Should California reopen schools soon? Opinions differ among teachers, parents, sports coach

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

Stoner Elementary School in Culver City is currently closed, with a coronavirus safety sign sitting outside. March 1, 2021. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

Governor Gavin Newsom today signed a bill that sets aside nearly $7 billion for schools that reopen for in-person instruction by the end of March. It had bipartisan support in the state legislature — but lots of pushback from teachers unions in the state, including United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA).

UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz dismissed the plan earlier this week: “If you condition funding on the reopening of schools that money will only go to white and wealthier schools that do not have the transmission rates that low-income Black and Brown communities do, this is a recipe for propagating structural racism.” 

Some Black and Brown parents are outraged, saying UTLA does not speak for them. Some of them in South LA are planning a back-to-school protest next Saturday in response. 

What do the numbers say?

In February, the Pew Research Center surveyed people nationwide about their feelings on returning to in-person learning. 

Pew found that 59% of Americans believe schools should wait until all teachers who want vaccines have received them, says Juliana Horowitz, Associate Director of Research at Pew Research Center. 

She points out there’s opinions differ along racial and ethnic lines. A majority of Black, Hispanic, and Asian adults say schools should wait to reopen until all teachers have been vaccinated. That includes 80% of Black adults. Meanwhile, white respondents appear more divided. About half say schools should wait to reopen, and half advocate for reopening soon as possible, regardless of teacher vaccination status. 

In July 2020, Pew asked Americans what major factors should be considered when deciding to reopen schools. Forty eight percent of respondents said the risk of students falling behind was a major factor. In the latest survey, that number increased to 61%. 

The latest survey also found that Black, Hispanic, and Asian adults are more likely, compared to white adults, to consider the possibility of contracting or spreading COVID-19 as a major factor in deciding whether to reopen schools.

She says political affiliation also plays a role in responses: 79% of Democrats say schools should open only when teachers are all vaccinated, while 65% of Republicans say schools should open as soon as possible, no matter the vaccination status of teachers. 

A coach’s perspective  

Lamar Freeman, a football coach at Loyola High School near downtown LA, knows firsthand how all this is affecting students. He’s also head coach of the LA Rampage Pop Warner football team in South LA.

He says his experience with parents is slightly different than those who responded to the Pew study. He says his team’s parents are generally ready for their kids to go back to school.

“They drive a hard line. They want their kids back in school. They’re tired of Zoom classes … because our kids are falling behind.” 

He says parents are supposed to help kids with their education, but it’s tough to do that while working. “They can’t do two things at once. You have to be a full-time parent and full-time teacher, and in some households, that’s not working.”

Freeman looks forward to players returning to the field. He argues that if full-contact sports can continue and the right protocols are in place, why can’t schools reopen?

“Especially in the inner city, sports [and] education … that's our only stairway to success. We don't have families that come from money. In our inner cities, Compton, Watts, South LA, education is a way out of a lot of hardships. Sports is right up there with education. So if you want to start sports, I believe schools should be open.” 

Freeman points out that youth-involved shootings and incarcerations are still still taking place during the pandemic. 

“What I see [is] I have more kids getting shot and killed and more kids going to jail just because we’re not in school. … Sixteen and 18 year old kids … getting in trouble because they have nothing. They don’t have school. Their goals are taken away.”

He says one of his students is facing multiple life sentences amid the pandemic. “He felt like football was his outlet. [And] his avenue was taken away from him. … They’re just kids too. Kids killing kids. … I think we’ve missed the big picture. I think we’re fighting, and we’re missing that the kids that are hurting the most need to be in school.” 

UTLA sent KCRW this statement: 

“Cecily [Myart-Cruz] was referring to wealthier and healthier communities being given more of a platform in news media, which has since been taken out of context. Some voices are being allowed to speak louder than others in the school reopening debate. One of our community partners, Reclaim Our Schools LA, was concerned about what they saw as biased coverage in the media so they asked UTLA if they could help us research it. 

The subsequent report, “LEFT OUT: Media Bias Allows Wealthier and Healthier Communities to Set Terms of In-Person Instruction Debate,” confirms that what many suspected was true. The media coverage has favored voices from wealthier and healthier communities while often ignoring communities of color that are working class and have been harder hit by the virus. 

This bias has manufactured a dangerous and inaccurate narrative that most parents support a forced physical return to schools. Here are some of the key findings:

  • 71% of voices quoted in the LA Times stories about the school reopening debate were from the West, Central, and Northwest regions of Los Angeles, while only 29% were from the areas hardest hit by COVID-19: East, Northwest, and South LA.
  • 65% of parents quoted in the LA Times said they want schools to open now, while 35% preferred to open only when it’s safe. But a recent Pew Research poll shows the majority of people of color do not want schools to open until all teachers can be vaccinated.
  • 80% of the families that LAUSD serves are economically disadvantaged, but 58% of voices quoted in the LA Times were from professional/higher income individuals, small business owners, or millionaires. Less than 9% identified as working class or low-income.

Parents and educators face pressure on many sides as we engage in conversations on how to return safely to school campuses. Those conversations should happen with compassion and honesty. 

LA educators serve one of the most vulnerable populations in the country — LAUSD is 91% students of color and 80% economically disadvantaged. We feel a responsibility to lift up the voices of those who are too often dismissed or marginalized and who have suffered from decades of underfunded schools and communities. We will continue to put our students and public education first.”

LA Times: Group affiliated with teachers union accuses Times of bias in L.A. Unified reopening coverage

Credits

Guests:

  • Juliana Horowitz - Associate Director of Research at Pew Research Center
  • Lamar Freeman - football coach at Loyola High School near downtown LA, and head coach of the LA Rampage Pop Warner football team in South LA