Parents worrying about the deteriorating mental health of their children after nearly one year away from school rallied along El Camino Real in Burlingame and urged officials to swiftly reopen campuses.

School community members gathered Wednesday, Feb. 10, near Burlingame Avenue to express their frustration with the deliberate pace of bringing San Mateo Union High School District students back amid the pandemic.

The event occurred just days after district administrators and teachers union representatives reached an agreement to bring students back this school year in a phased approach, beginning with those who have specialized needs.

Under a staggered system allowing more students back to the classroom as the county advances from the purple tier into the orange tier, parents fear most students will not be eligible to return before the school year ends.

“The plan is unrealistic in terms of the idea that the kids could get back this semester,” said Lara McDonald, who helped coordinate the Burlingame parent rally.

As most students continue waiting for their turn to rejoin their friends, classmates and teachers at school, McDonald said their mental health continues to slump while the motivation to excel in online learning dwindles.

“This is something they should be more concerned about,” said McDonald, referring to school officials.

For his part, Superintendent Kevin Skelly said administrators are well aware of the suffering experienced during the sustained stretch of isolation and he committed to addressing those issues while concurrently advancing through the reopening process.

To offer more opportunities for socializing on campus, Skelly said the district has already relaunched team athletics for sports that can start safely. Additionally, he said officials are looking to bring back more extracurricular activities and enrichment programs that will allow students to gather and enjoy some sense of normalcy.

Further, he said there is some hope that freshmen who have not made it to campus in their first year or seniors facing their last few months of high school will be offered unique opportunities to return this year.

Beyond the specialized efforts though, Skelly remained more optimistic that health conditions will continue to improve and all students can come back before summer break.

“We have never thrown in the towel on this year. Other places have — we haven’t and we are not going to. We are going to swing as hard as we can for our kids,” he said.

Districts throughout the county have taken divergent paths to bringing students back to campus. Many elementary school districts have adopted staggered return plans, starting with the youngest students and phasing in later grades. Middle and high schools have posed special challenges, as officials grappled with the scheduling difficulties of accommodating specialized teaching credentials and unique interests of older students. Other districts have agreed to stick with remote learning until next year.

In the San Carlos Elementary School District, parents had planned a Wednesday rally to call for reopening schools as well. But the event was called off when the district and teachers reached an agreement to bring students back in a phased program starting with early grades in March.

A key issue to overcome in planning a return to the classroom has been vaccination for teachers, who have long held that safety is their paramount concern. State Sen. Josh Becker, D-San Mateo, called Tuesday, Feb. 9, for prioritizing educator vaccination, noting the county has the doses and capacity to administer shots to most of the public school teachers in a couple of days.

County Superintendent Nancy Magee lauded Becker’s proposal, noting her office has been working diligently with county health officials, private care providers and others to assure teachers as well as other essential education workers get the vaccination that would allow a more rapid school reopening.

“We wholeheartedly support Sen. Becker’s efforts to open up more vaccine supply into the county which is key to getting more students back to school well before the school year’s end,” she said in an email.

As part of the San Mateo Union High School District’s reopening plan, teacher vaccination is notably absent from the agreement.

With no guarantee that teachers will be soon eligible to receive the vaccine, teacher union President Craig Childress said his bargaining team felt it was wiser to focus on elements that could be controlled to a greater degree when determining a plan for returning to campus.

“We are trying to do whatever we can to get kids back,” he said. “And putting a vaccination requirement on it might arbitrarily and unnecessarily delay some of the activity that we might be able to engage in with mitigating factors.”

Ultimately, Childress said he believed the terms of the district reopening agreement are largely fair and that they set the stage for the safest possible student and teacher return amid an unprecedented health crisis.

More generally, he agreed with parents that the district could have done more to provide students opportunities for social interaction while the classrooms are shuttered.

“We need to do a better job as a district getting kids involved in activities that are not necessarily tied to instruction that can improve social interaction and social health,” he said.

But those calls fall short of the demands brought by parents, who feel there is sufficient evidence to assure that the classroom is a safe environment for teachers and students so long as standard health protocols are observed.

“We are not pushing this because we want the teachers to feel unsafe. Because if it did feel unsafe for the teachers, it would feel unsafe for my child and I wouldn’t be pushing for this,” said McDonald.

More broadly, McDonald said she is exhausted after relentlessly advocating in what she believes is the best interest of her family and community to make only marginal progress.

“It’s been a frustrating process,” she said.

Skelly concurred with that sentiment, while also acknowledging the countless hours dedicated trying to resolve a uniquely challenging health crisis which has upended life across the globe for the last year.

“It’s easy to second guess where you are in life. But I feel good about what we’ve done so far and we’ll continue to do our best,” he said.

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