Opinion: Forcing teachers back into the classroom is a huge demand

Antoinette Bailey leads a class via Zoom with her art students at Millikan High School in Long Beach on Feb. 19.
(Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. Teachers are finally moving up in California’s vaccine priority line. With that in mind, let’s take a look back at the week in Opinion.

Vaccinating a certain portion of teachers and staff has been a sticking point for reopening public schools in Los Angeles County and other areas of California hit hard by COVID-19, and the state’s plan to earmark a percentage of vaccine doses for educators starting next month won’t do much to hasten the return of classroom instruction. Still, pressure to restart on-campus learning, especially in places where public schools remain closed and private schools are open, greatly increased earlier this week when Los Angeles County announced all elementary students could return to the classroom with precautions, because the overall case rate was low enough.

The Times Editorial Board started calling for local schools to reopen two weeks ago, citing assurances by Gov. Gavin Newsom and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that on-campus disease transmission was low enough to be an acceptable risk, especially when weighed against the serious adverse consequences of keeping kids at home. After the county’s reopening announcement, the editorial board expressed its impatience with the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers unions, pointedly telling Supt. Austin Beutner to put on his “big-boy pants” and order classrooms reopened.

And what do teachers think? Today, as The Times’ letters editor, I handed over an entire page of the newspaper for educators to explain why so many still resist returning to campus. I have three children who have not seen the inside of a classroom since last March; their wellbeing is clearly not served by them continuing to interact with their teachers and peers on a screen. Still, the teachers’ explanations came across as reasonable and grounded in the public health messaging that we’ve all heard since the pandemic upended our society. This is what I wrote in the introduction to the letters:


“Teachers are gravely worried about being forced back into the classroom while transmission is still considered widespread. The reasons given reflect the public health messaging from the experts who are now assuring teachers that it may be OK to reopen schools: Social distancing isn’t practical in a classroom setting, enforcing mask rules will be problematic, and teachers risk bringing any infection from their students’ homes into their own.

“Generally, school-age children belong in the classroom — this was beyond dispute before the pandemic, and in the last 11 months parents have become more reverent of this truth. But whether kids belong in a classroom under the care of educators who are frightened for their lives may be another matter. At the very least, reading these letters should make one thing clear about sending unvaccinated teachers back onto campus during a pandemic: It is a big ask.”

What does the Biden administration even want with schools? The White House has set clear goals on COVID-19 vaccine distribution, met them and then set higher goals. Would that it were doing the same on schools, writes The Times’ editorial board: “The federal government isn’t in a position to order schools reopened, but it can provide clear, consistent guidelines, updated to reflect new findings as we go along. In his statement this week, Biden pledged to adhere to the science, not the politics, of when and how to reopen schools. That would be a good place to start.” L.A. Times

Vaccine hesitancy is common among Black healthcare workers, and this is one way to resolve it: Have conversations with them acknowledging the past mistakes and the present-day racism of the medical profession, and provide opportunities for them to be heard out by trusted messengers, say Drs. Florencia Greer Polite, Eugenia C. South, Abike T. James and Nwamaka D. Eneanya. “Black physician leaders have a vital role to play in the efforts to overcome legacies of mistrust by leveraging our scientific knowledge base, teaching skills and concern for our community,” they write. “Our Black staff needs to hear from Black experts. The unfortunate reality is that there are too few of us in medicine, underscoring the importance of efforts to diversify the physician workforce.” L.A. Times

Oh, dear. I wish I could just leave it at that, but this is a newsletter, and newsletters link to articles that are the target of critical punditry, so here: New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman compared the deer in his yard to the public school leaders in San Francisco — which, as you’ve probably heard by now, are renaming a few dozen of their campuses — and made a moral comparison between those excitable leftists and the openly fascistic denizens of former President Trump’s Republican Party. And by the way, the looming threat of nuclear holocaust did a lot of good for American unity. Like I said, oh, dear. New York Times

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Some good news on California’s high-speed rail project: U.S. Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno is proposing a bill to provide $32 billion in federal funding for bullet train construction, a boost amid optimism that Democrats’ control of the Senate and the train-friendly Biden White House may ensure completion of the high-speed rail system. Here’s a positive assessment you don’t read often: “The takeaway is that 220-mph HSR trains should be running from Los Angeles to San Francisco as early as 2033, with intermediate services starting sooner in phases as more and more sections are completed. The first bullet trains will start running on the Central Valley spine, with direct low-speed rail connections to Sacramento and the Bay Area, in 2029.” Streetsblog California

Without vaccine priority for college students, fall campus life is in danger. Jennifer Mnookin and Eileen Strempel of UCLA warn that Zoom school may return next fall without some special consideration for college students now: “Unless we commit to give college students vaccine access before fall terms begin, many will have to continue their educations in their childhood bedrooms, at local coffee shops and who knows where else. Some will opt out of college, perhaps forever. Without timely, more complete vaccination, higher education will remain a shadow of itself.” L.A. Times

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