The Next Big Challenge: Opening Schools

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

California—a nation state by itself—has been wrestling the coronavirus pandemic to the ground with reasonable success. That is until now.

 The physical toll alone is devastating. A related casualty with comparable implications is the setback to millions of school age children who are being deprived of a normal education.

 With cases on a troubling rise once again the minimal achievements in conquering the disease may go the way of Confederate monuments—-last week’s fading headlines. The nation is reporting 70,000 new cases daily and those records are sure to be broken.

 We are learning that the vicious pandemic may have plenty staying power as dire scientific warnings are going unheeded. The state is reporting over 25,000 confirmed cases in just 72 hours.

 Florida is still claiming unwanted top honors with 15,000 new cases daily—a total higher than California and every nation but the U.S.

 Meanwhile the president is now in open conflict with America’s leading medical expert and head of the CDC, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is warning that much worse could be yet to come if more drastic measures are not taken immediately to prevent rampant community spread.

 Fauci and Trump have not met in person since June 2! Why has the president of the United States chosen this moment to discredit the leading infectious disease authority in the nation?

 There can only be one answer. Trump is banking on improving his reelection chances if he can convince a majority of voters that this catastrophe is over-rated and given time will simply disappear.

 For his part Gov. Gavin Newsom who was holding the line has been forced into an about-face having just ordered numerous businesses in 30 counties to return to near lockdowns.

 These include indoor restaurants, bars, theaters, zoos, museums, card rooms, hair salons, gyms and even houses of worship.

 The consequences will be inevitably damaging but the alternatives are worse with the state’s death toll far exceeding initial predictions, hospitals running out of space and physicians and nurses overwhelmed.

 To cushion the likelihood of PPEs and other equipment shortages Newsom has set aside $5.3 billion in his 2021 budget. This is not likely to be enough and the first tranches of federal aid are already long gone.

 These developments are a hammer blow to rising hopes when modest economic revival looked possible as California infection rates began steadily flattening in May and June when families were observing stricter discipline.

 Then came summer’s felicitous weather as sunny beaches and playgrounds beckoned the pleasure starved-masses. Without beaches we would not be California. And without our health they will not be fully habitable.

 The optimistic signs were just a cruel illusion fed in no small degree by rosy forecasts and mixed messages from the highest medical temple of the federal government.

 The irrepressible desire to escape involuntary confinement took over as millions of Californians seeking some relief and a semblance of normalcy began realizing the pandemic has other ideas.

 No challenge is larger than the need for children to resume their educations while remaining safe from the virus. Just one child testing positive could become a “super-spreader” endangering the general population and perhaps bringing the bug home to their elders.

 For parents who assumed the challenging roles of surrogate teachers while awaiting the signal to release their anxiety-ridden children the directive to reopen schools could not have come sooner.

 Those dreams are now dashed with San Diego and Los Angeles Counties announcing all classes in public schools will be going on line in the Fall and perhaps beyond. More counties are sure to follow.

 California has 1,000 unified school districts with over 6 million students. They are hungering for return to classmates and teachers and the interactive experience that is irreplaceable.

 Our world-class universities are making painful decisions which will increase money solicitations targeting deep-pocketed alums while they figure out what to do about uncompensated tuition fees as dormitories remain empty.

 Sports teams—a major incubator of big dollars are cancelling schedules. Avid football rooters to their dismay will have more time for their studies.

 To make re-openings even feasible the largest schools and academic institutions will need to be radically repurposed.

 Smaller class sizes, constructing additional facilities, staggered attendance schedules, proper separation with desk partitions, protective measures for teachers and administrators, changes in transportation and much more could become standard.

 Parents able to go back to work who had not lost their jobs and who could afford it were planning for childcare.

 Numerous families especially in poorer communities do not have that luxury. Many are supplying the low-paid laborers such as food growers and deliverers, housekeepers, mail carriers, pharmacy clerks and hospital service workers who are doing the heavy lifting as the pandemic surges.

Even with the largest percentage of state tax dollars going to schools the costs of these modifications will be staggering. The costs for doing less could be much greater.

Along with the rest of the nation California is at an inflection point as novel and consequential as the virus it is now combatting.

Actions cannot await the verdict of history to know if all of them were optimal under the circumstances. When patients by the thousands are being shuttled non-stop into ICUs from which they might not recover the physician’s quick response can be life-saving. 

Newsom and fellow governors are applying triage in an unprecedented emergency making decisions on the run. Policy reversals are inevitable. It’s not an ideal method of governance.

But they have little choice and if democracy is still functioning after multiple crises have ended,  the real leaders should be rewarded for telling the truth.

 Ahead and overshadowing everything else looms a presidential election which will go far in determining the trajectory of every other problem. 

There are several things for which we do not have to await history’s judgement. We are witnessing an abysmal failure of national leadership which is increasingly showing up in Red state polls where Trump is getting losing grades for his handling of the pandemic. 

Proof that the White House strategy to pass the buck to others is not working. Newsom and school administrators are making their own plans on how to fix the problems. 

Sooner or later Trump must leave the scene.

By aggravating the crisis in numerous ways for which he earlier claimed no responsibility Trump may already have guaranteed the coronavirus a lifespan and death toll that every other nation has so far found avoidable. 

Assuming one will be found and declared effective no vaccine can change that fact

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