By Marni von Wilpert
Perhaps more than any other aspect of our day-to-day lives, the absence of physical campus education for our public school system is the biggest indicator of how much coronavirus has disrupted our lives.
High-schoolers trying to learn Chemistry. Teachers trying to keep kindergarteners engaged. Parents trying to teach math they haven’t seen since middle school. And all through a computer screen.
I am a proud product of San Diego’s public schools — as a Scripps Ranch High School graduate I know the value of a good education — and I support the safe reopening of our public schools.
Tragically, the failure of leadership in the federal administration to contain the virus has made it impossible to safely open schools on time and keep our kids, teachers, and school support staff safe and healthy. While other countries go back to something that resembles normal life, our families are left to fend for themselves. It’s unacceptable.
Emotions are running high, and rightfully so. Many parents can’t hold down jobs without children in school. Children’s social and emotional learning and well-being is suffering as a result of isolation during a period in their lives when they’re meant to be socializing. Public education is critically important. For all of these reasons and more, I too want our children to be able to return to school safely as soon as possible.
While I’m happy to see California’s curve flattening again, the coronavirus still a very real threat. I’ve heard from teachers and school staff from elementary schools to universities alike who are left wondering whether it’s safe to go back to their classrooms, and whether those calling for immediate re-opening of schools without the proper precautions in place are taking public health seriously.
Just last week, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill made it one week into the fall semester before immediately suspending plans for in-person instruction. During that first week, 130 students and five employees tested positive for the coronavirus, with the positivity rate on campus surging from just under 3% to nearly 14%. Administrators and hundreds of students are in isolation and quarantine. “It’s an experience that other large campuses should learn from,” Mimi Chapman, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, told reporters.
That’s why I believe decisions about reopening schools need to be made by local school district officials in consultation with public health officials, professional educators, and parents. As a City Councilwoman, I will facilitate a productive partnership between the city and our school districts, and I am honored to have the endorsements of Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff and Dr. John Lee Evans, presidents of the Poway and San Diego Unified School District Boards of Education.
While others pushed for a rushed schools reopening — even as COVID-19 surged — I’m supportive of the responsible, science-based approach San Diego Unified is taking. They’re working with UC San Diego on a reopening plan based on science to bring on-campus learning back in phases to protect public health. I’m encouraged that in-person instruction for special needs students and kids who have fallen behind is starting soon and that this responsible approach will help all our children come back to campus safely once coronavirus levels are under control.
While we are having this very necessary conversation as a city, state, and nation about school safety, let’s take the opportunity to rethink school health and safety in a comprehensive manner.
Let’s increase the use of gun violence restraining orders to get guns out of the hands of anyone who threatens violence at a school. Let’s fund after-school programs, parks, and libraries to give students a safe place to go after school. Let’s get homeless students housed so they can focus on their education and not worry about where they will sleep that night. Let’s work on public private partnerships to ensure every student has access to the internet.
As a Deputy City Attorney, I prosecute environmental polluters, protect consumer privacy, and crack down on scammers and price gougers trying to take advantage of our community with COVID-19 scams. I’m committed to keeping our schools and communities safe, not just from viruses, but from the many threats that challenge our students, teachers, staff, and families.
Let’s address all these issues head on so that when the virus is contained, we can reopen schools where safety and health are the foundation of providing education.
If we’re going to focus on school safety, let’s do it right. Our families deserve it.
Marni von Wilpert is a civil prosecutor in the San Diego City Attorney’s Office. She is a candidate for District 5 on the San Diego City Council in November.
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