California has finally reopened. But we can’t forget the ugly truths we learned from COVID

Tulley Smith, 6, a first-grader at Leataata Floyd Elementary School, works with his mom Marcheri Smith on online distance learning in their home in Sacramento on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. As California reopens and vaccinated people can do more without masks, we can’t forget the lessons we learned about unequal health and education access, writes The Bee’s Editorial Board. JASON PIERCEJPIERCE@SACBEE.COM

BY THE SACRAMENTO BEE EDITORIAL BOARD JUNE 15, 2021 05:00 AM, UPDATED JUNE 15, 2021 10:01 AM

It’s a momentous day for California, and signals a long-awaited shift in the pandemic — the state is fully open for business.

Starting Tuesday, there are no capacity limits or social distancing rules in public. Highly-effective vaccines are abundant. Masks are no longer required in most indoor settings — excluding health care, transportation and child care — as long as you’re vaccinated.

In many respects, it feels like we reached the “light at the end of the tunnel” that everyone was talking about. For those who are vaccinated, the desire to ditch facial coverings and go somewhere crowded is understandable. Isolating for 15 months came with sacrifices that profoundly affected our livelihoods and our physical and mental well-beings.

But as we acknowledge the gravity of this shift toward “normal,” we cannot forget the grueling and devastating journey to get here. This week, we’ll reach the grim milestone of 600,000 COVID-19 deaths nationwide. With so much attention on vaccines — and rightfully so — we must also acknowledge that one in three people in the U.S. are mourning.

More than 62,500 people died in California. That’s more than all of America’s losses during the Vietnam War. Our pandemic death count, which skyrocketed after the holidays, led the country. California’s 3.8 million infections were also the nation’s highest.

We need to respond to the painstaking lessons we learned over the past 15 months if we want to rebuild a more equitable California that ensures those mistakes are never repeated.

Investing in public health is the most important preventative measure we can take. County health departments were gutted and repeatedly denied funding in the years before the pandemic, and the effects of those decisions showed. Wealthier, whiter residents had fewer infections and death while poorer communities of color, who turn to public health agencies and community clinics more often, suffered the most. It took months for county departments to scale up and meaningfully respond to COVID-19.

Astonishingly, funding public health remains one of the most contentious issues in budget deliberations. The deadline for California’s budget is Tuesday, but the Legislature adopted a placeholder bill on Monday so state leaders could iron-out specifics in trailer bills and budget revisions in the upcoming weeks. A final budget without the $200 million annual commitment sought by public health leaders would be a colossal failure by California’s leadership.

Our education system also needs fundamental changes. A January study by California’s top university researchers found that low-income students and English learners suffered substantial learning losses. Despite the heroic efforts of teachers and administrators, distance learning caused significant setbacks for Black and Latino students.

California public schools are at a crossroads. Tens of thousands of parents switched to private schools last year. Meanwhile, California’s public schools lost more than 160,000 students, potentially jeopardizing the long-term viability of districts across the state.

Faith in public education has been shattered. Labor politics between districts and unions has only made it worse, and repeatedly moved discussions about education away from the needs of children.

Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a historic $121.7 billion for K-12 education and nearly $49 billion to expand access to college. These investments, which include universal access to transitional kindergarten, are much-needed and finally increase per-pupil spending.

But they will also take up to four years to implement, and that offers little to the generation of students hurt most by distance learning. State leaders must enact immediate measures that aid students this fall. Opening schools is merely the first step.

Reopening California this week inspires optimism. The prospect of travel, concerts and indoor dining sparks joy. But let’s not forget how we got here, and what needs to change so that the ugly truths laid bare by this pandemic are not a part of our “new normal.”

https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/editorials/article252112768.html

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