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Opinion: Forcing California schools to reopen burdens teachers, minority communities

California’s decision to reopen schools demonstrated a complete failure to take into account the opinions of the teachers and students most affected by the decision, placing staff and minority students alike at risk. Moving forward, teacher input needs to be taken into greater account before decisions are made. (Lauren Man/Assistant Photo editor)

By Ashley Leung

May 8, 2021 5:33 p.m.

When it comes to the topic of reopening schools, teachers should be the leading voices in the room.

But as it stands, California’s legislators have barely paid any attention to them.

In response to the pressure of reopening public K-12 schools by Gov. Gavin Newsom, five California teachers unions presented a written plan Feb. 3 with several requisites for reopening classrooms.

Key requests in the plan include vaccination opportunities for all in-person school employees, elevated safety and hygiene standards in schools and reopening only when the school’s county is in the red, orange or yellow tier given that all listed mitigation strategies are in place.

On March 1, Newsom set a one-month deadline for California K-2 classrooms to reopen if they want their share of the $2 billion fund used to incentivize school districts to reopen.

Although all California residents 16 and older can now get vaccinated and schools have access to a $4.6 billion one-time fund to help students who have fallen behind during remote learning, California is still far from meeting the valid demands of its teachers unions.

To prevent the “yo-yo effect” of reopening and closing schools because of insufficient safety measures, California must prioritize the fulfillment of all the requirements — especially those related to classroom resources and quality — listed in the teachers unions’s plan over the reopening of schools. As desirable as the permanent reopening of K-12 public schools is for many, the state must acknowledge the necessary amount of time, funding and planning that is required to achieve this goal.

Otherwise, it will place the lives of teachers and students at risk.

Jesenia Chavez, a K-1st grade teacher at the UCLA Community School, said that many of her students’ parents work in restaurants, health care and other high-risk occupations, which increases the chances of students spreading the virus in classrooms.

Not only are older teachers more at risk, but many teachers also take care of their elderly parents, Chavez added. Therefore, solely vaccinating all teachers is necessary but not sufficient.

“Even if we vaccinate teachers, we’re not protecting students and parents,” said Kirti Baranwal, a 2nd-3rd grade teacher at the UCLA Community School.

As of May 8, there are 44.0% of Californians fully vaccinated and 17.6% partially vaccinated, which shows that we still need to wait longer before most people (excluding those under 16) are fully vaccinated.

That hasn’t stopped Los Angeles from reopening its schools. April 13 marked the first day the LA Unified School District opened some of its classrooms to students since the pandemic began. While there are safety measures like upgraded air filtration systems and socially distanced desks in place, less than half of families said they want to send their kids back.

It also doesn’t help that minority communities have shouldered the disproportionate burden of the COVID-19 pandemic.

People in Latino and Black communities are around two times as likely to die and three times as likely to be hospitalized than people in white communities.

“So when we’re thinking about low-income communities of color, I just feel like it’s really neglectful and racist and classist to continue insisting schools open right now,” Baranwal said.

Many schools, especially those that are underfunded, work with overpopulated classrooms and would require much more funding for additional staff and safety supplies, Baranwal added.

But not all schools have extra money lying around.

Before the pandemic, many teachers in public schools, including those at the UCLA Community School, had to buy school supplies, tissues, hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes with their own money, and there were even times when the bathrooms didn’t have soap, Baranwal said.

With reopenings already happening, it’s imperative for schools to use the $4.6 billion fund to implement proper safety measures like testing, cleaning and social distancing.

Ron Avi Astor, a social welfare professor, said schools have lost track of many students during the pandemic because of homelessness or relocation. Missing out on an entire year’s worth of learning requires more time and money spent on school and community support, such as social workers, psychologists and counselors, Astor added.

The push for schools to reopen is a result of the negative mental health impacts and reduced learning quality caused by remote learning. The academic year length decreased by about a third, according to Economic Policy Institute, which impacted students’ performance advancement.

While these are important consequences California must address, rushing the reopening of schools before implementing basic safety measures is not the ideal solution – even if students have the option to continue remote learning.

The reopening of schools also calls for a smaller student-to-teacher ratio, which magnifies California’s teacher shortages. Lackluster support for aspiring teachers and excessive workload have pushed many teachers to leave the profession, which is something the field can’t afford.

The COVID-19 pandemic has unveiled both the importance of in-person learning and the inequities present in the public school system. If we truly value the role of education in child development, then we must exhibit the same appreciation in our funding of schools and treatment of teachers.

Let this pandemic be a wake-up call for all of us.

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