A classroom at Birney Elementary School in the San Diego in better times. Image courtesy San Diego Unified

President Trump wants all schools open. He threatens to withhold funds.

Then he changes his mind: “The president has said that he’s willing to consider additional aid in order to help reopen the schools.”

Education Secretary Betty DeVos wants all schools open. She, too, threatens to withhold funds.

Then she changes her mind and says she was misunderstood.

The American Academy of Pediatrics urges officials to reopen schools this fall and allow children to be physically present in classrooms despite a surge in coronavirus cases across the country.

Then they, too, punt. Ultimately it is up to the local conditions in each community.

The San Diego Unified School District has announced that all campuses will remain closed when the district resumes classes Aug. 31, with all courses offered online only.

This is great for the students and parents who have mastered online learning and have a computer and fast Internet connection. It’s not so great for those without.

Currently, teachers unions across the country are balking at in-person classes, preferring a “safe” all-remote learning curriculum.

Teachers and staff get infected, too. They worry about their exposure. School involves lots of people coming from different environs, potentially bringing the COVID-19 virus onto the halls of academe.

No misunderstanding there. But, these schools all need more funding.

Some have actually received it. Guess which school received the most PPP funding in San Diego?

The elite, private ones, of course.  You know, the ones in the richest neighborhoods, with the most expensive tuition. An of course DeVos’s personal pets, charter schools.

Bravo to them. Their students may already enjoy in-person instruction with state-of-the-art computers for robotics and STEM learning. And they are blessed with beautiful campuses, small class sizes and the best of athletic and academic experiences.

But what about the poorer, inner-city schools? Those without the wherewithal to provide the equipment, shield protectors, masks, hand sanitizing stations, extra maintenance and cleaning staff, plus smaller class sizes and better ventilation in classrooms for in-person instruction?

Those which do not have the luxury of a nearby library, safe park, swimming pool or clean streets?

What about those families who look to their local school as a lifeboat for student lunches, immunizations, eye exams, and hearing tests? As well as a refuge from street crime? Must they be left further behind?

If racism, sexism, economic disparity, ill-health, ignorance and food deserts are to be addressed, how can we ignore these neighborhoods?

As the principal of St. Rita’s Catholic School in inner-city San Diego wrote in a fundraising plea, “The new school year brings several uncertainties and unexpected costs.”

“We are estimated to spend $10,000 on sneeze guards for our students’ desks, $1,500 on sanitizing devices, and $1,000 on hand-washing stations throughout the school.”

That does not count the loss of $62,371 from unpaid tuition due to loss of parents’ jobs and family income. 60% of St. Rita’s students are already on tuition assistance. Applicants are increasing now.

Meanwhile, California and Oregon are entering another lockdown phase as the number of COVID-19 infections is surging.

Open. Then shut. COVID-19 could linger for years. Much like the Fukushima nuclear disaster, we shut down “safely,” but not fast enough to open again.

That plant was still spewing radiation, nearly three months after an earthquake and tsunami knocked out its cooling systems, triggering explosions.

But, remember those Japanese pensioners who volunteered to enter the highly radioactive plant to help shut it down?

They were retired engineers, other professionals and even a cook.  They called themselves the “Skilled Veterans Corps.”

For them, the decision was easy. They, not the young, should face the radiation.

“Most Japanese have this feeling in their heart,” said their leader. “The question is whether you step forward, or you stay behind and watch.”

They stepped forward.

Might some retired teachers be willing to step forward to help? Some parents, neighbors, staff? San Diegans have always been generous and wise.

Should we push to open the schools or wait for more funding and time? For another semester? Or another year for everything to be “safe” enough?

Serious questions — and no open and shut case.

Colleen O’Connor is a native San Diegan and a retired college professor.

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