(l to r) Louis Freedberg, Tyrone Howard

During a briefing held by Ethnic Media Services on Feb. 5, members of the community as well as educators and those working for community-based nonprofit organizations discussed the wisdom of schools opening while a pandemic is still not arrested.

In Los Angeles county, traditional classrooms for the 1.5 million students in both public and private schools have been closed and replaced by “distance learning” at home since March 2020.  

The state, however, now permits elementary schools to reopen as soon as a county reaches an adjusted average new daily case rate of 25 per 100,000 residents.  When LA county met that threshold on Tuesday, Feb. 16, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors gave its support for elementary schools under their jurisdiction to open.  

Parents and teachers are questioning the political push to return their children back to their neighborhood schools, and whether the state’s case statistics can surge again after students gather in their classrooms. All elementary schools wishing to reopen must submit infection-control plans to the county Department of Public Health and the California Department of Public Health, certifying that they have implemented a full range of measures to permit a safe reopening.

County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said 12 school districts in the county have already had their safety plans approved, and two other districts have plans that are under review. A total of 173 private or charter schools have also had plans approved, with seven other private/charters awaiting approval of their plans.    

Those who work in ethnic communities, however, are concerned that the state’s statistics may not consider the challenges for diverse students.

“In Los Angeles we saw that the infection rate in the Latinx community has risen 1000% since November, and the death rate had gone up significantly in November,” said Tyrone Howard, Professor of Education, Pritzker Family Endowed Chair in Education to Strengthen Families and Director of the Black Male Institute at UCLA.

Howard stressed the recent surge of COVID-19 cases and deaths has had a “devastating effect” on black and brown communities. 

“The fact that children have lost loved ones — mothers, fathers, caregivers, aunts, uncles — is significant. And part of the concern that I have is that as we reopen schools, many of the schools do not have the resources to invest in social workers, counselors or therapists,” Howard said. 

“Approximately half of all adolescents in California are reported as having some kind of mental health challenge in the last year. A third of those young people said that the levels of depression that they felt were so high that it debilitated them and their ability to do [school] work.”

Within the Asian community, there may be an additional layer of concern.

“We’re seeing a lot of high stress and anxiety from students who are concerned about school, concerned about academic performance, or thinking about the responsibilities of taking care of their loved ones at home or siblings,” said Akil Vohra, executive director of Asian American LEAD (AALEAD) and

Director of Strategic Initiatives at the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI). 

Many Asian American Pacific Islander homes are multi-generational, with students living with their parents, grandparents, and other older relatives, this can increase the risk for transmission of the virus. 

“If the transmission is lower among children, what does this mean for youth that live with grandparents or others who are at high risk?” Vohra asks.  “Even if you say that it is very low in terms of the transmission rate, I suspect that there is still concern that they’re living with a grandparent that is 70, or 80 years old, and they aren’t vaccinated by that time. What does that mean for them?”

“This is a complicated issue,” noted Louis Friedberg, executive director of EdSource. “We are learning every day new things about this virus, and there are still things we don’t know about this virus. The risk of transmission in elementary schools is low, not at the middle and high schools.”

“All the studies say it’s safer for children to go back to school if there are core mitigation strategies in place, because if those aren’t in place it’s not going to be safe. Certainly not for the adults, and not for the kids,” added Friedberg, who cited reports of higher rates of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder due to social isolation. 

“It’s not just because kids are at home and not having contact with [other] kids. When they are in a home where often the parents are struggling with the impact of new economic stresses due to job losses, and the whole uncertainty of school, day-to-day living, and just the stress of getting on the internet and learning this whole new mode of learning, all of this is adding to the stress of learning,” he said.  

The decision to return their children to a traditional classroom setting will be determined by parents who believe they do need to worry and have more of their questions answered, panelists believe. 

Parents like Karla Franco are skeptical and point to the schools’ poor record of care where vocal parents aren’t appreciated and viewed negatively. They and their children are tasked with the decision about whether to send their kids back to school after being at home for the last year, or to question whether they will be safe being exposed to their fellow students, teachers and school personnel.  

“What I think and hear from other parents is that going back to school is not safe.The school district never protected our students or our campus, not even before the pandemic. I have asked the superintendent: If you cannot control what you see, how will you control this virus that you cannot see?” said Franco.  

“All of us are in danger. We don’t have to think about money.  We have to think about our lives.”