But Newsom’s proposal, if approved by California’s legislators, won’t come close to achieving what he suggests. Dangling money to schools to reopen — and counting even a few hours per week as “open” — won’t restore children’s access to real education.
In the absence of leadership, the disaster of California’s school policy during the pandemic, which has been mirrored in many other states, is likely to continue through at least next fall and may haunt many children for a lifetime.
As a physician and director of covid response for the University of California at San Francisco’s emergency department, I have been part of the battle against this pandemic from the beginning. I have cared for covid patients in San Francisco and in the Navajo Nation, where I assisted the Indian Health Service with their first surge. I designed policies to prevent covid transmission between patients and staff while there was inadequate personal protective equipment and limited testing.
In short, I am not naive to the threats covid poses. And I fully supported Newsom’s early shelter-in-place order a year ago. I’m sure it saved tens of thousands of lives in California, and in neighboring Oregon and Washington when those governors followed suit.
California’s early success should have meant that our children would be among the first to return to in-person learning last year. That didn’t happen.
The first sign of how badly Newsom would bungle policy on schools came late last summer, when he let restaurants and bars reopen ahead of schools, sabotaging students’ chances of returning to in-person classes in September as case rates inevitably rose. Next, Newsom allowed individual counties to layer on additional and often arbitrary barriers to schools reopening, making children’s education captive to the whims of county health officers, who often delayed reopening under pressure from superintendents and union leaders.
So here we are, one year later. The landscape has changed. Infections are dropping. The vaccine rollout has begun. Policy decisions no longer need to be based on anxious speculation and imprecise data.
In January, researchers from Duke University published the largest and highest-quality data set to date: roughly 90,000 students and 10,000 staff members were monitored for nine weeks. Covid rates were spiraling out of control in the local communities, yet in these K-12 public schools, there were only 32 in-school transmissions (and none from student to teacher). Community prevalence would have predicted more than 800 cases. Why the difference? In the classrooms, everyone wore masks, plain and simple. Masks block covid transmission, and when kids and teachers are masked, they do not spread disease.
A similar smaller data set was recently released from Wisconsin: More than 5,000 students and staff over three months; seven in-school transmissions. Zero student to teacher transmissions. Masking again was the primary intervention.
In the past 12 months, countless children have suffered mentally and emotionally from the continuing isolation resulting from trying to do school from home. The Benioff Children’s Hospital of Oakland, part of the UCSF medical system, has seen a 66 percent increase in suicidal children in its emergency room, and a doubling of adolescents requiring hospitalizations for eating disorders in 2020 compared with 2019. There has been a 75 percent increase in children brought in for mental health services who require immediate hospitalization. And these statistics reflect only the most severe cases.
Parents and guardians are fed up with this rising harm to their children, and our governor is failing them. Newsom won’t risk alienating the teachers unions, which helps explain why the ballyhooed plan announced this week is so underwhelming. Because of California’s rigid policies linking community case rates to school reopening, most of the state’s schools do not even qualify for reopening. But when they do, there is no minimum requirement for in-person instruction to collect on Newsom’s cash incentives. In fact, many districts have already announced plans to offer just 90 minutes of instruction twice a week, beginning in April, and extending that paltry schedule into the fall, well beyond when all teachers are vaccinated.
One year ago, Newsom ordered school closures. If he believes that children have a right to public education, as mandated in California’s constitution, then he needs to act like it, and take one single, courageous step: Mandate the reopening of all California schools. It can be done safely. It can be done rapidly. And it is long overdue.