In the next few weeks, nearly 130,000 students from all corners of Ventura County will be heading back to class for the 2022-2023 school year. It’s hard to believe, but this is the fourth school year in a row to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The good news is that we’ve come a long way from the days of remote learning and mandatory masking. This year, students will again be learning in person, masks will be optional, and most school activities will take place without restrictions.
Schools will continue to maintain healthy environments on campus with enhanced ventilation, hand hygiene and sanitation protocols, and by requiring employees to be vaccinated or tested weekly. While students do not have to be vaccinated, COVID-19 shots are strongly recommended and available for children six months old and older. You can do your part by keeping a close eye on your children’s health and keeping them home from school whenever they have symptoms.
In addition, we are monitoring the emerging monkeypox outbreak and are in close contact with local health authorities. At this point, there have been just a handful of adult cases in Ventura County and none in children. While the risk to school children and the general public is considered to be very low, we are prepared to take any necessary safety measures should the need arise.
Ventura County public schools are also proactively working to keep the nationwide scourge of gun violence away from our classrooms. My office is supporting a countywide initiative to reevaluate and strengthen existing security practices to maximize safety for students and staff. We are working with nationally recognized experts on school safety, including the U.S. Secret Service, and deepening our coordination with local law enforcement agencies. We are also increasing the focus on student mental health with the expansion of wellness centers at middle and high schools throughout the county. This multipronged approach to safety will help all parents rest assured that their kids are safe at school.
It’s no secret that the deep political divisions in our country are now being felt in schools, especially around issues related to gender and race. These are sensitive topics, but they are central to who we are as citizens and human beings, and they can’t be ignored. As a lifelong educator, I believe we are better off when we talk frankly about difficult subjects with students in an age-appropriate way. It’s not about indoctrination, but appreciating our differences, creating inclusive places to learn, and being honest about the good and bad realities of our history.
Amid these challenges, we cannot lose sight of the tremendous progress taking place in public schools. The dream of providing universal transitional kindergarten (TK) for all California 4-year-olds will start to become a reality this year. This optional grade level will be phased in gradually, with full implementation by the 2025-2026 school year. The significance of this program can’t be overstated. Transitional kindergarten greatly improves a child’s chances of success in school and gives working families a safe, nurturing, and cost-free place for their young learners to be during the day. You can get more information about TK eligibility from your child’s school district and at www.vcoe.org/tk.
Another momentous change taking effect this school year is the introduction of free meals for all students. California is the first state in the nation to offer every student breakfast and lunch with no eligibility requirements. This new initiative will have benefits in the classroom since students can better focus on learning when their basic nutritional needs are met.
In a rapidly changing world that’s full of uncertainty, the role of public schools is more important than ever. They give every child the chance to pursue their dreams, reach their potential, and play a part in improving our nation and our world. From academics to athletics to the arts, they provide endless opportunities for personal growth. Schools are also part of the fabric of our communities that have the power to bring people together in profound ways. With the worst of the pandemic behind us, I urge everyone to take full advantage of all that Ventura County schools have to offer as we begin the 2022-2023 school year.
Dr. César Morales is the Ventura County Superintendent of Schools.
This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: Guest column: New school year brings new opportunities