Opinion: Reopening schools isn’t as easy as it might sound

This was originally published on Jan. 25 in the Daily Post.

Daily Post Editor

Last week I wrote about the irony that scientists could produce a Covid vaccine so quickly and yet we’re failing miserably at getting the vaccine into everyone’s arms.

This week I’ll examine another irony of the pandemic — school age children are the least likely to contract Covid and yet they’re suffering greatly because most of the schools are closed, and they’re falling behind in their education.

I interviewed Palo Alto school superintendent Don Austin about this the other day. He’s frustrated. The members of the school board, his bosses, have been clear that they wanted the schools reopened as soon as it was safe and healthy to do so.

But the job is difficult given that the schools get sometimes conflicting advice from the Santa Clara County Department of Health, OSHA and the CDC.

Partial reopening

In October, the district partially opened pre-kindergarten through 5th grade classes to some 2,100 pupils. Some weeks, kids go to school three days a week. Other weeks, two days. On the days they’re not in the classroom, they’re participating online.

That may not seem like a big accomplishment, but in Santa Clara County Palo Alto is one of only two public school systems to provide any in-person learning. The other is Los Altos elementary.

“This work is ridiculously hard, complex with never-ending fights. Anytime you want to do something, there’s somebody there to tell you that you can’t,” Austin said.

Young people are less likely to get, spread or die from Covid than older age groups.

Infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci is in favor of opening the schools. In an interview with ABC News on Nov. 29, Fauci said the nation should “close the bars and keep the schools open.”

“The default position should be to try as best as possible within reason to keep the children in school, or to get them back to school,” Fauci said.

In Palo Alto, there hasn’t been any contact-traced student-to-adult, adult-to- student or student-to-student cases of Covid since the elementary schools reopened, not including possible instances of a sibling giving it to another sibling, Austin said. He said there have been very few cases of adults giving it to other adults in the school system.

“Personally I believe students should be in school and we’ve proven that we can do it safely,” Austin said.

What about opening grades six through 12? Austin isn’t optimistic that will happen during the spring semester.

More restrictions here

Austin points out that Santa Clara County has more restrictive policies than other counties.

For example, he points out that the county requires secondary schools (grades 6 to 12) to maintain six feet of distance between people, “and there is no wiggle room,” Austin said.

But that’s not consistent across California. That’s why Orange County’s high schools are open but not ours.

“That one rule allows them to be open,” Austin said.

Many parents who want the schools reopened have blamed the teachers unions for standing in the way.

Austin said he believes the union has the best of intentions.

“Our teachers union is (made up) of good people. We don’t see every part of this the same way and we also have different roles to play. A teachers union is there to protect their members and to represent their interests. I completely respect that … but it does not mean that we have agreement on everything,” the superintendent said.

Kids want to play sports

No matter what the rules and regulations say, kids want to get together and play sports. Austin said he sees signs of that around town.

“When I go over to Fletcher (Middle School) after-hours and I see private groups running basketball clinics, and those are our students in those clinics, not school affiliated, I have mixed feelings. Part of me says, ‘Great, the kids are out doing something and they’re interacting and that’s good.’ The other part of me says that activity will land on the school district’s shoulders if one of those kids has Covid and it spreads.”

A three-season spring

There is a glimmer of hope that high school athletes will be able to compete this spring. On Thursday, the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League (SCVAL) proposed a compressed three-season schedule this spring. The proposal needs the approval of county Health Director Dr. Sara Cody and the number of cases and hospitalizations will have to drop to lower levels than they are now.

But if it happens we could have a five-game football season in March and April as well as baseball, tennis, golf, water polo and — if cases really drop — wrestling.

Last week, student athletes in some sports including football began after school conditioning programs (don’t call them practices, that’s not supposed to happen yet.) Some athletic directors have worried that they’ll be preparing for seasons that will never happen.

But Austin is urging all of them to be “perfect” when it comes to following existing rules about social distancing.

“I have to tell our coaches that we have to be perfect about the distance of swimming laps in a chlorinated pool,” he said.

If sports seasons are cancelled, he’s trying to find some way students can still participate on an intramural basis. Maybe, he suggested, the cross-country team could play the football team in pickleball?

“We owe it to the kids to do the best we can,” Austin said.

Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is [email protected].


  1. Little kids are always spreading colds and flus. Let’s keep the schools closed until most people are vaccinated. No need to create a super spreading machine like an elementary school.

    • Grace, if we follow your logic, schools should always be closed because kids get colds and flu all the time, and flu is deadlier than Covid for kids and younger people. Vaccine is not effective to prevent transmission either. So we can either continue doing something never done before – school closures, lockdowns, masks, distancing – and face long term consequences in terms of education, mental health, decreased lifespans, reduction quality of life – or deal with it like we do with other endemic viruses. Coronaviruses have been here since beginning of time and will be after we’re gone.

  2. It would be easier to believe that the shutdown of the schools was medically necessary, if the teacher union was not such a powerful force in California politics, and used to getting their way.

    • There is zero evidence of asymptomatic transmission among children or from children to adults – none, zilch, nil – so no justification to close the schools, require masks, distancing, plexiglass, plastic sheets, or other medieval nonsense. The only policy is that your child stays home if sick, and I’m only willing to accept that as a comprise, not because I believe ipso facto that viruses make you sick.

  3. in reality, these same kids are just socializing off campus privately in homes and other places like parks and shopping malls as usual.

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