Reflections on the Start of the New School Year

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cm-1st-dayBy Dr. César Morales, Ventura County Superintendent of Schools

This column appeared in the Ventura County Star on Sept. 6, 2021

The first day of school is always special, but this year it held even deeper meaning for obvious reasons. It was a real pleasure for me to visit some of our local schools as students arrived for the start of the new school year. You could feel the joy and excitement as students were welcomed back by their teachers from Ojai to Oxnard to Westlake and everywhere in between.

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy. The rise of the Delta variant and a slew of new pandemic-related state laws and regulations that came at the end of the summer left school leaders scrambling. These included mandatory masking for students, requiring school employees to be fully vaccinated or tested weekly, and complex rules about student quarantines and at-home learning.

It’s important to point out that local school officials do not create these rules. They’re handed down from state legislators in Sacramento and the California Department of Public Health, and local school districts are required to implement them. There are passionate feelings on all sides of these issues because they directly affect the health and wellbeing of our children. But wherever you stand, I urge you to remember that the people who run our schools and teach our students are dedicated professionals who are passionate about doing the right thing for kids.

Because of the pandemic, school employees have had to take on additional health related responsibilities. They’re now in charge of things like arranging COVID-19 testing, conducting contact tracing, and coordinating quarantines. This is all happening at a time when there’s a serious shortage of teachers and school staff. Through it all, I have been very impressed by the creativity and dedication shown by our school board members, administrators, teachers and staff. Everyone is working to make the best of a difficult situation, so students have safe and nurturing places to learn and grow.

As we venture further into the school year with the course of the pandemic unknown, there will undoubtedly be new obstacles to overcome. Some areas for improvement are already evident. For example, you may be surprised to learn that schools are no longer allowed by the state to offer distance learning as we knew it last year. Instead, they must rely on a much less flexible system called independent study, which has been around for years but was never intended to meet the requirements of quarantined students during a pandemic. Finding qualified people to lead independent study classes in the midst of a teacher shortage is a serious problem with no easy answers. School leaders are calling for changes in Sacramento and, in the meantime, developing their own creative solutions to maximize opportunities for students who need to learn from home. 

I also want to acknowledge the parents, families and caregivers who have been supporting and advocating for their kids throughout the pandemic. Those of us in education are acutely aware of our profound responsibility to care for the children entrusted to us every day. We realize how hard it is for families when students can’t attend class in person and also how scary it can be to send a child to school during a pandemic. Please know we’re doing everything in our power to maximize safety while providing the full array of academics, extracurricular activities and emotional support that students need.

Despite all of the challenges posed by the pandemic, I remain optimistic about the future. With the COVID-19 vaccine expected to be available for younger children later this year, we’ll have another vital tool to keep kids safe at school. And let’s never lose sight of the progress we’ve already made. Our students are back in class, our athletes are back on the field, and the rhythms of life we’ve been missing for so long are finally starting to return.