San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo says that California has committed billions of dollars to help schools safely re-open, but we see little progress in bringing children back to classrooms. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)
Throughout this pandemic, we have been urged to “follow the science.” The medical experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, U.S. Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Rochelle Wollensky, and top California Department of Public Health officials have roundly concluded that schools — particularly elementary schools — can safely reopen without vaccinating teachers.
Research conducted internationally and throughout the United States consistently reveals dramatically lower infection rates among young children in congregate settings — without increasing infection rates among teachers or child care providers. When many California public charter and private schools opened months ago, California’s top health official found no increase in viral transmission from their reopening.
Science hasn’t guided school re-opening decisions, unfortunately; politics has. Politics opened bars, card clubs and marijuana dispensaries over the past year while closing our schools and stranding our students — with children from our poorest families suffering most severely.
Gov. Gavin Newsom committed billions of dollars to help schools safely re-open — to reduce class sizes, provide masks and face shields, expand testing and improve classroom ventilation. Yet we see little progress in bringing children back to class — and none among San Jose’s 19 districts — even as we emerge from the purple tier to less restrictive tiers in the weeks ahead.
As chair of California’s Big City Mayors’ Coalition, I joined 10 other mayors in urging the state to pair a commitment to vaccinate teachers with a re-opening mandate. Last week’s legislative proposal — upping the ante for school testing and safety spending to $6.6 billion — still doesn’t require a single school to open. The governor responded that their proposal “doesn’t go far enough or fast enough” and committed to prioritize teachers for vaccination in March. Unfortunately, there’s still no commitment from districts to open their school doors.
We must do better. We need to open our schools much sooner — safely — and we don’t need to wait for Sacramento. If teachers’ fears persist, then Bay Area counties can accelerate vaccinations of school staff — on the specified condition those schools open upon vaccination. Several counties have expanded vaccinations to include teachers, but they must get in line with marijuana delivery drivers and 5.9 million other “essential workers” in California.
Instead, Bay Area counties should double-down on the governor’s accelerated vaccination of teachers but take a more strategic approach: Commit to prioritize vaccinating every staff member of those schools committed to opening immediately, following three principles:
• First, start where it’s safest, by prioritizing preschools and elementary schools. Extensive evidence of dramatically lower rates of virus transmission and illness among school-attending children under 10 years of age also shows they’re much less likely to transmit coronavirus to adults.
• Second, focus on equity, and prioritize schools serving our poorest children. Multiple studies show that remote learning most severely disadvantages our students from our lowest-income families — assuming they have internet access to learn at all. In San Jose, we have confronted the digital divide by investing $10 million to provide free internet connectivity to more than 100,000 students and residents and creating learning pods for children of essential workers. Yet shuttered schools create unmitigable gaps, depriving poor children of such critical needs as school-provided nutrition programs, health screenings, mental health, immunizations, special needs support, counseling and mandated abuse-reporting. This says nothing about forcing thousands of financially struggling parents to stay home from work.
• Third, we can avoid putting anyone unwillingly at risk. Teachers with pre-existing conditions can continue to teach remotely, serving the many kids whose parents feel hesitant about their return to class. Nor do we need to push anyone to the back of the vaccination line; the staff of 50 elementary schools would consume less than 2% of last week’s doses in Santa Clara County — but would immediately benefit tens of thousands of struggling families.
We can do this — opening our schools, restoring student learning and keeping teachers safe — if we’re working together. Thousands of our families desperately urge us to do so; in only 36 hours, more than 2,000 San Jose residents signed an online petition saying as much.
When our children read the history of this pandemic, they will read how our most vulnerable children and families suffered largely avoidable, lifelong harm through school closures. Yet in the debate over school re-openings, we hear only the voices of adults. Our struggling children should not forgive us if we fail to hear theirs.
Sam Liccardo is mayor of San Jose.