The Colusa County Board of Supervisors and Board of Education, on the behalf of superintendents of the local schools and 4,800 students, are pleading with Gov. Gavin Newsom to allow schools to reopen to in-person instruction.
In an Aug. 25 letter to the governor and Acting California Public Health Officer, Dr. Erica Pan, Colusa County Chief Administrative Officer, Wendy Tyler, and Superintendent of Schools, Michael West, said the metric used to place small jurisdictions on the “watch list” did not make sense.
Dr. Seema Jain, director of the Science Branch for COVID-19 Response, agrees with that analysis because Colusa County’s positivity rate includes some of the same people testing positive multiple times before the virus runs its course.
“This may not make a difference in a large county, but this is a situation in a small county (22,000) where even one or a few people could make a difference in the calculation,” the county’s letter attributes to Jain.
Colusa County officials said they understand the physical health concerns of COVID-19, but that the state must look at the totality of health in determining how to best manage education during the cycle of the virus.
“In person instruction provides children needed educational instruction in a safe and nurturing setting, the opportunity to develop their social and emotional skills, opportunity to address nutritional needs, and opportunities for physical activities,” the letter states.
Colusa, Williams, Pierce, Maxwell, and Princeton are currently in session with a distance learning model, but school officials said there have been many challenges, including limited or unreliable internet connectivity, making educating students difficult.
As schools work to provide hotspots, students are forced to find the internet wherever they can if they have no connection at home. Students in Princeton, for example, utilized outdoor tables and parking lots at the school to make a connection. Students also started school, sitting at the tables in the park, in order to connect to the Library’s wi-fi. In Williams, high school students sat in cars in the Starbucks parking lot to find access.
While schools work to overcome a shortage of hotspots over the next week, county officials said that in addition to technology issues, many students, including the children of the county’s farm workers, lack the necessary support they need to thrive in an online learning environment.
“As we continue on the monitoring list, our school children are being deprived of the full benefits of their education,” the letter states.
While the state ended its “watchlist” on Monday, and rolled out a new tiered approach to measuring coronavirus activity in counties, schools that have surveyed parents said the majority want their kids in school, and districts hope to be granted waivers to resume at least K-6 as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, school districts are working on plans to reopen while also offering distance learning through the end of the school year for students whose parents do not want them to return at all.
In Colusa County, several schools have applied for a waiver with the county’s public health department, explaining in detail how they will adhere to guidelines to safely reopen, although district officials believe the state will continue to “move the goalposts” to reopen.
Maxwell Unified Superintendent Summer Shadley, who like Princeton Superintendent Korey Williams, hopes to open K-6 classrooms by Sept. 8, said she has submitted a reopening plan to the county, but that the plan may have to be updated to meet new conditions as they arise.
Shadley’s initial plan was that face coverings worn by students and teachers would be by “personal choice,” but the school board last week said such an option “would not fly” with state public health authorities.
“I feel like it’s kind of like playing the game,” said Trustee Tom Charter. “But as an employer, the district will either follow the guidelines or assume the liability.”
Shadley, like many parents and some health officials, said she had concerns about children wearing masks all day, making them more susceptible to illness from molds or cross contamination.
“I also have parents who said (they) are not sending their kids to school if they have to wear masks,” Shadley said.
Reopening the schools will also rely on cooperation from labor unions, making it harder for public schools, unlike private schools, to transition using a waiver.
While many teachers in Colusa County want to return to the classroom with their students, district officials said there is still a great amount of concern coming from teachers about their and their students’ safety.
Both the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers are also continuing their pressure on the state to keep schools closed until certain recommendations are met, even if districts could meet the requirements for a waiver.
“For our students and educators, safe schools applies to all schools, whether they are on the county watch list or not,” said CTA President E. Toby Boyd, in a letter Aug. 13, to Gov. Newsom. “Safe schools applies to school districts seeking waivers from adhering to CDPH guidance and those that are seeking to comply.”
In addition to passage of a first-in-the-nation Wealth Tax that could add billions to California coffers, the CTA is asking for uniform training to school employees on safety protocols and procedures, and convenient and free COVID-19 testing and flu shot vaccinations for school staff, students, and their families in neighborhoods, and at all school sites.
The CTA also recommends increased COVID-19 testing and increased contact tracing, and lowering the 8 percent positivity benchmark to 5 percent for 14 days, until there is clear evidence that the virus transmission is very low with accessible and timely testing of school employees, Boyd wrote.
The CTA believes fluctuating between online classes and varying degrees of hybrid classes is a plan that leaves the future in doubt during a time when it would be beneficial to prioritize stability.
“While in theory it sounds good to try to get society in general back to as close to ‘normal’ as possible, we’ve now had quite a few months to understand the additional turmoil that is created as we close down, open up, and close down again,” Boyd said.
As of Monday, the state’s new color coded system ranks the severity of the pandemic in the state’s 58 counties, and will, in the weeks or months ahead, determine if schools can open and certain businesses can remain open.
Purple (Tier 1), indicates that the virus is widespread in the county. Red (Tier 2), indicates substantial; Orange (Tier 3), indicates moderate; and yellow (Tier 4), indicates minimal incidence of the virus in a county.
The color or tier the county is assigned is based on just two factors: the number of new positive cases per 100,000 population and the percentage of positive test results over the previous week.
As of Monday, Colusa was purple, meaning schools may not reopen soon to in-person instruction unless Newsom reconsiders restrictions for small counties because of skewed metrics, as the county has suggested.
“We implore you to reconsider your metrics, and allow children to return to the school campuses where their brains can continue to be nurtured and developed,” the county’s letter states. ♣