EdSource’s Louis Freedberg talked with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond on Nov. 16, just hours after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that California was pulling the “emergency brake” on reopening schools and other businesses and institutions in the face of a dramatic surge in COVID-19 infections. The following is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
EdSource: How much of a setback is this dramatic increase in the number of kids who are in counties that wanted to bring them back to school and aren’t able to now?
Thurmond: The data you heard today is a confirmation of what we’ve been hearing about a surge as we head into what should be a happy time. But Thanksgiving could be a time that adds to that surge. What we’ve heard today is a warning for caution going forward. We know that a number of districts were angling to open in January. We’re going to really need to monitor data for the next few weeks and use that as our guide to determine whether, in fact, schools will be able to open at that time.
EdSource: Do you think it’s possible that they could?
Thurmond: It’s certainly possible that they could open. What we saw today would raise questions about safety. We need to look at places that have been open, and those states and countries that essentially shut down and, in many cases, have kept their schools open. We need to look at the data to see if they been able to prevent the spread of COVID-19 amongst students. And that’s a big question. It’s not settled science, but there’s enough data that shows that young people can be susceptible to COVID and that can in turn infect their parents and grandparents. So, I really think that now is a time for an abundance of caution to monitor and to move slowly and to do all that we can to stem further spread so that we can get it to a place where we can safely reopen schools.
EdSource: Many counties, with Los Angeles Unified being a prime example, have been very reluctant to bring back students for regular classes and many others have been very eager to do so. Where do you come down? Do you feel that ideally kids would be back in school?
Thurmond: Ideally, the best place for kids is in school and that’s where they get the best kind of learning. But that’s the ideal. I don’t think we should just forge ahead without regard to safety, just because we know that’s what our ideal is. I think we have to deal with the real. Right now, districts like L.A. and others have done a really good job of preparing for opening. They’ve figured out ways to get robust COVID testing. I think they’re being smart to continue to wait and to monitor to make sure that it’s safe for students, staff and for their families.
EdSource: There appears to be a contradiction that schools in purple counties that are already open are allowed to stay open, whereas those that haven’t opened can’t bring kids back. Surely, it’s either safe for kids to be in school in purple counties or it’s not safe? Do you think that schools that are already open need to reevaluate where they’re at, or do you feel that state guidelines are adequate?
Thurmond: The state guidelines speak to circumstances where a school could stay open, even if it is in a county that slides back into a more restrictive posture. Having said that, I still think it’s important for all school leaders in all school communities to be thoughtful about safety first. Whether the school was already open, whether it’s a school that intends to open, we’ve got to be thoughtful. We’ve seen examples of school districts that were saying that they were going to open without any social distancing in place. I just think that’s a dangerous practice.
EdSource: What’s your overall advice about where to go from here?
Thurmond: We are in a pandemic. We are in a moment of crisis. I know it’s frustrating. I want to acknowledge that people really want to see our communities open. I’m sure that people are upset and heartbroken that our business communities in many counties have to close. But what’s the alternative? The alternative would be to charge ahead into unknown territory, where there are warning signs that is not safe. All lives are valuable, and we have to be careful and thoughtful about how we proceed.