District should protect the county, not force teachers back prematurely

March 8, 2021 — by Nitya Marimuthu

At Saratoga High School, most students recognize their level of privilege to some degree. After all, it is all around us — in the parking lot among the BMWs and Teslas, in the technology lining our classrooms, from smart boards to carts full of MacBooks, and in the average house price of $3,053,334

That privilege is also what gives us all amazing opportunities and a stellar education. The school has a 98% graduation rate, 75% of students have taken at least one AP exam and our average GPA rose in online mode while much of the rest of the country struggled with technology and engagement issues.

But now, while the pandemic rages at full force, we have seen “strikes” by parents across the district, pushing for a school to open up before the majority of teachers have received vaccines. Shamefully, while for years whenever the district makes an attempt to standardize its practices with the rest of the country (i.e., in class offerings, extracurricular benefits, etc.), parents have always argued that SHS differs greatly from other schools nationwide. But now, when it benefits them, parents are flipping this argument, claiming that Los Gatos and Saratoga should follow the example of other schools and reopen fully now.

At the moment, when not all teachers have yet received vaccines and almost 200 new known cases are occurring daily in Santa Clara County, parents should not be so eager to throw caution to the wind. Granted, there are legitimate concerns that have been raised: ones of mental health and academic difficulties, but SHS and LGHS have more than enough resources to meet students’ needs without endangering lives. 

For those who have an actual need to return — namely, students with poor internet connections or learning difficulties that require in-person learning, the cohort systems that are already in place are a viable and safe option. For the rest of students who are only inconvenienced from the pandemic, however, it is time to sit back and wait for schools to be ready to reopen — there’s no rush to move before the district’s planned date of March 24. The district has a sensible plan in place, and we as a community should respect this decision.

Academically, SHS has not faced the huge gaps that we see elsewhere, though some still find difficulty in the new environment. According to registrar Robert Wise, while the average GPA increased in the first 12 weeks of fall semester, the number of F’s also doubled from around 75 to 139. Students who are struggling in the online mode should be given extra support, even if these means they return to in-person schooling. 

In fact, the district has already taken steps to help these students, with tutoring sessions, buddy systems with administrators and a gradual return for these at-need students. This is a shift forward that is necessary and sustainable. Small groups can be easily contact-traced and socially distanced in and out of classrooms. 

The district has also made an effort to integrate students back in during phase 3A, anticipating the social needs of students, with one hour classes on Wednesdays, yet they have met heavy backlash from a group of parents who demand a faster approach. A SF Chronicle article written on Feb. 24 cites multiple LGHS and SHS parents who call this sensible approach “absurd” and a “waste of time.” One parent, highlighting the exact privilege of this area, said it was “frustrating” that the school probably would not open until June or later (the district has substantially shortened that timeline with Phase 3B projected to start April 12). 

“I don’t want to put anyone at risk, but I don’t want to be the last school in the state to reopen,” the parent said. 

We absolutely should be one of the last schools in the state to reopen if need be. Unlike many other schools, we have absolutely no immediate needs (academic inequality) that should propel an early opening. Ironically, despite being a school district that does not have an impending need to reopen, our current plan places us in one of the first districts to reopen, according to the Mercury News

Parents in this article claim that mental health difficulties and social interaction are the biggest reasons for an immediate school opening. However, these issues can easily be solved without a return to in-person school.  

For example, social needs of students can be met through the 3A plan as well as on an individual basis. Just because schools do not reopen does not mean that students cannot gather in small, safe groups together to interact. 

Further, mental health problems have been a point of contention for years at SHS, and the school has already steadily made efforts to rectify this major issue. That is not to discredit mental illness in any way — it is a very real issue and has been especially heightened by the pandemic. However, returning to in-person school will not solve major mental health issues; rather, tele-therapy or other appropriate resources should be implemented instead. At SHS, we already have CASSY services for this and can always add more resources as needed. 

We have more than enough money and people to hold off on reopening. It is time for us as a district to tackle our problems in more creative ways and to recognize the distinctions we have in this area. 

We have the option to change headlines from “Rich Bay Area kids head back to class, others stay home” to ones that see us in a more positive light, finally using our wealth for good. As counterintuitive as it may sound, this is the one time where we should strive to be last rather than first.