A school district’s struggle for public health, parents, and politics


This story also ran on US News & World Report. It can be republished for free.

[UPDATED on March 6]

Brandon Dell’Orto listened to the comments and complaints as the school board meeting dragged on for hour after hour. Many parents were angry. Her children were sad, bored, borderline depressed, and fed up with a school model that didn’t allow them to be on campus every day. The parents wanted the schools to open. They demanded it.

Dell’Orto, a history teacher and union leader in the Roseville Joint Union High School District near Sacramento, knew it wasn’t that easy. Many of the district’s classrooms have failed to meet new state guidelines for resuming safe teaching on campus. In addition, 4 out of 5 teachers in his union, the Roseville Secondary Education Association, opposed a full return to physical education. They feared for their safety and that of some of the students, and many preferred to wait for the vaccination before returning to face-to-face teaching.

Dell’Orto also knew that the protocols and opinions were unlikely to affect the final decision. In the last election, Roseville voters had chosen three school board members who were mainly committed to reopening classrooms full-time. It was clear, Dell’Orto said, that the new members would do just that.

There are 1,037 public school districts in California, each of which can make their own decision about reopening schools during the Covid-19 pandemic. Politics and public health are at war in many districts, including this one. While the classrooms in neighboring Sacramento County were closed for almost a year, the Roseville schools went the other way.

On the night of the meeting, January 26th, the school board conducted an online survey of parents. Within three days, 94% of these households had replied, and the results were clear: they overwhelmingly wanted schools to be reopened for face-to-face lessons five days a week. On January 31, the board of directors approved such a reopening with immediate effect.

“We’re not going backwards,” Lisa Mendenhall, parents of an Oakmont High School student, said at the board meeting.

According to Dell’Orto, Roseville teachers have been on good terms with the district, its families and the school board for years. However, when discussing continuing a hybrid versus a full return to campus, the teachers’ union that proposed the hybrid was largely ignored. During the 5½ hour meeting on January 26th, Dell’Orto said he had been given 90 seconds to weigh.

“We’re really trying to be a pragmatic, productive partner,” he told California Healthline. “However, lately everything has gone to ‘Pick a Page’.”

“That is why the country is in this situation,” Dell’Orto told the board. “Because people don’t want to follow guidelines.”

The board approved a back-to-school order, even though three of the six high schools in the district failed to meet guidelines for maintaining recommended student spacing. In an earlier attempt to reopen after the winter break, one of the schools, Roseville High, had to close quickly after a shy outbreak quarantined hundreds of students and staff.

Jess Borjon, the district’s interim superintendent, told California Healthline that administrators “are confident we can get the minimum 4-foot space between desks,” under new California Department of Health guidelines issued in mid-January , is permissible. The Roseville High outbreak, he said, “was a reminder of how diligent we must be to stay open.”

Roseville is a predominantly suburban city northeast of Sacramento with around 141,500 inhabitants. Unlike Sacramento, however, it is located in largely rural Placer County, which stretches as far as Lake Tahoe and has voted for the Republican candidate in five consecutive presidential elections.

Placer County, of nearly 400,000 residents, has tended to defy health and safety protocols during the pandemic, and many businesses and churches have opposed the shutdown.

Last summer, the district’s supervisory authorities, dissatisfied with the reluctance of their health officer to arbitrarily terminate arbitrary emergency calls, revoked her authority and then lifted the emergency itself. The officer, Dr. Aimee Sisson, resigned immediately and was reassigned to the same position in nearby Yolo County, whose supervisors have closely followed her direction and closed schools.

In the school council elections in Roseville that fall, a returning member and two new candidates were elected with the promise that they would reopen the schools. The newly elected Heidi Hall is listed as the placer “County Coordinator” of the statewide petition to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom.

Hall blamed the Democratic governor for the confusing and changing state guidelines for reopening schools. At the January 26 meeting, she stated that California’s distancing recommendations “make no difference in these positivity rates” and that it is “irresponsible to listen to this non-science policy”.

In fact, the CDPH guidelines for reopening schools closely follow the protocols recently drawn up by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These guidelines sparked heated debate among experts, some of whom said it was impossible to reopen schools while following them. President Joe Biden has repeatedly stated that he would like most US schools to open by the end of April. While children rarely become seriously ill with Covid, their ability to transmit the disease remains a topic of great concern, and the CDC recently found that teachers and staff in schools where dissociative recommendations are not followed and masks are not acted as vectors Can act borne by Covid.

None of that mattered in Roseville. The three newly elected board members voted against a motion that would have kept the high schools in the hybrid model, with some students coming to campus on select days. This would have allowed the six high schools, with a total of more than 10,000 students enrolled, to follow CDPH guidelines more closely. Their votes rejected this proposal 3: 2. They later voted to study on campus again. (None of the three questions answered by KHN.)

The health department memo provides 6 feet of space between student desks unless, following a “good faith effort,” such space is determined to be impossible. In this case, the absolute minimum is 4 feet. Three of the Roseville district schools were also unable to meet the 4 foot requirement. They opened anyway.

Doug Ginn, who teaches science at Oakmont, noted that the heating system in his lab “only brings in 10% fresh air” for classes of often 40 students or more. Ginn’s solution recently was to open the front and rear windows and turn on a fan to let the fresh air flow through. It was 35 degrees outside when school started, he said.

“I’ve already lost two students [who returned to remote learning] because they don’t feel safe, ”said Ginn. “We do everything we can, but for courses like labs where being there in person is so important, there are only so many ways to transform a crowded space.”

When the district tried to redesign the classrooms to meet security requirements, the students were back on campus. Jennifer Leighton, headmistress at Granite Bay High School, told families in an email to The Sacramento Bee that “any form of distancing is not going to happen – sorry – the classes were big and could probably grow 300 more than we did had planned to return. “

Borjon said the proposed distancing guidelines would be impractical if all students were on campus for all classes.

“The problem of clearances in crowded classrooms is a real concern for us and is at the forefront of our thinking,” the superintendent told KHN. “We share the concerns of teachers, students, parents and staff about classroom safety.”

Most parents, however, are still viscerally against the hybrid model. “It’s not working. It’s a failure,” said Mark Anderson, whose son is attending Oakmont. Jennifer Scott, parent of a Granite Bay high school student, added, “It doesn’t make sense that we would go backwards as this pandemic is about to.” The end goes. “

With the Roseville schools open, teachers had to adapt. Schools continue to offer students a zoom option that allows them to remotely monitor lessons if they are unsure about returning to their campus. So far, however, school officials have said they are adding students to campus every week, further limiting their ability to even approach government guidelines for a covid-safe environment.

“We are professionals. We were asked to try to do this work, so we’re trying to get it working, ”said Ginn, whose science class had to be moved to larger areas, including the library. “It is not part of a teacher to just say no. These are our students you speak of. “

This story was produced by KHN publishing the California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

[Correction: This article was updated at 1 p.m. ET on March 6, 2021, to clarify that the Roseville school board vote affected only high schools in the district.]

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces extensive journalism on health issues. Alongside Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three most important operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a foundation that provides health information to the nation.

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