Northern Calif. billboard calling for students to return to school sparks controversy

A Northern California billboard calling for students to return to in-person learning has sparked backlash from teachers and others in the community as several schools remain closed amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The billboard, paid for by a group of Sonoma County parents, reads, “Missing All CA Students, last seen 3/13/2020,” according to San Francisco ABC affiliate station KGO

The sign, which reads like an Amber Alert, has prompted criticism from teachers who have been forced to adapt to teaching students and managing classrooms online over Zoom and other video conference platforms.

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Kiyoko Nakano, a local teacher, told KGO that she “was a little bit shocked” by the billboard. 

"It is offensive to teachers for what we are doing," she said, adding, "What they don't understand is I am working four times as hard as when I was in the classroom."

Ryan Sweet, a nurse who has been acting as a stay-at-home parent since COVID-19 halted in-person learning for his two kids, said he believes students need to be back in schools. 

“I would never say the teachers are not working hard. But they can walk around in their pajamas all day long instead of being next to kids in the classroom,” he told KGO. “We need them there.”

KGO noted that each of the parents who paid for the sign declined to be interviewed on camera or identified by name. 

Maya Perez, superintendent for Sonoma County’s school district, said that "it is a very difficult process to get our schools ready" for in-person learning amid the pandemic but added that some students could be back in the classroom by early March. 

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According to the California government’s website, Sonoma County elementary, middle and high schools are conducting only distance learning as of Tuesday, though some surrounding counties have either returned to in-person instruction or have a hybrid of classroom and virtual learning. 

The debate on how schools should move forward comes as Sonoma County on Tuesday recorded more than 100 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the county total to 27,361 infections. 

The Associated Press reported over the weekend that while California’s coronavirus death rate continues to hold steady as it approaches 50,000 for the state, the number of hospitalizations has fallen in recent weeks. 

The AP noted that the number of coronavirus patients in hospital beds across California dipped below 9,000 over the weekend, down by more than 33 percent over the last two weeks.