A student gets on a bus after attending a two-hour session at Lafayette Elementary School in Clairemont. Photo by Chris Stone

When people complain about the apparent lack of empathy and grace from parents in North County who are calling for schools to reopen, it’s hard to be patient. An explanation may provide a better understanding of the growing outrage in our community. 

As a preface and to be fair, we acknowledge the other side of the argument. COVID is real and the county is in the purple tier. Teachers are afraid to get COVID, and they fear returning to school puts them or loved ones at high risk.

Some teachers don’t believe the schools can be made safe enough right now. They don’t want to contribute to community spread and err on the side of an abundance of caution when considering evidence to the contrary. Other teachers want to wait for a vaccine to eliminate risk. Many teachers are convinced students are doing fine online and will recover when conditions are safe enough to reopen.

We have heard you loud and clear, and we truly understand your concerns. 

What follows is in no way a personal attack on parents or teachers. It is a heartfelt — and yes, exasperated — depiction of the course of events from the perspective of parents who are helplessly watching their once happy and successful children crumble from the inside out because they are being deprived of an education and the developmental experiences they need at a critical time of their lives. The stories of families grappling with the impacts of long-term school closures are sad, poignant, distressing and even tragic. 

Let’s start from the beginning. Hang on because it might get turbulent. 

There was tremendous compassion for teachers this spring related to the challenges of pivoting to distance learning. Empathy for teachers and staff was on full display. Parents were grateful for teachers’ efforts in spite of school closures.

Most parents were empathetic through the summer. They volunteered to participate on committees and offered countless creative ideas for on campus activities that would restore some, if not all, of what is expected from a public school education. Distance learning was never intended to be a long-term solution or to become the new learning model, but parents were willing to try for the good of the order. 

As September rolled on, independent schools in North County, some public schools in the state, and many schools across the country, successfully opened to on-campus instruction. Parents were understandably frustrated their children remained isolated and with no choice but to continue distance learning while even outdoor competitive sports were cancelled.

But parents held out hope that, certainly by the second quarter, the local union labor negotiators and our local school districts’ superintendents would have time and the commitment to find a solution for safely reopening our schools, like others had already done. 

Not only did most school boards across North County fail to vote for reopening in the second quarter, but the local unions and their allies doubled down on their intransigence, echoing the demands of the statewide teachers’ union which was codified on Jan. 14 in the effective shutdown of all efforts to reopen.

This guidance is ironically titled “Reopening In-Person Instruction Framework & Public Health Guidance for K-12 Schools in California.” There is nothing in these 51 pages that supports reopening schools on a timeframe that is acceptable to most parents. 

Most remarkably, the courageous efforts by San Dieguito Union High School District Board President Maureen Muir, and Trustees Michael Allman and Melisse Mossy, to begin a phased reopening for the third quarter was met with the threat of a lawsuit on Christmas Eve by local union labor negotiators in concert with the California Teachers Association to keep the districts’ high schools closed. In the face of such a threat, only Allman was willing to challenge the union argument that a safe reopening was impossible. 

So yes, empathy and grace have reached their limits here in February, nearly one full year since our schools were closed. We know there are extraordinary teachers who are willing to come back to school. In fact, they want to come back to school now; they’ve told us so in private emails. They acknowledge that students are failing, falling behind and experiencing profound levels of loneliness, depression, anxiety and other challenges in spite of their best efforts to teach through Zoom. 

These teachers have also said it’s not possible for them to speak out publicly. We can assure you, parents are tremendously empathetic to these teachers. We understand the difficulty they face in challenging the union narrative. We stand with teachers and truly want to ensure a safe teaching environment on campus, for all teachers and our children, when they return. 

Parents’ anger and frustrations are squarely aimed at district leaders who don’t communicate effectively and do not collaborate with their trustees to prioritize students’ needs. Parents are justifiably angry that union negotiators have stonewalled reopening efforts, and parents have lost respect for the few outspoken teachers and their allies who personally attack anyone who dares suggest their children need to be back in school and it’s safe to reopen campuses now. 

Where do we go from here? Thank goodness for parents and fearless trustees who ask hard questions and demand answers from their public school officials. They are justified in asking who do our public school systems serve? If the honest answer is indeed our students, then reopening our public schools now is an imperative.

District leaders must communicate with excruciating clarity that the safety measures they have in place meet the standards set by the county Health and Human Services Agency. They need to impress upon their trustees the importance of lobbying the state to restore local control over district operations and trust the professional capability of local school leaders to bring students and teachers back to campus while following safety guidelines.

Local union leaders need to offer support and encouragement to teachers to return to school and publicly highlight collaborative efforts to make teaching in the classroom the default learning model, while offering distance learning as an option to those who have no choice but to remain isolated. All of this is possible in short order — but only if there is a will to put students’ needs first. 

Leadership is not defined when circumstances are normal. True leadership is defined by success when circumstances seem impossible. We need true leadership now more than ever. Our students’ very lives depend on it. 

Ginny Merrifield is executive director of the Parent Association of North County San Diego. This column presents the view of the organization’s leadership team, which represents school districts in Carlsbad, Oceanside, Poway, San Dieguito, San Marcos and Vista.

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