A local parent coalition of more than 530 members this month submitted a joint statement that called for the Elk Grove Unified School District (EGUSD) to reopen their campuses for in-person instruction. The district’s board heard their statement that was read out loud during their Dec. 15 online meeting.

“We support a reopening that opens all elementary, middle, and high schools concurrently, provides parents a choice between continuing with distance learning, or switching to in-person instruction, and provides students with special needs access to in-person instruction as soon as possible,” stated the EGUSD Parent Coalition’s five-page letter.

This group also asked to become a part of the district’s decision-making process when they plan to reopen schools. They argued that schools can be a safe environment for students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We look forward to working with you to develop a reopening strategy that works for all,” the letter concluded.

Elk Grove Unified’s trustees did not respond to the letter since it was read out loud during their meeting’s public comment period. Board President Beth Albiani directed the district staff to follow up with the concerns expressed by members of the public.

Albiani later told the Citizen about her response to the coalition’s letter.

 “The parent coalition has good questions and an obvious desire to advocate for their children, which I respect,” she said. “Parent input is a valuable resource we appreciate.”

Elk Grove Unified’s 67 campuses have been closed for in-person instruction since early March when a few students were exposed to relatives who tested positive for COVID-19. This district’s 63,000 students started taking online classes or other forms of distance learning in April.

When Sacramento County’s COVID-19 cases were dropping in October, Elk Grove Unified officials considered a plan to reopen elementary schools for in-person instruction in December, followed by middle and high schools reopening the following month.

Such reopening plans were shelved in early November when the state placed Sacramento County in the most restrictive Purple Tier 1 status after a rise in COVID-19 cases. Local private schools that earlier reopened under county approval, such as Bradshaw Christian School and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School, were allowed to remain open if they follow safety guidelines.

Sacramento County along with 12 other counties in the Greater Sacramento region are currently under the state’s stay-at-home order, which could be lifted in early January if the region’s Intensive Care Unit availability rises above 15%.

The coalition’s pursuit of reopening schools

Sean Mitchell, a board member of the EGUSD Parent Coalition, spoke to the Citizen about his group’s goals in reopening Elk Grove Unified’s schools.

“There’s an uneasy feeling forming among parents in their stomachs,” he said about the drive to form the coalition while schools continue to be closed.

Mitchell mentioned the frustration of parents in making themselves heard to district officials.

“We write letters and then nothing happens,” he said. “(The coalition) began as an outlet to give people the chance to do something.”   

Mitchell is a parent of elementary and secondary school students, and he recalled the challenges they faced with their online classes this spring.

“At that time, it seemed more of a vacation with some work,” Mitchell said. “It was a challenge for my kids personally, just with the lack of interaction with their peers.”

He also mentioned the technical challenges of following online lessons on a computer and the harmful impacts on their extracurricular activities. The parent said that his children experienced health effects from excessive screen time when they took their online classes this fall. These effects included insomnia, eye strain, and loneliness.

During his interview, Mitchell expressed his appreciation for the teachers who started the 2020-21 school year with distance learning.

“They had excitement, they tried different things and good ideas, but it didn’t solve the technical challenges, and it didn’t solve being on the screen with five hours of screen time and its effects on my children’s brains and eyes,” he said.

Mitchell noted that he contacted more than 30 district teachers in his work for the coalition.

“They want to join our group, but don’t want to put their name out there because they’re worried about retribution,” he said.    

Mitchell said that his coalition also connected with other parent groups like the Davis Parent Coalition and the Parent Council LA School Uprising.

In their letter to the board, the EGUSD Parent Coalition outlined their stance for reopening schools. They noted that private schools in Sacramento County and nearby counties successfully reopened. They cited Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s health and human services secretary, who stated in October that his staff did not see a connection between school reopenings and an increased COVID-19 transmission.

The coalition also cited a study by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that stated that children are at lower risk of COVID-19 infection and complications than adults. They further argued that while teenagers have higher transmission rates, they’re more capable of following COVID-mitigation practices.

Anne Spencer of the EGUSD Parent Coalition told the Citizen on Dec. 22 that their leadership team was contacted by the district’s superintendent, Christopher Hoffman. She said that he intends to meet with them after the district’s Winter Break.

“We will continue to build alliances regionally and nationally,” Spencer said about their work in January. “Most importantly, we hope to collaborate with the district on a safe reopening of all our schools.  Our message remains firm – schools are a safe place to be.”

The Elk Grove school board will have their next regular meeting online on Tuesday, Jan. 12 at 6 p.m. For more information on accessing their meetings, visit www.EGUSD.net.