Very soon, Ventura County students will begin heading back to class for the start of the 2021-2022 school year. Students in the Oak Park Unified School District are the first to return on August 9 and will be followed by their peers in the county’s 19 other school districts over the next few weeks.
To say there is an unusual amount of excitement and anxiety over the start of this school year is an understatement. We’ve all been on an emotional rollercoaster since the pandemic started. In March of 2020, students, parents and educators had to pivot to distance learning with very little time to prepare. We lived through the worst of the surge last winter. And now, just as vaccinations are providing a sense of relief, news of the Delta variant is stoking new worries.
Despite the uncertainty that remains, there are a few things that are very clear. The adverse effects of keeping kids out of the classroom are more severe than the risks associated with reopening. Masks are a simple and effective tool to reduce the spread of the virus on school campuses. And the more people who get vaccinated, the safer all of us will be.
Few issues have become more controversial than requiring students to wear masks at school, so I’d like to clear up a major misconception. The idea that schools have a choice about whether students need to wear masks is simply incorrect. The fact is that all schools in California, both public and private, must follow the guidance of state and local health authorities. That guidance clearly states that masks are required for students and staff indoors at school, regardless of vaccination status. All students can go mask-free outdoors, and there are commonsense exemptions for students who have valid reasons why they can’t wear masks indoors. It’s up to individual school districts to develop their own plans to enforce the mask requirement. Schools will also offer an at-home independent study option for students who need it, but it’s my firm belief that the safest and best place for children to learn and grow is at school in person with their teachers and classmates.
Mask-wearing will help ensure the safety of those who haven’t been vaccinated, including students under 12 who aren’t yet eligible to receive the vaccine. One of the other advantages of using masks is that it allows school activities to take place without the need for social distancing. This means we’re on the path to the full return of sports, dances, plays and all of the other events that were so sorely missed last year. And that’s a great reason to celebrate.
The fact that we are starting the new school year fully in person is an important new phase in our battle against the coronavirus. As we enter this phase, I want to thank everyone who got us through the darkest days of the pandemic. At our schools, that includes the technology and curriculum teams who worked together to quickly move classes online, the teachers who adapted to a new way of providing instruction, and the food service workers who made sure nutritious meals were always available. It also includes parents and caregivers who did double duty as kids stayed home and students who remained engaged and optimistic despite all of the challenges. Gratitude is also due to the healthcare heroes who never stopped caring for our medical needs and everyone in Ventura County who is doing their part to beat the virus by getting vaccinated. Continuing to increase our vaccination rate will move us to the next phase, where all school activities can resume with no masks required.
As we prepare to welcome kids back to class, our schools are ready to provide the extra academic and mental health support students will need. They’re also ready to rebuild the bonds and cherished traditions of school life that were frayed and delayed by the pandemic. I hope you’ll join me in recognizing how far we’ve come since the start of the pandemic and looking to the new school year with enthusiasm, excitement, and hope.