If teachers get vaccinated, schools in California should be '100% open,' education professor says

As pressure to reopen schools in California mounts and the debate over who should get vaccination priority continues to rage, at least one expert says that there is no excuse for teachers not to return to the classroom if they receive the double dose of the coronavirus vaccine. 

"Let me just say categorically, if teachers are vaccinated, and a large number of adults are vaccinated, schools should be 100% open in the fall - without any excuses," Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California, told KTVU over the weekend. 

Polikoff isn't alone in how he feels. 

Parents and behavioral experts say many schoolchildren are feeling helpless or depressed and need a classroom setting to improve their mental health. An exasperated Gov. Gavin Newsom told school officials last week to "pack it up" if they fail to resume in-person classes soon.

San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney said that the school closures have had a "devastating impact" on children and that the vaccines are the key to going back. 

"The purpose of vaccinating educators is absolutely to be able to open schools," Haney said in an interview over the weekend. "For teachers, for educators, getting vaccinated allows them to be back in the classroom, I believe those two things are connected."

CalMatters reported that 155,000 students left the public school system in California this year. 

And Polikoff said these numbers could climb even higher. 

"There's absolutely no question that we need kids to get back in the classroom, because what started as 150,000 could become 500,000 as people just opt out of the system, altogether," he said.  "We don't really have great data on how many kids are in school nationwide or even in an individual state. We know some districts have not been in person all year."

And he said the Golden State has had among the worst track record of attendance. 

"We certainly know that, on average, California kids have been in school less than children in other states," he said. 

While Texas, Florida and New York are among states that have resumed some classroom instruction, California’s 10,000 public schools have for the most part been closed since March. As most of the state’s 6 million public school students approach a one-year anniversary of distance learning, parents are grappling more than ever with the toll of isolation and intense screen time on their kids’ well-being.

School districts, unions at odds over how and when to reopen safely

But the in-person proponents face strong opposition from teacher unions who say they won’t send their members into an unsafe environment. They want all teachers to be vaccinated before returning to the classroom. And even then, there isn't an iron-clad commitment that they'll return to school if a long list of other demands aren't met. 

The plan Newsom unveiled Dec. 30 would give schools extra funding for COVID-19 testing and other safety measures if they reopen. Elementary schools that reopen to their youngest students by mid-February would get more funding than schools that reopen later, and schools that don’t submit an application don’t get to tap the fund.

The proposal, called "Safe Schools for All," sets no timeline for middle and high schools. The plan set a Feb. 1 deadline for districts to file COVID-19 safety plans to qualify for the funding, but that deadline will pass Monday without the legislative approval needed to start the program.

The California Teachers Association sent the governor a letter, criticizing his plan.

"The virus is in charge right now and it does not own a calendar," the letter said. "We cannot just pick an artificial calendar date and expect to flip a switch on reopening every school for in-person instruction."

In an interview with KTVU last week, CTA President E. Toby Boyd said he still doesn't feel it's safe to go back to a confined room. 

"It’s not as open as a grocery store, and the chances of them possibly spreading the virus is going to be elevated," he said. 

The largest school districts — Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno, Long Beach, San Francisco and others — say the plan sets unrealistic rules and timelines.

Under the plan, schools are only eligible to reopen once their daily new case rate falls below 25 per 100,000 residents, a level that most of California is far from reaching even though virus rates are dropping fast from precipitous highs.

The Associated Press and KTVU's Mike Mibach contributed to this report.