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Guest commentary: SDUSD board president: We hope students return in spring, but we’re confident about fall

San Diego Unified School District headquarters
San Diego Unified School District headquarters.
(File)

As we approach a full year under the most difficult circumstances ever faced by students, parents and educators in our public schools, we have reason for optimism. Most signs point to more students not only being able to return to school in some form this school year but to an opportunity for an expanded summer program for many students and to a new school year with the resources and support our students have always needed and deserved.

Despite the frustration and trauma of this past year, parents, students and educators have stuck together and made enormous sacrifices in order to keep students learning. Now as we see light on the horizon, it is more important than ever that we listen to, respect and support each other as we take the actions necessary to build our schools back better.

The San Diego Unified School District, in partnership with the unions representing our employees, is moving forward on a plan to safely expand in-person learning while maintaining a strong distance learning option for parents who are not ready to send their kids back to school campuses. Since October, we have identified students who are most in need of being back on campus — students with disabilities who are not receiving the support they are entitled to, homeless students, English-learners and students whose teachers are concerned they are falling behind.

While a small group of these students has been coming onto campus for limited appointments, we need to ramp up the availability of more robust in-person learning for the over 20,000 students most in need.

In the weeks to come, we will offer to students in this group — at all grade levels — full-day in-person learning options for four to five days a week.

The labs are the district’s effort to increase in-person support for students while schools are closed to regular instruction.

As we prepare to offer in-person learning options for all parents who want their students back on campus, we will continue to be guided by the highest health and safety standards recommended by the best available science. As the science has evolved since the beginning of the school year, we are hopeful that we will be able to offer some form of in-person learning to most students this spring and are confident that we will be able to offer a full in-person school day and full school week to all students when the new year begins in the fall.

We have invested tens of millions of dollars in improving ventilation and providing masks and personal protective equipment for all students and staff. We have added regular surveillance testing of all students and staff, whether or not they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

The proven effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines makes it possible to protect all of the staff necessary to support in-person learning. Rather than getting bogged down in debates about whether educators need to be vaccinated before returning to schools, we should respect the voices of our educators who are appropriately eager for the safety provided by vaccines and work together to accelerate the availability of vaccines to those we ask to educate our children.

While we are all encouraged by the decline of daily case rates and test positivity rates in the county following the winter surge, we must prepare as an entire community to not let our guard down as the new strains of the virus threaten a devastating spring surge. We have seen in the United Kingdom how the surge from the new strain has forced schools to again shut down. Most importantly, we must understand that a return to in-person learning cannot mean a “return to normal.”

The pandemic has exposed how a chronically underfunded public education system results in inequitable opportunities and outcomes for our children. To build back better, we must invest now in the academic, social, emotional and mental health supports our students need. That means more counselors, lower class sizes, extended learning time before and after school and in the summer, more professional development for educators, and a real commitment to fight against the racial, social and economic injustice that has held our students and families back for too long.

We are all tired and we all want this crisis to be over. But if we are to take advantage of this moment and create a new era of investment in public education, we must stick together as students, parents, educators and San Diegans moving forward in the same way we have stuck together over the last year.

Richard Barrera is president of the San Diego Unified School District board. This commentary was originally published by The San Diego Union-Tribune.