculty have risen to the occasion to provide safe, in-person instruction. Some did it because distance learning was impossible due to lack of broadband access, while some were simply committed to doing the essential work of public education.  

Overwhelmingly, with schools following the previous state guidance and working closely with county health officers, contact-tracing has indicated minimal if any transmission of COVID-19 on campuses. Districts have worked closely with their labor partners to handle employee safety concerns, and overwhelmingly their teachers want to continue working in a traditional classroom setting. 

Due to the dedication of these school administrators and teachers, children who were learning under the strain of prolonged isolation last spring have time with their peers and teachers, and a sense of normalcy in this difficult year. Because schools are open, children who might otherwise slip through the cracks with distance-learning and limited access to broadband have consistent interaction with caring teachers to keep them on track.

And, if it might have seemed like a risk to open a school in August of 2020, six months later it is clear that with solid protocols in place — masks, class cohorts, extra cleaning, contact-tracing and quarantines when needed — school is safe. 

Health officers overwhelmingly agree that schools are not driving outbreaks. Marin and Shasta counties are prime examples of success, as their schools have largely been open and they were both among the first counties to move out of the “purple” tier.  If schools were spreading COVID-19, this wouldn’t have been feasible. 

These school districts have done hard work and deserve to be celebrated. Unfortunately, in the push to help other schools open, the governor and Assembly Bill 86 in its current form promise much-needed funding while tying it to unworkable guidelines that would force open schools to close and go back to the drawing board. 

These schools need the funding desperately but ought to be exempt from the red tape. Why set back schools that are currently providing much-needed stability to our students? We propose amendments to AB 86 that would do just that — support schools that have been open and also provide the resources all schools need to provide safe, in-person instruction. 

If convincing the adults in the education system to get back in the classroom requires extra safety steps, fine. But at a minimum, schools that have reopened safely within existing guidelines should be grandfathered in to any deal that is struck between the governor and the Legislature.

Leave the schools alone to do what they’ve done well, in partnership with their local health officers. And if the state pushes new money toward schools for reopening, it shouldn’t be at the expense of open schools, which arguably are most in need of financial support since they’ve been doing the hard work since August.

As Californians, we should applaud the educators who’ve found a way to do their essential work and make life as normal as possible for their students. And if we can’t do that, we can at least get out of their way.

State Sen. Brian Dahle has also written about how California’s mixed messages on COVID-19 create confusion. Assemblymember Megan Dahle has also written about the unequal distribution of relief funds to small California counties and that wildfire prevention deserves continuous funding.