Jessica Cejnar /
@ 1:17 p.m.
Del Norte Unified To Send Letter to State Asking For More Resources, Better COVID-19 Testing
Citing parents’ frustrations, comparing suicide rates with COVID-19 deaths and claiming that state officials “don’t know what’s going on in Del Norte County,” three school board members discussed petitioning the California governor to reopen schools.
But after their colleagues reminded them that the novel coronavirus has killed 250,000 Americans and is now overwhelming hospitals in rural states, the Del Norte Unified School District Board of Trustees agreed that advocating for better testing with faster turnaround times would be a better message.
“I cannot in good conscious support a letter that says let us open our schools,” Trustee Area 4 representative Charlaine Mazzei told her colleagues Thursday. “I can support a letter that says if you want us to open our schools, this is what we need and this is how much it’s going to cost. That kind of a letter would be helpful and would be something that we can let the state know, ‘hey, us rural communities need testing too.’”
Nearly three weeks after DNUSD’s K8 grades began hybrid learning, the DNUSD Board of Trustees directed Superintendent Jeff Harris to create a resolution and a letter outlining the need for a more robust testing protocol in rural communities.
Trustees also asked Harris to include statistics that illustrate Del Norte County’s struggles with mental health, child abuse and domestic violence — challenges that predate the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is not a criticism of teachers, not a criticism of parents, it’s the lack of that comprehensive education that our kids are experiencing at this point simply because of where we are with the virus and the restrictions,” Harris said. “It really is kind of an exhortation to give us what we need as we move ahead — not to hold us back and not to have us be second fiddle as they provide resources and support to other areas and leave us to fend for ourselves.”
Harris said he’d get input from the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors, the Crescent City Council, tribal and other partners to express the community’s needs at the state level.
The discussion began early in the meeting with trustees Jamie Forkner, Frank Magarino, Angela Greenough and Don McArthur reporting back on messages they’ve received from parents.
Some are still struggling to wrap their heads around the various digital applications students are required to get through their lessons, Forkner said. Others say the level of homework they’re having to help their child with is burdensome after a long day at work, according to Forkner.
Greenough said parents she’s talked with say getting they have to fight with their child to contact their teacher, but the 5-10 minute check-in time isn’t worth the effort of logging onto Zoom. This has brought up concerns about attendance, Greenough said.
Magarino described apps that freeze, youngsters getting kicked out of lessons and parents wanting to scrap the entire 2020-21 school year and come back in September 2021.
“That’s a whole year of lost education that we have a responsibility to give,” Magarino said. “It’s our duty to do that. How we go about it, we’re not figuring that out. We’ve got to figure that out really fast because there’s just too much things that are percolating that are having far more damaging (effects) than what’s going on with these other things.”
In response, Harris described the difference between synchronous instruction conducted by a teacher either in person or online and the asynchronous instruction, which involves students working on their own. California law requires students to have three to four hours of instruction daily, according to Harris.
When students are at school, however, Harris said he’s heard from teachers and principals that disciplinary problems have decreased. Some instructors say their students are learning more because they’re in smaller groups. Others say youngsters don’t want to leave campus when the day is over, Harris said.
“They are seeing the ability to come to school as a privilege and something they’re truly valuing and missing massively,” he said. “Almost every teacher I’ve talked to has talked about the importance of those relationships and how difficult those relationships are in distance learning.”
This is huge, Harris said, because the social distancing and isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic has increased depression and anxiety locally.
“Over the past three weeks, we’ve worked with three different families who have either had students attempt suicide or had suicidal thoughts or ideation,” he said. “And these are kids between kindergarten and 12th grade. So, really providing supports and understanding where we are is part and parcel of where we’re finding ourselves in this whole mix.”
Harris said another local statistic he’s heard from Del Norte County Child Welfare Services that the number of referrals has decreased by about 60 percent. This, he said, is due to children having limited interaction with nurses, teachers, psychologists and other caregivers who would make those referrals.
Harris also pointed out that when speaking with colleagues and education officials at the state level, when testing is brought up it’s always centered around the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. He described a questionnaire from a magazine asking about DNUSD’s testing efforts and whether the district is following California Department of Public Health guidelines.
“CDPH recommends monitoring and testing if it’s available and we don’t even have it available,” he said. “As a matter of fact, they’re telling people if you think you have COVID, contact your doctor first. They’re saying don’t get tested, see if the symptoms resolve.”
In response to her colleagues, Mazzei said that with 250,000 deaths in the United States, COVID-19’s mortality “outstrips five years worth of flu deaths.
Yet, Mazzei pointed out, there are many in Del Norte County who don’t take the pandemic seriously. She described visiting Walmart and seeing half of its patrons not wearing masks and dropping someone off at an outdoor church gathering with no social distancing.
“If anybody could get a rapid turnaround test that wanted one, I’d be all for it,” she said. “I just don’t think we’re in a position yet to safely double the number of kids that are sitting in a classroom and that’s what would happen. It scares me because people say they want schools to open, but I see a large portion of the population that aren’t following the guidelines that would allow that to happen.”
McArthur brought up North and South Dakota rural states with high COVID-19 infection rates.
“They don’t want to wear masks, don’t want to do mitigation and they are reaping the consequences,” he said. “As a county, we have been fortunate. We haven’t had widespread illness…”
McArthur also expressed frustration at the lack of testing protocols and plans for rural communities. He said he would support a letter advocating for free testing with a fast turnaround, saying that would put students back in school faster and get the economy going “in a robust and healthy way.”
“I don’t see how we can represent to the public that we can keep people safe in our schools until we have a robust testing plan so that anybody who wants to be tested or who has symptoms (can be tested),” McArthur said. “Or even a surveillance testing program so we can catch infections during that period of time when people are asymptomatic but still infectious. That’s what’s going to open up the economy and that’s what’s going to be key to unlocking other things that we all want, which is our kids back in school.”
Former sheriff, Dean Wilson, said he supported a “resolution to reopen schools,” saying that if local officials want Sacramento to notice Del Norte County, they need to force them to respond. The risk of infection from COVID-19 to children is low, Wilson said, and he’d rather have his three kids back in school where the education quality is better than the virtual options.
“They’ll ignore us as they ignore the majority of small areas like ours,” Wilson said of state officials in Sacramento. “Only when you ask are you going to a response.”
Cheryl Bradley, an English teacher at Del Norte High School, said she and other teachers also struggle with distance learning. She wants to be with her students as desperately as possible, but the “virus is driving this.”
“We can’t just fling our doors open or we’re going to be like the Dakotas,” Bradley said. “We can’t possibly risk our healthcare system overloaded. We can’t possibly risk it. It would be disastrous.”
Three new COVID-19 cases were reported to the Del Norte Public Health branch on Thursday, according to the county’s information hub. Two cases were household contacts of a previously known case. The third case was travel-related.
Del Norte County has a total of six active cases as of Thursday, according to the county’s web page.
Del Norte County is currently in the moderate tier of California’s four-tier Blueprint for a Safer Economy. In this tier, some indoor businesses are able to operate with modifications.