Jessica Cejnar / Monday, March 15 @ 3:23 p.m. / COVID-19, Education

Fed Up With Changing Guidelines, Slow Vaccine Distribution, DNUSD Superintendent Calls For Advocacy Campaign

Fed up with changing state guidelines, some of which he says are guided by politics instead of medicine, the local school superintendent is calling for a countywide advocacy campaign.

In the wake of new California Department of Public Health guidelines mandating students be no fewer than 4 feet from their classmates, Del Norte County Unified School District Jeff Harris said he wanted to urge families to send a letter to the governor and the Legislature describing how response to the COVID-19 pandemic has affected them.

“I would love to deliver 28,000 letters to the state capital and say this is what’s (the executive orders) are doing to Del Norte,” Harris said. “They forget we’re here. They don’t give us what we need. They didn’t give us vaccines… We get lip service. But I’d like them to hear from 28,000 people (saying), ‘this is how it’s impacted my family.’”

Harris said he wants to get local elected officials involved as well. He will be speaking in front of the Crescent City Council on Monday.

During a discussion on what reintroducing more students to Del Norte's K12 campuses would look like, Harris said it’s possible school will start “as normally as possible” in August. There may be minimal distancing, masks will probably still be required and some schools may have to revise their safety plans, but programs like athletics will likely be able to start “from the get-go,” Harris said.

There are two hurdles that stand in the way: The 4-foot distance requirement for students — 6 feet for teachers — and ensuring all DNUSD employees are vaccinated against COVID-19, Harris said. Though the allocation has gotten better, as of Thursday, only roughly 150 out of 700 staffers have received the inoculation, he said.

Harris also brought up State Senate and Assembly bills 86, which were approved earlier this month and would provide $2 billion as an incentive for schools to offer in-person instruction starting April 1. The bill also allocates $4.6 billion to all districts regardless of where they are on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “Safe Schools for All” timetable.

Districts that don’t open on April 1 will have their incentive allocation cut by 1 percent per day through May, according to Harris.

“A lot of districts are having their boards do a ‘Return to School’ plan to get full funding,” he said. “You’ll see hundreds of districts who’ll have emergency meetings between now and March 31 so they can be fully funded on April 1.”

Harris also pointed out that many districts in California are fully vaccinated whereas DNUSD has been “left out of the loop.”

“I hear the frustration from parents; I’ve had them crying on the phone,” Harris said. “I’ve seen students willing to go to lengths they’ve never gone to before just to stay for track practice or soccer practice. This is insane. But those are the barriers we have.”

Trustee Frank Magarino, who represents Trustee Area 3, asked about the feasibility of using schools’ multipurpose rooms or gyms — larger spaces that can fit more desks.

Harris, using Redwood School as an example, said there’s only one gym and one multipurpose room. Because students have to be 4 feet apart from each other at all times and 6 feet away from their teachers, it may only be possible to fit two classes in the multipurpose room, he said. Then you would have two empty classrooms that need to be used, but could only be filled with half the number of students because of the distancing requirement. And the district would need to hire two more teachers to fill those classes, Harris said.

At Del Norte High School, hiring more staff would also be necessary, he said.

Harris also pointed out that setting up a schedule at Del Norte High School to bring more students back took about six weeks of work. Reworking the schedule again could result in a loss of teachers and would disrupt students again, he said.

“If you’ll remember in October, we lost five different teachers during the reshuffle,” Harris said. “With three weeks before spring break and three or four weeks of testing, you’re then down to the last three or four weeks of school, those are considerations I think we would all have.”

Nearly all trustees agreed that opening school in some sense of normalcy likely wasn’t possible for the remainder of this school year.

Board President Angela Greenough, who represents Trustee Area 2, urged her colleagues and district staff to do everything it takes to open school this fall.

“I don’t think we can do it this year, there’s too much crazy,” she said. “I don't want to disrupt students’ learning too pen up this year.”

Greenough also noted that any advocacy campaign should also have buy-in from the county Board of Supervisors, the Crescent City Council, Crescent City Harbor District and local tribes.
Greenough’s colleague, Trustee Area 4 representative Charlaine Mazzei asked district staff to prepare a letter template with space for families to tell their story.

During his superintendent’s report, Harris also mentioned and said district employees, child care providers, TK-12 staff can search by their location or vaccine type to determine who has the vaccine in stock.


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