County supervisors call for health department to find a way to reopen schools for all students, not just those challenged by physical, mental and language barriers
TULARE COUNTY – Tessa Hall knows how draining it can be staring at a computer screen trying to juggle a business, a home and a family’s schedules, groceries and finances. But that’s not how the Tulare mother envisioned her three children would spend their school year.
After a spring semester drastically reduced her children’s access to education, enrichment and social experiences, the fall semester began with her fourth-grade daughter losing her passion for learning and watching the tears of her preschooler as she struggled to cope with the confines of a pandemic she doesn’t understand. Because she and her husband both work full-time jobs and run a business. They are unable to be home, and rely on an aide to stay with their three children as they struggle with online learning.
“It’s a very unnatural environment for a child to be learning in,” Hall said. “It’s awful to see.”
Frustrated and emotional, Hall decided she was going to make an impassioned plea for her county elected officials to reopen her children’s schools. Before going to the meeting, she decided to do some research on the state’s waiver process allowing elementary schools to reopen. She came across a single line in an Aug. 10 letter from the county health department about the process which solidified her decision to speak out against the current state of education.
“Until Tulare County has transmission rates (and other metrics as set by the State) under control, the risk of returning to school for in-person learning outweighs the benefits therefore we will not currently be accepting waivers,” the letter stated.
“The risks outweigh the benefits of having these kids in school?” Hall told the Tulare County Board of Supervisors at its Sept. 1 meeting. “I was floored when I saw that on the website.”
She said she is worried about the mental toll it is taking not only on her children, but thousands of children across Tulare County. Hall said the risks of children being home alone include escalating gang violence, a potential rise in suicides and increasing historically high teen pregnancy rates make going back to school an acceptable risk for the long-term mental health of the county.
“You are in a unique situation and could make history here to take a big stride to get children back in school,” Hall said.
Hall was among a roomful of parents who came to the meeting to plead with the county to reopen schools. Danielle Griffiths, a former high school teacher in Tulare and Visalia, said she lost 80% of her income when she was forced to shut down her business and is now watching as the county loses 80% of her three child’s education in the spring, and to a lesser extent the fall.
“They aren’t learning and they are miserable. Everybody is miserable,” Griffiths said. “All three are top level kids, they are miserable, depressed, anxious and not sleeping.”
Other parents said they were unable to be with their children during the school day because of their jobs, military deployments, and even their own health struggles. Lisa Taylor of Visalia said her daughter is in kindergarten but spends most of her day on YouTube because she works and her husband is deployed. Taylor said her daughter was reading the book Corduroy for school. A project on the reading assignment asked her to retell what the plush bear and then asked her to write about what she wished for.
“She wrote, ‘I wish for this virus to go away. I hate my life’,” Taylor said. “I’m seriously concerned about the social and emotional development of my only child.”
Tiffany Beggs, a mother of four, said she has multiple health issues that keep her tied up with doctor’s appointments and ailments that do not allow her to assist her children with distance learning. She said she has a high school freshman who is overwhelmed by distance learning and wants to drop out of school and a first and fourth grader who she fights with every day to stay on Zoom meetings and do their homework.
“As a mother I feel like I am failing my children due to my health,” she said.
Eric Johnson, a father of four in Visalia, said he doesn’t understand why schools were not declared essential and how teachers could be allowed to decide not to work if they are essential.
“Other than agriculture and food, I can’t think of a more essential service than education,” Johnson said. “Tulare County feeds the world, but the minds of students are starving to be educated.”
Officer over officials?
“As a board, we do not approve the waivers, but instead it is the public health officer who approves the waivers,” Supervisor Eddie Valero explained during the public comment period. His statement only served to further incite the crowd for deflecting blame.
Alison Caspergen called Valero’s comments disappointing and reminded him and the other Supervisors they were elected to represent those in attendance and their constituents expected them to use their positions to advocate on their behalf.
“We are allowing one person in California to dictate what is happening in our families, our cities and our counties,” Caspergen said. “It’s time we all wake up and move forward. It’s time we take a stand.”
Dr. Todd Martin of Visalia said he found it “horrifying” that an unelected official was allowed to override elected officials. He also said the governor’s metrics were irrelevant because they didn’t take into account the number recoveries or the demographics of the cases. Instead of tracking new case rates and positivity rates, Martin said hospitalizations and recovery rates are what matter. According to the CDC, 92% of COVID deaths are people over the age of 55 and that one of the largest studies of school-age children during pandemic came out of England where they found only 70 of 1.6 million school age children contracted COVID and none involved hospitalization. The contraction rate was no larger than the greater population.
“The right people were getting the illness and we are treating it better,” Martin said, referring to an increase in middle-aged Americans who had an extremely high recovery rate. “This is not Italy. The data is important.”
Supervisor Dennis Townsend said the powers of the public health officer over the county elected officials is something he said the board will continue to look into and will have more discussions on in the near future.
“The point is really well taken on the dais today, especially in terms of local control,” Townsend said.
Cohorting with the rules
The pleas from parents came during the public comment period of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors Sept. 1 meeting. It was the first meeting since the Governor had announced his “Blueprint for a Safer Economy,” a four-tiered, color coded system that still ranks Tulare County among the worst in the state for the infection rate of coronavirus.
Tim Lutz, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), said the governor’s plan did include the addition of cohorts, a system that allows campuses to reopen for transitional kindergarten through sixth grade students who are at a disadvantage during distance learning.
Lutz said cohorts do not require a sign off by the county, meaning they can open today as long as they can prevent different groups of teachers and students from coming into contact with each other and are following the state’s guidance for social distancing between students within the same cohort.
“This is a very trying time,” Supervisor Kuyler Crocker said. “School districts have their own authority and I encourage you to look at cohorts and day camps that already fall within the state’s guidelines.”
In an interview after the meeting, Crocker said several school districts in his supervisorial district were interested in cohorts including Farmersville Unified, Lindsay Unified and Strathmore Union Elementary. The only district to formally announce its plans for cohorts was Visalia Unified School District (VUSD).
On Sept. 4, VUSD announced it would be taking a staggered approach to bringing back cohorts of these students. The district’s first step is to begin scheduling in-person, one-on-one meetings for special education and language assessments. The district will begin providing in-person instruction for students with individualized education plans (IEPs) during times when students are not scheduled to be on Zoom calls with their teachers. During this time VUSD will be developing plans for all of the targeted groups to return.
“Students in these groups typically receive supports and services at school which are above and beyond regular classroom instruction,” Superintendent Tamara Ravalin said in a released statement. “Our homeless students need a safe and secure place to learn. Some of our students with disabilities are not able to access the curriculum through distance learning.”
If these groups did not add up to the 25% enrollment number, the county implied that students with “limited access to technology or internet access” could be allowed back on campus but the county did not return calls as of press time to confirm.
“In all of the first three steps, we will follow the CDPH COVID-19 Industry Guidance for Limited Services and we will continue to work closely with the Tulare County Health and Human Services Department,” Ravalin wrote.
VUSD also said it is moving forward with completing school waivers for its elementary campuses to welcome all students back to campus with strict health and safety guidelines in place. The most likely scenario, Ravalin wrote, is that VUSD would start a return to school with transitional kindergarten through 2nd grade students. The district will also continue to look for ways to improve the experience for families who want their students to remain on full-time distance learning.
“Visalia Unified School District is committed to providing equitable, quality education for all students while honoring social distancing and health and safety guidelines to maintain a healthy environment,” Ravalin concluded.
Waiving the rules
The argument for cohorts and day camps until the waiver process can take effect did not sway Supervisors Vander Poel and Townsend.
Both blasted the governor for changing the rules and for not including a green category allowing a full reopening of all business sectors. Vander Poel noted Kings County granted a waiver to a school last month, Kern County had granted several waivers, even though they had yet to meet the old metrics, and Immanuel in Fresno County was taking their case to the state’s highest court to bring its students back to school.
“If you look at guidance, what is soonest to get schools reopened?” Vander Poel asked.
Lutz replied, “We are looking at November at the earliest.”
“Half the school year is gone by then. To me, that is unacceptable. We’ve got to be an advocate for kids who clearly don’t have an advocate in Sacramento,” Vander Poel said followed by an applause from the crowd.
Supervisors Valerio and Amy Shuklian cautioned against opening too early as it might be more difficult to reopen and then close down rapidly than delaying the full reopening of campuses. Valero said even if waivers were granted, there may still be teachers who do not feel comfortable returning to the classroom.
“I just don’t want to see us back in the same situation,” Valero said. “We could negatively impact our economy due to hasty decisions.”
Lutz said he understood the frustration of the public and the board and shared that his own children, one in kindergarten and another in first grade, loved school and are now struggling to participate and stay engaged.
“All of us are parents and struggling through the same types of things all of these parents have talked about today,” Lutz said. “We do need to find a way to build a better mousetrap. My team absolutely understands that.”
Waiving schools on
At the start of the meeting, the only district to complete the school waiver process was St. Paul’s School in Visalia but four other schools had waivers provisionally approved by the county as of press time including Dinuba Junior Academy, George McCann Elementary in Visalia, St. Aloysius Catholic School in Tulare and St. Anne’s in Porterville.
Seth Yocum, head of school for St. Paul’s, said the process was clear and straightforward. The school waiver application, which can be found at covid19.tularecounty.ca.gov, asks districts to prove they have a reopening plan approved by its governing board and posted to its web site for the public and confirm the district has consulted with its labor unions and parents. The plan itself must address cleaning and disinfection, cohorting, the movements of students, staff and parents on campus, face coverings and other protective gear, health screenings for students, social distancing measures, staff training and public education of the plan, testing of students and staff, designated contract tracers and health department liaisons and protocols for what triggers closing of a campus and a return to distance learning.
“It’s essentially the operationalization of the plan,” Yocum said. “The county wants to know how you are able to demonstrate what you are able to do.”
Under the cohort system, only 100 of St. Paul’s 351 students would be allowed to return to campus for in-person instruction. Yocum said he thought cohorts were a responsible way to bring back small groups of students but he, his staff and families want to ensure all of their students can return to campus as soon as they are allowed and as safely as possible.
“The tools are very different and one doesn’t replace the other,” Yocum said referring to cohorts versus waivers. “Even in a scenario where you have a waiver, you still have seventh and eighth grade students who aren’t going to be on campus and will have to do distance learning. So maybe you will be allowed to facilitate specific learning needs with small groups [of seventh and eighth graders].”
Tulare County Public Health announced the waiver process on Aug. 10 under the governor’s previous rules for allowing campuses to reopen for transitional kindergarten through sixth grade if their county had been off the monitoring list for at least 14 days or if the county’s case rate was below 200 cases per 100,000 people for 14 days. The monitoring list has now been replaced with a four-tiered, color-coded system in which Tulare County remains in the highest risk category, or purple for widespread rates of infection.
Schools with waivers will not be allowed to reopen for in-person instruction until the county has been in the red tier, for substantial spread, for at least a week. The county’s new case rate would need to drop from its current 18 per day per 100,000 to less than 7 and the positivity rate would have to drop from 12.6% to less than 8 for Tulare County to drop from the purple tier to the red.
“It shifted the goal posts a little bit,” Yocum said.
Five more schools have submitted waivers but their plans for reopening are pending revisions and approval by Tulare County Public Health: Zion Lutheran School in Terra Bella, Sierra View Junior Academy in Exeter, Valley Life Charter School and Central Valley Christian School in Visalia, Outside Creek Elementary in Farmersville.
Lutz said the county is asking more schools to submit their applications for waivers so that once the county drops from purple to red they will be allowed to open campuses for TK to sixth grade instruction almost immediately. No waivers have been denied but none have been approved for reopening either.
Tulare County Public Health will be working with schools to develop plans for the eventual reopening. Applications and all supporting documents should be submitted at least two weeks before the desired reopening date to [email protected]