Entrance to Mt. Carmel High School
Empty entrance to Mt. Carmel High School in Rancho Penasquitos. Courtesy Poway Unified School District

Despite the surprising, positive jobs number we saw for the month of May, San Diego’s economy remains far behind where it was only four months ago with our local unemployment rate much higher than the national average. This unemployment is causing tremendous hardship on local families who worry about the roof over their heads and food on their table.

The San Diego City Council’s rent assistance initiative is well-intended. But it is unsustainable and a drop in the bucket towards recovery if we can’t get the vast majority of the recently unemployed back to work. And we can’t get many people back to work if we can’t get our public schools physically open.

Not only does the current “distance learning” model fail so many of our children, particularly those with special needs, those with parents who are expected to work full-time, and those whose learning styles thrive in class, but distance learning prevents so many workers from returning to full-time employment.

Recent surveys of parents in both the San Diego Unified School District and Poway Unified School District validate the importance of getting our schools physically open. In Poway Unified, where my three children attend school, almost 60% of parents surveyed indicated they wanted students on campus only without any virtual option. Only 16% of parents supported the current model.

While indications are that COVID-19 is more forgiving on our children’s health, there remain many physically vulnerable children. And there is near consensus among the scientific community that COVID-19 can be transmitted by someone who is not showing any symptoms. So school districts and policy makers are rightfully concerned about how to create a safe environment for our children to learn.

With three months of local COVID-19 history behind us, we know it’s possible to create safe, indoor environments. But it certainly comes at a price tag. And for a number of reasons, our local schools currently do not have the funds to adequately protect our children on campuses unless there are deep cuts to other aspects of the education system.

This is why the City Council could have found no better place to spend federal CARES Act funds than on the public schools in the city. By failing to do so, the council missed an opportunity to ensure our kids get back to learning and our economy gets back to work.

With CARES Act funds, the schools could pay for the necessary sanitation and other safety protocols. The impact these funds would have on our children’s education is profound, enabling kids to once again learn in front of their teachers instead of their screens.

Joe Leventhal

And the resulting impact on our local economy from people having the physical ability to return to work cannot be overstated. Showing up is still an essential requirement for most jobs. And it simply isn’t an option to leave our children at home unattended.

It’s possible the city or county will receive additional CARES Act funds. If so, this proposal should be pursued. And funds should be allocated based on a per school basis and only to school districts committed to a full-time, on campus education for every student whose family wants one. That wouldn’t preclude providing an online or remote option for families that prefer it.

But we cannot have full employment in San Diego until we have fully functioning schools. Our leaders must make that a top priority.

Joe Leventhal is a business owner and former San Diego Ethics Commissioner who is running for election to the San Diego City Council in District 5.