school coronavirus
A student at Magnolia Elementary concentrates on a classroom assignment. Magnolia is one of several schools in the Cajon Valley Union School District to offer child care for families during the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

It was a cruel irony that Gov. Gavin Newsom decided to open indoor dining, gyms, salons and more in San Diego County effective Monday, Aug. 31.

Aug. 31 is the day school was supposed to start for San Diego Unified School District, the largest district in the county. Normally, it’s a day when San Diegans notice an increase in traffic congestion. They post photos of their kids with new clothes and backpacks. The students all have those nervous smiles and big eyes.

This year, there was none of that. The first week of school in the district is now just a daily check-in online with students to help them navigate the new remote learning reality and give teachers more time to prepare.

Principals, staff, teachers and parents scrambled to make it special – to try to recreate the community many of them have put decades into building.

But those communities are gone. With the district’s stringent re-opening requirements, it is hard to imagine when they will be back.

Now, with the governor’s announcement, it’s even harder.

Newsom knew that schools were still closed when he made his decision to open all these places. The county of San Diego’s public health officials knew schools were still closed when they made their decision to abide.

It would be one thing if they were just an outright deniers of the virus’s lethality and threat. It would make sense if they had decided just to open everything and let the virus take its natural course. That would be logically consistent, if abhorrent.

But the governor and county Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten have long maintained a desire to control the virus and keep it from overwhelming hospitals. They’ve isolated us for many months. They have shown a determination to contain COVID-19 and shut things down to do it.

So this decision to open things back up, right before Labor Day, from people who do believe in collective action to contain this virus, is abject nonsense. It’s incomprehensible.

It is so irrational, it physically hurts. It’s the same thing that happened this summer when after months of sacrifice, they wasted it with bumbling reopenings they later reversed.

“While there are some lower-risk entities that could safely reopen at this point, what we are doing is very similar to what we did in June with a large segment of indoor operations all opening at the same time,” wrote County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, a friend of the governor.

Does the governor even remember the summer? It was May heading into June. Things were going well. The rate of transmission was going down, the county was testing more. A few people protested the lockdown. Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Supervisor Greg Cox and others convened business leaders and proclaimed that San Diego was ready to reopen.

None of them thought for a second about schools or the need to make sure that children would be able to continue their education as soon as possible. They never once prioritized getting schools open to serve that crucial function in our society. And even if they were wholly obsessed with the economy, they were blind to the reality that, to be productive employees, parents would have to have assurance that their kids would be getting educated and be safe all day.

Still, things were looking up. The two largest school districts in the state, Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified, had united to demand more funding than the governor had proposed. They got it. They got federal relief funds too. They also secured a change to how they’re funded so they would be insulated from financial damage as thousands of families sought alternatives in the form of charter and home school opportunities. Education dollars would have followed those families, but the districts stopped it.

They had pledged to open schools.

Then things rapidly changed.

The mayor got his way. The governor allowed counties to reopen rapidly. San Diego County jumped on it. We allowed gyms to open, restaurants with bars, hair salons, almost everything besides large events.

Something happens when you open restaurants with bars, though. The governor and county officials were essentially giving their blessing to people who want to eat and socialize indoors that life was back.

Parties exploded. Stupid young people went back to trying to jump into pools from their roofs. A friend of mine went to a home poker game, caught the virus and spent 10 days in the hospital struggling to breathe.

The virus was spreading rapidly. Hundreds more people than before had to lay in a hospital bed as they fought it.

The numbers grew alarming and Newsom abruptly shut restaurants and their bars again, gyms, salons and churches back down. The governor had already essentially trashed his previous phased approach to reopening. He eventually replaced it with a simple watchlist. We were on it.

Los Angeles and San Diego’s school districts reversed course and said they would not open in the fall after all, despite all the funding they had secured. It was a nightmarish day in July.

There were some new lessons, this time around, at least. The state, county and cities decided to test whether outdoor activity could continue in this second shutdown. It did, and it worked. Outdoor summer camps thrived. San Diego’s Junior Lifeguards program, for example, ran mostly normal.

It was a new equilibrium. Even with beaches packed, protests and robust outdoor dining, fewer people caught the virus. We had done it. With methodical adaptation, we had achieved a new equilibrium with this little bug: We got more economic activity and the virus was being constrained.

The idea that we may be able to adapt schools this year came back into focus. Schools were de facto the priority, as only they had a path to reopen – a fact that the mayor bemoaned in a lengthy letter about how desperately businesses needed to open.

Again, he got his way. Friday, Newsom released new guidelines. The new tiers, and policies for how to advance through them, seemed actually much clearer and better. But even though San Diego County landed in the second-worst of the tiers, it meant that we could reopen things that had stayed closed since his last crackdown. Indoor dining is back.

The governor’s new plan came as a shock to county leaders, who said they had no knowledge it was coming. Nevertheless, they embraced it. Fletcher boycotted the announcement that they would be going along with it.

It also shocked the team of UC San Diego scientists who have been working with San Diego Unified to adapt physical campuses and get them open. They noted that the county seemed to be on the right track.

“However, broadly re-opening activities immediately before the Labor Day holiday weekend and while K-12 schools are resuming instruction puts the County at risk of a resurgence, especially because we have only recently moved into the red phase and have not yet fully contained the outbreak,” they wrote in a letter to county leaders.

They asked the county to prioritize schools.

Can we, just once, prioritize schools? Again, it would be one thing if the county and state were led by people like Supervisor Jim Desmond, who believes that we should let the virus run rampant to let it take its course through the population, allowing the people who don’t get it or recover to do whatever they want. Epidemiologists think that is reckless and could both cause massive unnecessary suffering and overcrowd our health care facilities.

If, however, you are on the other side – as Newsom and county health leaders ostensibly are – then how does it make sense to reopen anything before schools? If we can get them open, it will facilitate productivity and more business activity. Doing so would teach us things about how to adapt old buildings for better ventilation, or how to test sewage to identify outbreaks or how to further provide enrichment in outdoor settings as we are uniquely capable of doing here.

There’s a secondary sickness now spreading through the community, of disillusionment that this is never going to end. Parents are quitting jobs or going on leave.

Anna Crotty, a mother of two who has done data science consulting work for Voice of San Diego, drove it home to me the other day. She and her kids have done five days of online learning in San Dieguito Union High School District.

She said she has money. As a tech professional who has long worked from home, she has the highest quality internet and devices. Her teenagers are smart and neurotypical. Her colleagues are all patient and flexible.

“Which is all to say, nobody is luckier than me. And this is fucking hard,” she said.

Most people aren’t that well set up. And many have it much worse. There may be tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of students in San Diego whose educations have been indefinitely derailed. There are special needs students, atypical kids and those who can’t physically connect with someone on the other end of a Zoom call.

Of all the crises with which we must grapple, this might be the most alarming. The mayor has never written a letter about it.

And it all comes back to one moment: San Diego’s decision this summer to reopen and the failure to contain the virus that followed.

It’s a failure the governor, the county and the mayor seem eager to repeat.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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