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EDITORIAL: Time is running out to get Fresno kids back to school in any 'normal' way. It's time to act

The Fresno Bee - 2/25/2021

Feb. 25—Will there be any time left this spring for Fresno Unified students to return to "normal" school?

That would appear doubtful if one goes by the agreement between the district and the Fresno Teachers Association.

The key to their agreement is that students can return for in-person instruction when Fresno County reaches the orange tier, or "moderate" risk of viral spread, in the state plan for managing the COVID pandemic.

But that is banking on something that has never happened since the coronavirus pandemic began a year ago.

"We have never been in the orange tier," said Dr. Rais Vohra, the county's interim public health officer. "We've only been in the red, and that was for a brief time before the numbers went backward and we went back into the purple."

Purple describes "widespread" risk, the most serious infection category a county can find itself in. Red (substantial risk) is the next color, then orange (moderate risk) and lastly yellow (minimal). Fresno, and most counties in the state, remain stuck in purple, even though infection rates are dropping and the number of people getting vaccinated is increasing.

When asked to estimate when Fresno County could drop into the orange category, Vohra said "many weeks, if not months."

Waiting for the orange tier to be reached before reopening schools is overdoing it. According to state health officials, students in kindergarten through sixth grade can return to in-person learning when the county case rate drops below 25 per 100,000 people. On Tuesday, Fresno County stood at 16.6 new cases per 100,000 — a rate in the purple category.

And Vohra said studies have shown COVID outbreaks at schools are limited when a campus follows proper health guidelines.

Some kids returning

This week Fresno Unified actually had some students returning to campuses — small groups called cohorts. The students stay together throughout the day to minimize social interactions outside their group.

The students being helped in person are those who may be in special education, are homeless or who lack the technology at home to connect virtually.

These are limited efforts, however, and the bulk of Fresno Unified's 74,000 students remain in distance learning. While the district has given out computers to as many students as needed them, learning virtually is an uneven prospect at best. Some students are motivated to do that work; others clearly learn better with in-person instruction.

Vaccines for teachers

In some good news, Joe Prado, Fresno County's community health manager, said educators countywide will join child-care workers and those in food and agriculture for priority in getting first-shot vaccines this coming week.

Vohra said teachers "will have their own lane" for vaccinations via approved clinics and primary-care doctors. He expects second-dose vaccinations will be completed by the end of April for teachers who choose to get vaccinated.

Given how getting the shots is a key point with FTA leaders, one assumes all instructors will make use of the vaccines.

Reopen schools ASAP

With the advent of vaccinations, plus the use of masks, hand-washing and social distancing at campuses, protections will be in place to allow students and teachers to come back. Fresno Unified and the FTA should immediately renegotiate their agreement to speed up the process of reopening schools to the general student enrollment.

By March 19, Fresno Unified's third quarter will come to an end. When the final quarter begins on March 22, there will only be 53 school days left until summer. For students long kept from friends and the socialization of school, this year has been a heavy burden.

Here is hoping the adults of Fresno Unified can bring those students back sooner rather than later, or not at all. It's time to reopen schools.


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