Jessica Cejnar / Friday, March 27 @ 12:35 p.m. / Education, Emergencies, Health

DNUSD Superintendent Wants Graduation Plans to Continue, Though Schools Remain Closed Due to COVID-19


Del Norte schools will remain closed to limit the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.

But, Del Norte Unified School District Superintendent Jeff Harris has told principals to plan as if everything’s “moving forward” after April 20, including graduation.

“I don’t want to not plan for graduation, be able to have it and then not be able to have it because we didn’t plan for it,” he told the Board of Trustees on Thursday. “I want to plan as if we’re going to do it if we’re able to. I don’t want to miss an opportunity for lack of planning.”

In a report to the Board, Harris recommended trustees revisit their decision to close schools at its April 9 meeting to see if there was additional guidance.

But in light of Governor Gavin Newsom’s March 19 stay-at-home order and a surge in COVID-19 cases predicted to hit California between mid April and early May, Harris said opening school easily wouldn’t be prudent. He noted that communities in the Bay Area and Southern California have closed schools until the first full week in May.

In addition to closing Del Norte schools, Harris told trustees the district will close the front doors of its offices on Washington Boulevard to the public Monday and Friday and will be limiting hours to roughly four hours a day, from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. He said the district offices may close entirely the week after next, but he noted that they don’t get the same traffic from the public as the Flynn Center or city hall.

Since schools closed, teachers, classified staff and administrators have been ensuring kids are fed and are still keeping their minds occupied. Since March 16, the district has distributed more than 30,000 meals to its students.

“We’ve asked bus drivers not to get out,” Harris said. “We’re issuing meals from the front of the bus and curriculum from the back of the bus. New guidelines from the USDA and the state allow families to pick up food without having their children present. We have hand wash stations and hand sanitizer available on buses.”

In addition to putting together work packets for DNUSD’s elementary and middle school students, teachers have been developing lessons students can either do via pencil and paper, online or through both avenues, he said.

The district is holding up to 100 meetings via the Zoom video conferencing program simultaneously, said Ryan Bahten, DNUSD’s director of information network services.

This includes staff meetings, teacher interactions with students and Thursday’s school board meeting, which District 2 representative Angela Greenough, Human Resources Director Coleen Parker and facilities director, Steve Morgan, participated in remotely.

DNUSD is also working on setting up child care for residents who are first-responders, work in the healthcare field or are otherwise considered essential employees during the pandemic.

“At this point there are between 180 and 200 students who may need some sort of child care because we’re a government-heavy community,” he said. “Our families work as first responders. They’re healthcare workers, essential workers, and that includes our staff.”

There has yet to be a positive COVID-19 case in Del Norte County, according to the Public Health Branch. Forty-six tests have been administered locally as of 8:24 a.m. Friday. The results for seven suspected cases are pending and 39 have returned negative, according to the Public Health Branch.

Statewide, there are 3,006 positive COVID-19 cases and 65 deaths as of 2 p.m. Wednesday, according to the California Department of Public Health. Of these cases, 826 were community-acquired and 2,120 were person-to-person transmission.

Child care & volunteers
DNUSD has pegged Mary Peacock and Pine Grove elementary schools as the ideal sites for offering child care because of their proximity to local healthcare facilities, Harris said. Due to social distancing guidelines, there can’t be more than 10 students in a room, he said. Once a cohort is created, students can’t be added to it, he said.

Harris said state recommendations allows K12 districts to offer child care to up to 12 students, but he felt a hard-cap of 10 abides by social distancing guidelines. Two employees will also be in the room with the students, he said.

“We have some of the best people in the state of California who do after school programs,” Harris said. “We also have substitute teachers out there who cannot work in Oregon and cannot work in California and they’re not getting paid like our employees are.”

DNUSD’s newest trustee, Charlaine Mazzei, who is the executive director at the Del Norte Senior Center, asked about the possibility of district employees helping with other organizations who deliver meals and groceries to those needing to stay home.

“One of the big plusses of that is people who work for the school district are background checked,” she said. “We don’t have to be as mindful sending someone with a background check as we were to send a stranger off the street. I don’t know how realistic that is given they all still have duties they’re supposed to be performing.”

Noting that there’s been a request for medical volunteers, Harris said the district’s nurses and licensed-vocational nurses could be a resource for that.

“I think the same would be said for other folks,” he said. “As we’re asking for people to help us deliver meals, if I get a request from another organization, I think we’ll be more than happy to put that out there, to say, ‘if you’re interested this would be available.’”

There are also opportunities for high school students to volunteer, Harris said. Their parents would be required to sign a permission slip. Harris urged students or parents to give his office a call or send him an email.

Grading and high school graduation
Student board member Elizabeth Ward noted that the grading period ends May 1 and asked how orders to close the schools due to the pandemic would affect that.

Though he has been speaking with other county superintendents as well as the State Superintendent of Schools Tony Thurmond, Harris said the state hasn’t determined how grading would be handled for the interrupted semester.

“Legislature hasn’t decided what it wants to do yet,” he said. “But what we’re thinking of, for instance, if you were enrolled in civics class, then just being enrolled in civics class when we went out on March 13 would act for the state as if you have completed civics class.”

However, Harris noted that because things are changing rapidly, he wasn’t sure what would happen. But he promised to keep high school seniors in the loop.

Meanwhile, though he staff to plan for a normal graduation ceremony, Harris said the district has also been discussing other options.

This could include a blended graduation or a virtual graduation, Harris said. Another option is to have a late graduation that’s both local and online to enable those who have moved out of the area for a job or to attend college or boot camp to participate, he said.

Public concerns
Chiming in via Zoom, Sarah Mitchell, vice president of the local California School Employees Association chapter, which represents the district’s classified staff, said her colleagues appreciates the district giving them the flexibility to volunteer to work if they choose.

In a moment of crisis, people shouldn’t focus on equity and equality in terms of work, Mitchell said, noting that some employees may be at higher risk for COVID-19 or may have trouble finding someone to care for their children.

“I know when I first moved here, I had no family, I had no friends, and I had a 2-year-old,” she said. “If something like this would have happened, I would literally have no one to turn to to have my child be watched.”

Mitchell said she and her colleagues appreciated that trustees understood the impact closing schools would have on the community’s families.

“A lot of those families are people that work for us,” she said. “My fear is that there is going to be this idea if one works, they all should work. Just remember that our bargaining unit is fine and happy with stepping up at any point.”

Wild Rivers Community Foundation Executive Director Gina Zottola noted that the Board of Trustees didn’t appear to be abiding by social distancing guidelines on Thursday. She said she was concerned about the district office still being opened.

“You’re going to change hours and do a ‘soft close’ and all these types of things, they don’t feel enough to mitigate the risk to the staff and to the public,” she said. “And Ryan has been talking about the technology the district has invested in, it seems (it should) move to a place, especially given the circumstances, where staff can work from home.”

Harris said the district is working to put computers into the hands of its staff to allow them to work from home to the “fullest extent they could,” but that’s not possible for many employees. He said the district is working on that as a priority, but it doesn’t currently have the infrastructure.

Marshall Jones, president of the Del Norte Teachers Association, said he wanted to make sure every employee is safe. He asked the number of masks, gloves and other supplies DNUSD has at its disposal and suggested that the district use its space better.

The district may want to limit people coming into its building, Jones said, while the board room could be used for those that do need to work to maintain social distancing. He also suggested the district institute split shifts with one team working from 7 a.m.-noon and another working from noon-5 p.m. to limit the number of people in the district office.

“This is an emergency and I’m just thinking, are we prepared?” Jones said. “If everything fails, we’ll be shut off here. That’s not just a school district responsibility, but we should be mindful of safety.”

For more information on DNUSD’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, visit www.dnusd.org/covid19.


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