Midpeninsula Superintendent's Message

Guest opinion: Everyone plays a role in protecting school communities during pandemic
Posted on 02/16/2021
First grader Izzy receives a temperature test from Oak Knoll Elementary School staff member Chris Gumbrect at the start of the day in Menlo Park on Sept. 29, 2020. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Midpeninsula superintendents urge caution during upcoming breaks

by Erik Burmeister, Steven Frank, Beth Polito, Gina Sudaria, Roberta Zarea / Almanac

First grader Izzy receives a temperature test from Oak Knoll Elementary School staff member Chris Gumbrect at the start of the day in Menlo Park on Sept. 29, 2020. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Nothing is more important to us than the education of our youth and health of our community. As the superintendents of our community's PreK-8 school districts, we would love nothing more than to open all schools fully tomorrow if that were safe. With stakeholders regularly pressuring schools in competing directions, making productive decisions during a global pandemic is a goal we pursue amid evolving guidelines and shifting funding commitments from state and federal government.

We are cautiously optimistic about COVID data; the governor lifting the latest stay-at-home order is a sign that we are moving in the right direction. Yet disparities remain; health and economic effects of the pandemic have struck unequally nationwide. Data are clear that the pandemic is far more devastating to people living in higher density housing, working in essential jobs, and having underlying health conditions. We cannot ignore that due to systemic racism, these people are more likely to be Black, Indigenous, Pacific Islander and Latinx. The impacts of distance learning affect families differently, largely correlated to income levels. When making decisions for our school districts, we have all had to consider the health and well-being of all our families and staff and the influences of the larger community spread. Our teachers are doing their best to engage with students and make progress toward learning goals. Delivering a high-quality education over Zoom, whether all or part of the time, is hard and we commend our teachers for rising to the challenge. We also acknowledge the burden placed on families and are grateful for the adaptations they make to support their students.

What is also clear as we navigate this pandemic within our school districts is that it takes the whole community doing its part to protect our students, families, and staff and allow any amount of in-person instruction to happen on our campuses. There are many guidelines that schools must follow including wearing face masks, physical distancing, staff and student testing, contact tracing, hygiene, and limiting gatherings. Implementing this at school is expensive and time consuming. It takes diligence, cooperation, and a complete reimagining of the education experience; our administrations, school boards, and labor unions have been dependable partners in getting us to where we are.

Regardless of your connection to public schools, you can help us reopen more fully and keep schools open by following these five important health guidelines, especially in light of possibly more transmissive strains:

1. Don't travel beyond the Bay Area and if you do, please quarantine 10 days when you return

2. Don't gather inside with anyone not in your household

3. Limit outdoor gatherings to three households

4. Wear a well-fitting mask whenever outside the home

5. Get your vaccine when it is your turn.

Predictably, following school breaks in November and December we saw more COVID cases within our school communities. February mid-winter breaks are next week and we fear a similar surge, followed quickly by spring breaks. Teachers and staff working in person take risks for themselves and their own families, especially since educators in San Mateo County still do not have access to the vaccine. Families sending their students to school in person and diligently adhering to no-travel and limited-gathering guidelines prioritize their students' education over the temptation of things like skiing and indoor celebrations. What is most frustrating to a superintendent right now are the folks that flaunt guidelines and then potentially expose our staff and other students to COVID. If we could ask one thing of all families, it is that if you have the privilege of sending your students to school in person, please please please do not travel or gather indoors on your own time.

Over the past year perhaps no segment of society has struggled, adapted and succeeded more than public education. Expectations of our schools are huge while funding and clear direction remain elusive. Even as we lead our districts to meet our individual community's needs, we see collective challenges that those within and without education should address. That communities of color have borne the heaviest burden during COVID — in terms of morbidity and mortality, economic loss, access to testing and health care, availability of in-person schooling, and infrastructure to support remote learning — is also a reality we cannot ignore. And our country's attitude toward public education must evolve. Other countries have prioritized their schools by doing — and funding — whatever is necessary so that schools could stay safely open. When this pandemic ends (and at some point it will) if we learn anything, your superintendents fervently hope it is that a robust, equitable, and well-funded public school system is a foundational asset in which we should all invest.

Written by superintendents Erik Burmeister, Menlo Park City School District; Steven Frank, Woodside School District; Beth Polito, Las Lomitas Elementary School District; Gina Sudaria, Ravenswood City School District; and Roberta Zarea, Portola Valley School District.

Link to article on Almanac site