Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

Filipino parents, teachers support closures, say school districts should prioritize health and safety

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on with no end in sight, the Los Angeles and San Diego school districts announced on Monday, July 13 that campuses and classrooms will remain closed at the start of the next academic year.

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the San Diego Unified School District  — the two largest school districts in California — released a joint statement on their decision to maintain the distance learning format at the start of the school year.

“One fact is clear: Those countries that have managed to safely reopen schools have done so with declining infection rates and on-demand testing available. California has neither,” the statement read. “The skyrocketing infection rates of the past few weeks make it clear the pandemic is not under control.”

The LAUSD school year begins on August 18 and San Diego Unified’s school year on August 31.

LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner released a separate announcement stressing the moral obligation that school districts have in protecting students while acknowledging the disappointment and frustration students, teachers and their families feel about distance learning which lacks many benefits of classroom learning.

“While the new school year will begin in August, it will not start with students at school facilities. The health and safety of all in the school community is not something we can compromise,” Beutner said in his address, acknowledging the “anxiety” families feel about prolonging distance learning.

But like many public education leaders and officials have stated in the last week, Beutner is gauging the reopening by the COVID-19 virus’ containment. Currently, there’s no date set for when campuses will reopen and in-classroom learning will resume but the district hopes to share more details as the semester progresses and as, hopefully, the pandemic begins to simmer down.

“Reopening schools will significantly increase the interaction between children and adults from different families,” Beutner explained. “A 10-year-old student might have a 30-year-old teacher, a 50-year-old bus driver or live with a 70-year-old grandmother. All need to be protected. There’s a public health imperative to keep schools from becoming a petri dish.”

The LAUSD and San Diego Unified’s decision to maintain the distance learning model comes after the Trump administration’s threatened to withhold funding from schools that don’t re-open in-person classrooms this upcoming school year.

“Some of the exhortations don’t come with money — and we need more,” Beutner explained, adding that the district needs more funding and resources to be able to pay for devices and internet access for students as well as personal protective equipment and sanitation products.

The union that represents LAUSD teachers, the United Teachers of LA (UTLA), celebrated Beutner’s decision, citing the importance of keeping students, teachers and other school staff safe to help mitigate the virus’ spread.

Last week, 18,000 union members participated in an informal poll on whether or not LAUSD should reopen schools and 83% percent voted in favor of keeping schools physically closed. In March at the beginning of the pandemic, UTLA was a driving force in the initial LAUSD closure.

“It was the right thing to close school campuses then, and it’s the right thing to keep them closed now,” UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said in a statement. “In the face of the alarming spike in COVID cases, the lack of necessary funding from the government to open schools safely, and the outsized threat of death faced by working class communities of color, there really is no other choice that doesn’t put thousands of lives at risk.”

As the LAUSD moves forward with starting the new academic year with 100% virtual learning, the teachers union shifts its focus on bargaining with the district to improve the model and “ensure a robust and strong remote learning program.”

“We must continue to take bold action together to build well-funded schools with the necessary conditions to protect everyone’s health; robust student supports, including increased mental health and academic services; and resources for hard-hit communities so they can survive this crisis such as income replacement and rent and mortgage forgiveness,” Myart-Cruz said.

The LAUSD is the second-largest school district in the United States, serving more than 600,000 students and employs 75,000 people across more than 1,000 schools in the Southland.

Among the nearly 15,000 LAUSD teachers who voted yes to keeping campuses closed in favor of improving distance learning was Filipina American Cheryl Zarate, a teacher at Thomas Starr King Middle School in Silver Lake.

Zarate, who teaches English, History and a Peer Mediation elective course to 7th graders, supports Beutner’s decision to start the school year with distance learning. Prior to Beutner’s decision, she and her family were scrambling to come up with action plans should the district reopen its schools.

“I was actually quite relieved,” Zarate told the Asian Journal. “Now I can finally plan on how I’m going to teach for fall because there’s just been talks in the last few days with me and my family about, if we’re going to have to be forced to work, if I’m gonna have to quit, or if I’m gonna have to draft up my will — these conversations I don’t want to think about right now.”

As UTLA moves forward in accommodating distance learning with existing teaching models, Zarate hopes that the district will prioritize mental health and social-emotional counseling for all students, especially lower-income and at-risk students.

“I think now that students are going to be distance learning and parents may be going back to work, it’s important to figure out how the district and community can work together to provide safe childcare for families who rely on schools to help take care of their kids,” Zarate said.

Zarate is also the mother of a first-grader in the LAUSD and empathizes with frustrated parents who want things to get back to normal for their children and home lives.

But she stressed the fact that the pandemic is affecting everybody at different levels and everybody ought to do their part in keeping everyone safe, and that starts with making sure families are adhering to the public safety guidelines like wearing masks, social distancing and limiting time outside the home.

“I want everyone to start thinking about everyone else and the community because it’s not just an individual problem, this pandemic,” she remarked. “It’s a global problem and the way to fix this is to really work together. We need to start thinking and working collectively because that’s how we’re going to get through this.”

Monica Hill, a Filipina mother and former school teacher of the Scripps Ranch neighborhood of San Diego, said she was relieved to hear that students at San Diego Unified would be starting the school year “safely with limited risk of contracting and spreading the virus.”

“Of course it’s unfortunate that my daughter and her peers won’t get to spend the next school year in a classroom, but it’s a small price to pay to keep her safe,” Hill told the Asian Journal.

Hill’s daughter will be an 8th grader at Challenger Middle School. According to the mother, she has been struggling trying to keep her from “going crazy” but she keeps reminding her that distance learning is only a temporary compromise to keep the community safer and to keep the COVID-19 case numbers from continuing to spike.

“It’s been difficult, for sure, and you know, kids really benefit from the classroom and being on campus, and not just for academic reasons. These kids need to socialize in a real way and it’s hard to do that in quarantine. But there are workarounds, like hanging out over Zoom and talking on the phone, and I really appreciate the teachers working to replicate group activities and interaction virtually,” Hill said.

She added, “At the end of the day it’s simply weighing what’s most important: being bored being in the house all day and the inconvenience of not being able to be around people or risk getting sick or worse. I think most parents would agree that their kids’ safety is the most important thing, which is why it’s baffling to me that we have this president and Education Secretary willing to put that at risk. Nothing is worth more than protecting our kids.” (Klarize Medenilla/AJPress)

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