Commentary: Notes on reopening schools from a pastor and a parent

A caravan travels through a parking lot protesting in-person school opening in Costa Mesa.
A caravan to protest in-person school opening in the parking lot outside the Newport Mesa Federation of Teachers headquarters in Costa Mesa.
(Rev. Dr. Sarah Halverson-Cano


On any normal Sunday I’d be preaching, and for 14 years I did that from the corner of Fair Drive and Fairview Road at Fairview Community Church. However, this Sunday my pulpit was in a parking lot.

How fortunate that I am in transition as I conclude my ministry at Fairview before beginning ministry at Irvine United Congregational Church, because it meant I could spend my sabbath Sunday morning with our community. While I’ve spent much of my ministry in solidarity with those seeking justice, this time I wasn’t just advocating for others, because I myself am affected by the district’s decision to return to in-classroom learning.

My daughter is in kindergarten at Whittier Elementary school in the bilingual immersion program. I have witnessed the incredible dedication of her teachers, as they have pivoted, enacted creative teaching and learned new technology with great attitudes every day as they maneuver this difficult beginning to a new school year. I am impressed at how well they engage students and the fact that our kids actually are learning.

However, I’m frustrated because there has been a consistent lack of information from the school district. Just before school went in session we were given a short amount of time to decide whether or not we would send our kids to a “cloud school” or a hybrid program. We had very few details about the hybrid program but were told that if we chose the online option it would be for the entire year. Unfortunately, there was no dual immersion option for the cloud school, so we only had one option

Now we’re told our kids are heading back. I’m filled with questions and don’t feel like we have adequate answers. Once again we have not gotten enough information and I feel incredibly worried about sending my daughter to school. I am fearful not only for her sake, but for the sake of the teachers and employees, their families and the other students and their families. This affects our entire community.

Clearly, I’m not the only one fearful and frustrated by a hasty decision to quickly get kids back in the classroom. There were 250 cars participating in a safe caravan throughout our community to raise awareness about this public safety issue. While we were met with some jeers and name-calling, we were overwhelmingly encouraged by the support within our neighborhoods: Our community wants to ensure the most vulnerable among us are safe, and that starts with our children.

The reality is that the virus is more prevalent in our community than it was when we shut down last spring. We’re more at risk of sharing it. Children can get the virus and spread it. In our own community we have seen adults incapable of keeping a 6-foot distance while refusing to wear a mask. How can we expect children to do this? (And my child’s age group is not mandated to wear a mask — putting everyone even more at risk.)

It’s time for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District to do what it asks kids to do: their homework. Please watch the numbers in Orange County and wait. Put together a plan and convey it to teachers, parents and students. You have been entrusted with the most sacred of tasks: to care for our children. All we ask is that you do it with intention, do it carefully and put the safety of our community first.

Look, none of us like the situation. Many of us are struggling to find childcare for our kids and are stretched thin trying to make this work. But as much as I hate it, I hate the idea that putting kids, teachers and staff back in a classroom without a comprehensive plan could mean that more people in our community will get sick and die.

Please, NMUSD school board, listen to the overwhelming number of parents and teachers who simply ask you to wait, answer all of our questions, and don’t make our kids the guinea pigs.

Rev. Dr. Sarah Halverson-Cano is senior pastor at Fairview Community Church in Costa Mesa.

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