Jessica Cejnar / Friday, Jan. 15 @ 3:56 p.m. / COVID-19, Education
New State COVID-19 Guidelines Halt Del Norte High School Reopening Plans
Plans to bring more students back to Del Norte High School later this month were shattered Thursday due to new guidelines from the California Department of Public Health.
A cease and desist letter from the California Teachers Association further complicated matters, though Del Norte Unified School District Superintendent Jeff Harris said it was the new safety measures, and the county’s purple tier status, that is halting the high school’s reopening.
However, everything is in place to expand the number of students allowed on campus once Del Norte County moves into a less restrictive tier on the state’s color-coded Blueprint for a Safer Economy, he said.
“The new guidance was released this afternoon at noon,” Harris told trustees Thursday. “No one knew what was going to be in it. We’ve had multiple conversations with our gubernatorial office, county superintendents and state organizations. Earlier this morning, I would have said we met all of the requirements.”
According to Harris, CDPH’s new guidelines outlined in the “COVID-19 and the Reopening In-Person Instruction Framework and Public Health Guidance For K12 Schools In California for the 2020-21 School Year” changed the definition of what it means to reopen a school. To be open, all students within a single grade has to have been offered multiple classes on campus at least one day a week.
Though Del Norte High School students have been taking music, art, automotive, wood shop, agriculture and other electives in-person, the school does not meet CDPH’s new definition, Harris said.
“We can maintain what we’re already doing, but we can’t bring more students back,” Harris said.
The school district could be charged with a misdemeanor if they choose not to follow the state's new guidelines, Harris said.
DNUSD’s K8 schools, which opened to a hybrid model incorporating both in-person and distance learning Oct. 5, can continue with that model, Harris said.
In December, the Board of Trustees adopted a reopening plan that would allow DNHS students to see their 1st-, 2nd- and 3rd-period instructors in-person twice a week for nine weeks starting Jan. 25. During the subsequent nine-week period, students would be in their 4th-, 5th- and 6th-period classes twice a week.
Principal Alison Eckart said this model would reduce in-person contacts between students and instructors by half while allowing for more meaningful learning. The afternoon would be set aside for interventions, enrichment, career-technical education classes, performing arts and support for special education students. There would be no lunch period.
On Thursday, before Harris delivered the upsetting news, Del Norte High School teacher Jenn Longrie told trustees that as long as the county was in the purple tier, by law, the high school couldn’t bring more students back to campus.
Longrie cited a July 17, 2020 CDPH document titled “Reopening In Person Learning Framework For K12 Schools,” which states that if a school isn’t already reopen for in-person instruction while a county is in the red tier and the county moves into the purple tier, those schools cannot reopen until the county moves into a less restrictive tier and remains there for 14 days.
“Del Norte is currently in the purple tier and the reopening of Del Norte High School is therefore prohibited by state law as outlined in the July 17, 2020 Reopening Framework,” Longrie said. “It should also be evident that reopening a large school for the first time during a pandemic while Del Norte County is suffering its highest-ever case numbers is the antithesis of a sound public health decision. Especially considering that the number of contacts each educator at Del Norte High School will be coming in contact with is about 90 students per week and the size of the cohort are 350-ish students.”
Responding in part to Longrie’s comments, Harris said that the California Teachers Association sent a cease and desist order to the district earlier this week on behalf of the Del Norte Teachers Association, the union that represents certificated staff.
According to Harris, CTA’s order demanded the district halt the reopening of Del Norte High School based on the July 17, 2020 guidance. However, that guidance was updated Sept. 4, 2020, and after working with Public Health Officer Dr. Warren Rehwaldt, district officials were confident that campuses could reopen, Harris said.
The guidelines CDPH issued Thursday made CTA’s order and the district’s response moot, Harris said.
“We have to wait until we move into red before we can bring additional students back,” he said. “We’ll continue to have those processes and protocols in place, but we will be looking at that guidance over the next few days to determine what needs to be changed, if anything.”
Harris noted that State Senate Bill 98, which governs distance learning, states that students should be in the classroom whenever possible.
Trustees were frustrated with not only the new guidelines, but their timing, with Trustee Area 3 representative Frank Magarino pointing out that parents are going to “lose their minds.”
“It’s crazy,” he said. “We could talk about all the suffering, but once you witness it first hand, all this nonsense of changing all this back and forth … Parents are losing their minds and we’re losing a whole generation of kids.”
Harris noted that the lack of in-person education has been detrimental on students who have shown signs of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. Some have checked out of the entire educational process and there are those who will struggle to make it into college or may not have enough credits to get a high school diploma.
However, though he noted that social distancing and a lack of in-person education is a stressor on kids and their families, Trustee Area 1 representative Don McArthur noted it is within people’s control to get a handle on the pandemic. He said he had reservations when he and his colleagues began to talk about reopening schools because the novel coronavirus was in the community. What convinced McArthur otherwise was the distress students and families were feeling.
“I was reassured by the administrators that we could do it safely and I’m still convinced we can do it safely and Public Health would be a backstop there were an issue in the community,” McArthur said. “But we’re obligated to follow the rules, and although we may think they should not apply to us, they nonetheless do. The message we need to send to this community is to do the things we know to do to manage the pandemic in the community and then we’re going to get where we need to go.”
Harris, citing Rehwaldt, noted that a county’s position on the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy is based on its adjusted case rate per 100,000 residents as well as its test positivity rate. Del Norte County’s test positivity rate — the number of tests that are positive out of those administered — is 4.3, which would put the county in the orange, or moderate, tier, he said.
In Del Norte County, which has less than 35,000 residents, to get out of the purple tier the number of active cases has to be fewer than 35, Harris said.
Harris suggested visiting the state’s COVID-19 information page, which shows that Del Norte County’s adjusted case rate is 23.3 and its seven-day test positivity rate is 4.3. He said the district has to examine that over time.
On Thursday, Del Norte County’s active COVID-19 case count was 38 with 14 new cases reported to the Public Health Branch, according to the county’s COVID-19 Information Hub.
Trustee Area 4 representative Charlaine Mazzei cited the latest numbers and echoed McArthur’s comments that it’s not in the district’s control it’s in the community’s control about whether schools reopen.
“It's really disheartening to be sitting here listening to parents beg for help with their kids and then see on social media or hear through the grapevine that somebody just threw a party with 100 people in the community,” Mazzei said. “That’s not going to get our kids back in school if people don’t stop doing that.”
Mazzei also noted that it’s easy to have a community rally around a campaign when there’s a clear goal stated and wondered how to get parents committed to that goal.
Harris said embedding the state’s map onto the district’s website may be easy. The district’s new “Hands, Face, Space” campaign has also garnered positive feedback.
“I think a lot of people were very happy that we were moving to bringing more students back to Del Norte High,” he said. “Having this rug yanked out at the eighth hour may encourage folks to take that campaign a little more seriously as we move forward.”
According to Harris, Eckart will still meet with meet parents. In a Facebook post on Friday, Harris told the community more information about reopening the high school would be available on Tuesday.