SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- It seems like California is now fully moving forward in getting its students back into the classroom.
Today, two of the biggest districts in the state, San Francisco Unified and Los Angeles Unified, both started the return to in-person learning.
After months of intense back and forth, dozens of San Francisco preschools and elementary schools opened their doors.
So what lessons did we learn, and where do we go from here? A special guest joined us on "Getting Answers," the California State Superintendent of public schools, Tony Thurmond.
This return to school for SFUSD and down in Los Angeles was such a battle. California was one of the last in the county to reopen schools. Why do you think this took so long here in San Francisco and statewide, and what ended up helping solve this?
"You know you can look for many reasons, but I would point to these when we think about what we were just a few months ago, in the winter, we had some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections," said Thurmond. "So much so that many of our counties had absolutely no hospital bed capacity. We've suffered more than 60,000 deaths and more than three and a half million COVID-19 cases. We've been in a tough spot. But recently, where we have now been given clarity on how to use rapid COVID-19 testing and ventilation, and other resources will allow us to keep our schools safely open. All that to say, we have a pathway now for how our schools can get open and stay open safely, and we're working with 1,000 school districts across the state to do that. I think we're at 9,000 out of 10,000 of our schools that are open are going to be open shortly, and so obviously things have really pivoted to a different direction."
Now vaccine eligibility will open to ages 16 and older this week. State law requires public school students receive the necessary vaccines. What's your plan for the COVID-19 vaccine?
"Yeah, it's exciting that we'll be seeing this week that ages 16 and older, as you said, can get the vaccine," said Thurmond. "Look, I know their conversations taking place with the FDA and the CDC, about being able to move vaccines to young people at a younger age, as young as 12. Some have asked some of the manufacturers and we're monitoring those and certainly, I don't think it'd be possible to really get into a conversation about requiring the vaccine until we've heard from our top health and safety folks, about if the vaccine can be provided to young people in ways that are safe. So we're monitoring that and we're looking forward to hearing more about what we might do next."
He mentioned the importance of public information to dispel any uncertainties around the vaccine, which is why webinars have helped clear confusion.
"Last week I did a webinar to focus on how we get more vaccines in the Latino community, you know, how do we get past fears," said Thurmond. "On Wednesday, we're doing a similar webinar focused on vaccines for the African American community. I think there are people with concerns from all backgrounds, and we're trying to get a message out that vaccines are safe. You know, I took my vaccine. I'm proud to say it was painless it was quick. And I think that we're in a place now where we're trying to help everyone see the benefits of vaccines."
We have to ask about this developing situation in Knoxville. Multiple people shot at a local high school including a Knoxville police officer. Obviously that's far outside your reach. But we have seen school shootings here in the state, as recently as November 2019 in Santa Clarita, right before the pandemic. What steps can you take in that regard to make hallways safer for students and parents' peace of mind?
"It was so heartbreaking to learn about the shooting in Nashville, and obviously our hearts go out to those families, individuals who've been affected," said Thurmond. "You know, as you say, even before the pandemic we were working with schools on ways to prevent shootings and, you know, we work with programs like the Mental Health First Aid program that train teachers and educators how to recognize someone who might be a threat because of what they're experiencing from a mental health crisis. I support what President Biden is calling for in terms of how do we get these guns off of our streets and out of these communities do executive order is hoping as a keepsake."
The CDC director said just last week that she doesn't foresee schools needing to close down again out of safety for these new COVID-19 variants. But new research shows they may spread in schools much more than first thought. What's your idea on this?
"Most important thing that I can say is that folks have to continue to wear a face mask and use social distancing," said Thurmond. "It's scary to hear that all these other states have, you know, Utah, Texas, all these places that have said 'you don't have to wear a mask.' I think that they are missing the point. Even with the vaccine, a person can transmit COVID-19, and so we have to be thoughtful about that. I think the research is mixed, but I trust what Dr. Fauci has said. Dr. Fauci has said that we're seeing cases plateau, but at a much higher rate than predicted, which tells us that there's a chance to potentially have to shut down again. I think we can control our own destiny."
The social inequities in education were only made worse during this pandemic, and we got clear signs of how. Distance learning, access to Internet, parents working multiple jobs, etc. How is your office working to solve this on a state level?
"You know I'm grateful," said Thurmond. "This was the system that had to move into distance learning overnight and, you know, our system wasn't built for that, and that also means that we uncovered, going into the pandemic, almost a million kids without access to high speed internet, many even without computers. So, even though many of our teachers and educators are really leaned in, our students and our parents have been resilient, even though people have leaned in to try and make our distance learning work, there have been some unavoidable bumps, and the same gaps in learning that we've been trying to close, many of these gaps have been exacerbated during the pandemic."
What about the mental health side of things? It's clear this is a crisis for so many teens and young adults.
"I think the number one thing we should be looking at as students are returning to campus right now is, what is their mental health functioning levels, and where do they need support?" said Thurmond. "This is so different, they've been away for a year, many of them have lacked direct contact with students and peers. And so right now, we're working through a span of mental health programs including medical, and others, to have more counseling supports. I've got a statewide mental health coalition, working with our psychologists and others to support our students. Our students social-emotional wellbeing is the number one thing we should be paying attention to right now, and how to support our students, and we're doing it."
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