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Tensions rose recently when the La Mesa-Spring Valley School Board discussed a plan to begin to reopen schools in the district. 

I recognize those tensions. Now in my fourth term on the San Diego Unified School Board, I have never experienced an issue that affects our entire school community — students, parents, teachers, support staff and administrators — in such a deeply personal way. 

What surfaced in the La Mesa/Spring Valley discussion was that the pandemic has affected families and communities in different ways, often making it hard for us to fully understand why the solution we feel is best for our students may not be the solution that makes sense for other students. 

Trustee Chardá Bell Fontenot gave voice at the meeting to a perspective that the media and politicians have often ignored — that for many families, the prospect of sending kids back to school in person creates fear and anxiety rather than hope and relief. 

Rather than vilify her for forcefully raising this perspective, we would do well to listen to her and work to understand the issues she is bringing forward, so that our school reopening plans work for all of us. 

The pandemic has both exposed and exacerbated inequality and racism in San Diego’s neighborhoods. A student of color growing up in a high poverty neighborhood has likely experienced issues over the last year that white peers in higher income neighborhoods have not. 

The student’s parents are more likely to work in industries and occupations that force them to leave home every day and expose themselves to the virus. The student is more likely to live in a crowded housing situation, often with grandparents and older adults, with less access to backyards or parks. The student’s family is less likely to have health insurance. And now, the student’s family and neighbors are less likely to have access to a COVID vaccine. 

Simply put, this means that some families in our public schools are at much higher risk of contracting the virus, and suffering severe consequences from it, than others. Chardá, an African American parent who works professionally as a health educator supporting young families, intimately understands this reality.

Because of the reality facing many families in her district, Chardá also understands that parents she represents will need to be supremely confident that their children will be safe when schools open up. They will expect regular testing of students and staff, regardless of symptoms. They will expect strict safety measures at schools, including proper ventilation of classrooms, mask requirements, and proper distancing. 

And yes, they will expect that teachers and other adults on campus will have been fully vaccinated before their students return. These are the details of the district’s reopening plan that Chardá as a Trustee is asking to review.

And even with all these measures in place, Chardá — grounded in the perspectives of many district families — expects that a large percentage of parents will choose to keep their students home for the remainder of this school year. This has been the consistent pattern locally and across the country as districts have offered parents the choice to come to school or remain home in distance learning. 

The majority of parents of color in lower income neighborhoods have chosen to keep their students home, while the majority of white parents in higher income neighborhoods have chosen to send their students back to school. Every family is making responsible choices based on their own realities, and school districts must respect these choices by ensuring quality in person options while maintaining stable and effective distance learning.

Chardá wants to know that students who remain in distance learning will not be treated as after thoughts when her district reopens, and wants to make sure that these students will remain with their primary teachers who will be able to continue focusing on their needs. 

Discussions in school board meetings can get heated, perhaps more so than at any other level of government. When we’re talking about our kids, we are passionate, and rightfully so. But when we’re at our best, we can channel our collective passion into deeper understanding, appreciation and commitment to meeting the needs of all of our young people. 

Thank you Chardá and your colleagues on the La Mesa-Spring Valley School Board for having the courage to voice the perspectives of students and families that too often go overlooked.  We are all grappling with the issues that you are trying to figure out, and your honest conversation opens the door for all of us listen to each other, and work together on reopening plans that serve all of our students.

Richard Barrera is president of the board of the San Diego Unified School District.

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