Parents and students hold protest over continued school closures

Parents+stand+on+the+corner+of+El+Camino+Real+and+Burlingame+Avenue%2C+holding+signs+to+advocate+for+the+reopening+of+high+schools.

Amelia Harris

Parents stand on the corner of El Camino Real and Burlingame Avenue, holding signs to advocate for the reopening of high schools.

By Amelia Harris, Burlingame High School - CA

A group of parents and students gathered on the corners of El Camino Real at Burlingame Avenue and Broadway Avenue this afternoon to protest the ongoing high school closures. Passing cars honked in support and pedestrians stopped to chat with the protesters, many echoing their sentiments that schools need to reopen more quickly. Led and organized by Burlingame parents Lara McDonald and Ila Kriplani, families from the San Mateo Union High School District (SMUHSD) held signs that read “IN SCHOOL EDUCATION IS ESSENTIAL” and “Mental Health Matters.” 

McDonald and Kriplani organized the rally with the hope of attracting attention from Gov. Gavin Newsom or local politicians, such as Sen. Josh Becker, after seeing the mental health and educational challenges that students in the community have struggled with during distance learning. McDonald had written numerous letters to SMUHSD Superintendent Kevin Skelly and the SMUHSD Board of Trustees before deciding to work with Kriplani on organizing a peaceful rally to generate more effective change. 

“I’m just concerned for the loss of education,” McDonald said. “I feel you don’t have the same opportunities for social and emotional development when you are remote.”

On Thursday, Feb. 4, the SMUHSD Teachers’ Association agreed upon a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with SMUHSD detailing the terms and conditions for reopening schools. Reopening will not be possible until San Mateo County reaches the red tier, as the county is currently in the purple tier, and will then be conducted in phases, beginning with programs for students with disabilities. In order to reopen, schools need to have adequate HVAC ventilation in all classrooms and conduct contact tracing and thoroughly sanitize classrooms each day, among other safety measures. 

Regardless of the MOU, participants at the rally felt that Gov. Newsom must take action from a state-wide level to reopen high schools, allowing students to return before San Mateo County shifts to the orange tier.

Although the MOU does not require teachers to be vaccinated in order for schools to reopen, according to history teacher and Burlingame High School union representative Joshua Gnass, many teachers feel that it will only be safe to return once they are vaccinated. 

“[The studies show that] if you follow all of the safety protocols teachers and students will still be safe from Covid. With that said, I’ll be honest and say that a lot of teachers are very suspicious of that, very nervous, sincerely worried for their health and safety,” Gnass said.  

Despite teacher concerns that schools will be unsafe without widespread vaccination, McDonald cited a study conducted by Duke University in collaboration with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as well as statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying that opening schools poses minimal health risks to students and staff. McDonald and Kriplani feel that it is imperative for students to return to school as quickly as possible in order to mitigate educational disparities between students and any potential developmental consequences arising from isolation. 

“I literally actually cried over stories that I hear about kids suffering from mental health problems,” McDonald said. “The pandemic has increased those issues — exacerbated them. So, I’m hearing too many stories of children that are suffering.” 

Sophomore Archer Grenier, who attended the rally with friends, feels that distance learning presents academic challenges in terms of his attention span, in addition to creating a barrier between students and their peers. 

“[My reasons for wanting to return are] pretty much even for me with social development skills as it is with taking in the actual content of school. High school is a big social experience for people and for kids like freshmen who haven’t gotten this, and haven’t gotten this community,” Grenier said. 

Freshman Maeve Canniffe was motivated to attend the rally due to her feelings of isolation from her classmates. As a freshman, Canniffe feels disconnected from the school having never been on campus nor having met her teachers in person.  

“I just want to see people and remember people [from middle school] that I might have forgotten about,” Canniffe said. 

While the district and SMUHSD Teachers’ Association have said that no changes will be made to the reopening plan once the Board approves the MOU, McDonald and the other protesters remain hopeful that the state will take action to reopen high schools. 

“This rally is not directed at individual teachers and families appreciate their teachers,” McDonald said. “We feel that with all the science and data out there and the right protocols put in place, that the teachers can be safe and the students can be safe in the school environment.” 

As tensions in the community continue to rise over the return to school, Gnass emphasized the importance of finding common ground between teachers and Burlingame families. 

“There are people who care about students and teachers, and they want to find a compromise and I think that that’s the bottom line: How do we find that compromise?” Gnass said.

This story was originally published on The Burlingame B on February 10, 2021.