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CA superintendent shares plans as public schools reopen

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"I think the number one thing we should be looking at as students are returning to campus right now is, what is their mental health functioning levels, and where do they need support?" said Thurmond.

Video Transcript

- Certainly does seem like California is now fully moving forward in getting its students back into the classroom. Today, two of the biggest districts in the state-- we're talking about San Francisco Unified and Los Angeles Unified-- both started the return to in-person learning.

After months of pretty intense back and forth, dozens of SF preschools and elementary schools opened their doors. So, what lessons did we learn during this process, and where do we go from here? So joining us now is the California State Superintendent of Public Schools, Tony Thurmond. Tony, always a pleasure having you on our show.

TONY THURMOND: Good afternoon. Thanks for having me on.

- OK. This has been such a long road, Tony. This return to school for SFUSD and down in Los Angeles, such a battle. I mean, California was one of the last in the state to reopen schools. Why on Earth did it take so long here in San Francisco and, really, statewide? What ended up solving this so we could get to today?

TONY THURMOND: You can look for many reasons, but I would point to these. If you think about where we were just a few months ago in the winter, we had some of the highest rates of COVID infection, so much so that many of our counties had absolutely no hospital bed capacity. We've suffered more than 60,000 deaths and more than 3 and 1/2 million COVID cases. We've been in a tough spot.

But until recently, where we've now been given clarity on how to use rapid COVID testing and ventilation and other resources to allow us to keep our schools safely open. All that to say we have a pathway now for how our schools can get open and stay open safely. And we're working with 1,000 school districts across the state to do that. I think we're at 9,000 out of 10,000 of our schools that either are open or are going to be open shortly. And so obviously things have really pivoted to a different direction.

- Yeah, Tony, certainly that is the exciting news. But before we continue on, I think people still want to know, why did it take so long. I mean, you look at other states, which also had some very serious COVID numbers, and they were able to open much sooner in some cases.

TONY THURMOND: People have a right to be frustrated. It's difficult. I'm a parent. I think about this too. I just have to say that if you look at the complexity of our state compared to other states, I'm grateful that in our state, right now our state continues to put forward precautions, whereas other states that we're being compared to, they have literally removed mask mandates. I think that's reckless and harmful.

And what the areas that we are seeing, especially the new variants out of England and other places, many of those same states have now moved into positions of shutting down again. And so I literally was speaking with the governor of Michigan. They literally have shut schools down for two weeks because they're seeing dramatic spikes.

And so I think that we've gone the safe route. Obviously, it's frustrating that it's taken a while. But with vaccines now, we didn't have vaccines until recently. 400,000 educators have received the vaccine. We're accelerating and moving into a place where we can do more to keep our schools open safely for in-person instruction.

- Yeah, not to mention here in San Francisco, certainly, the criticism has been in part because of the renaming of 40 some odd schools. So a lot of people were frustrated that that took precedent for a while and took away from the whole vaccine issue. Speaking of vaccines, let's talk about eligibility because very soon, this will be open to ages 16 and older teens. State law requires public school students receive the necessary vaccines. What is the plan for the COVID-19 vaccine?

TONY THURMOND: Yeah. It's exciting that we'll be seeing this week anyone 16 and older, as you said, can get the vaccine. Look, I know there are conversations taking place with the FDA and the CDC about being able to move vaccines to young people at a younger age, as young as 12, some have asked some of the manufacturers. And we're monitoring those. And certainly, I don't think it'll be possible to really get into a conversation about requiring the vaccine until we've heard from our top health and safety folks if the vaccine can be provided to young people in ways that are safe. And so we're monitoring that, and we're looking forward to hearing more about where we might go next.

- Yeah, so if I'm hearing this right, it just seems too soon to make a call. More information is needed.

TONY THURMOND: The fact of the matter is we're still working with lots of adults to help them to get comfortable with the idea of taking the vaccine. And again, I want us to be thoughtful and mindful about our young people. Last week, I did a webinar to focus on how we get more vaccines in the Latino community. How do we get past fears? On Wednesday, we're doing a similar webinar, focus on vaccines in the African-American community. I think there are people who have concerns from all backgrounds.

And we're trying to get a message out that vaccines are safe. I took my vaccine. I'm proud to say it was painless, it was quick. And I think that we were in a place now where we're trying to help everyone see the benefits of vaccines.

- Yeah. And here we are talking about students safety, faculty safety. But I do have to ask you about a developing situation coming out of Knoxville. Multiple people shot at a local high school, including an officer there. Obviously, this is so far outside of your reach.

But we have seen school shootings here in the state, Santa Clarita being one recently, back in 2019. That was before the pandemic. What steps do you think you can take in that regards to make the hallways safer for students and parents? Because now, not only are we thinking about the health safety aspect but also of mass incidents such as that.

TONY THURMOND: It's so heartbreaking to learn about this shooting in Nashville. And obviously our hearts go out to those families and individuals who've been impacted. As you say, even before the pandemic, we'd been working with schools on ways to prevent shootings. And we work with programs like the Mental Health First Aid program that trained teachers and educators how to recognize someone who might be a threat because of what they're experiencing from a mental health crisis.

I support what President Biden is calling for in terms of, how do we get these guns off of our streets and out of these communities through executive order. He's helping us to keep safe. In California, we've known for decades that people buy guns in other states where it's easier to buy guns without tracking them, and then they literally drive them into neighborhoods in California. These guns are not being made in Oakland and San Francisco and Los Angeles, but they're being driven in. I support those laws that really help to get us more reasonable and responsible gun control to keep everyone safe in our communities.

- Now as we are asking our viewers to write in their questions for you, I want to pivot back to the CDC director saying that last week she doesn't foresee schools needing to close down again out of safety for these new COVID-19 variants. We talked about this a little bit earlier, but new research shows they may spread in schools much more than we first thought. What is your idea on this? Because like you mentioned, the last thing you want to do is have to re-close schools like we've seen in other parts of the country.

TONY THURMOND: Most important thing that I can say is that folks have to continue to wear a face mask and use social distancing. It's scary to hear that all these other states have-- Utah, Texas-- all these places that have said you don't have to wear a mask. I think that they are missing the point. Even with the vaccine, a person can transmit COVID.

And so we have to be thoughtful about that. I think the research is mixed, but I trust what Dr. Fauci has said. Dr. Fauci has said that we're seeing cases plateau but at a much higher rate than predicted, which tells us that there's a chance to potentially have to shut down again. I think we can control our own destiny, and that means wearing a face mask, using rapid COVID tests to have awareness of who comes to a school and they might be asymptomatic and positive. These kinds of things give us the kind of awareness that allow us to keep our schools open and safe. And so if we all do our part, I believe that we can continue to keep our schools open without a shutdown, even if those variants continue to proliferate in the US.

- Yeah, and it seems like the protocols are strict for a reason. Can we talk about the social inequities in education? Because you touched upon this when it came to getting vaccinated. We have covered it extensively here at KGO ABC7, about how minority populations are having a really hard time getting the vaccine. Can we talk about that in reference to distanced learning, access to the internet, parents working multiple jobs? How is your office also working to solve this on a state level?

TONY THURMOND: Yeah. Thanks for the question. I'm grateful. This was a system that had to move into distanced learning overnight. And our system wasn't built for that. And that also means that we uncovered, going into the pandemic, almost a million kids without access to high speed internet and many without computers.

And so even though many of our teachers and educators have really leaned in, our students and our parents have been resilient, I'm grateful to students and parents. People have leaned in to try and make distance learning work. There have been some unavoidable bumps. And the same gaps in learning that we've been trying to close-- we always call it the achievement gap-- many of these gaps have been exacerbated during the pandemic. And so we've got to work to offset those gaps.

What we're doing is working to get resources to our schools for more tutoring, for summer programs, for after-school programs, training for our educators. These are the things that we believe will be helpful. Right now I've got a group that's working with educators across the state to develop more strategies for offsetting these learning gaps in the ways that I just talked about.

- And real quickly, I know we have to head to break, can we talk real quickly about the mental health side of things? Because this has been such a challenging process for kids-- the isolation, the mental health challenges of having to be in front of a screen all day long for more than a year. What's being addressed in the classroom to help that transition?

TONY THURMOND: I think the number one thing we should be looking at as students are returning to campus right now is, what is their mental health functioning levels? And where do they need support? This is so different. They've been away for a year. Many of them have lacked direct contact with students and peers. And so right now we're working to expand mental health programs, including MediCal and others, to have more counseling support. I've got a statewide mental health coalition working with our psychologists and others to support our students.

Our students' social emotional well-being is the number one thing we should be paying attention to right now in how to support our students, and we're doing it.

- Boy. You have a full plate. I do not envy your job whatsoever. Thank you so much for taking the time, California State Superintendent of Public Schools, Tony Thurmond. Thank you.

TONY THURMOND: I'm glad to do the job, and thank you for having me on and for getting the message out about how we can support our students and families. Take care.

- I'm sure we'll have to check in with you very soon. Take care as well.