The following is a column submitted by Mendocino County Superintendent of Schools Michelle Hutchins, published here as a letter-to-the-editor:
If you’re feeling confused about the current COVID safety guidelines, you’re not alone. Between late December and early January, the California Department of Public Health released four new sets of guidelines in 15 days in response to changing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as they scrambled to keep up with new threats posed by Omicron.
While public health organizations can (and do) respond quickly to changing health conditions, legislators are not as quick, leaving schools with the thankless job of complying with health safety guidelines while also following legislative education mandates. So, while schools must assure that students who test positive for COVID-19 stay home for five or more days, a school must simultaneously go through the laborious task of having parents sign a short-term independent study contract if it hopes to receive reimbursement for the cost of educating that student during isolation.
Until December, the term “fully vaccinated” referred to those who received the initial two-dose regimen of the mRNA vaccines or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson. Now, if staff are booster eligible but have not had a booster shot, they are not considered fully vaccinated, and thus, are lumped in with the unvaccinated, requiring staff to quarantine for at least five days if exposed to the coronavirus.
Mendocino County schools have spent countless hours keeping students as safe as possible, doing everything from providing personal protective equipment to offering almost constant testing for students and staff. Most districts have been able to keep the doors open, but when too many teachers who are no longer considered fully vaccinated are exposed, schools have no choice but to move students to short-term independent study. Why can’t we just go back to distance learning for a little while, you ask? Because well-meaning state legislators outlawed distance learning and replaced it with this burdensome short-term independent study in an effort to get students back in the classroom. They did not want distance learning to be a crutch for schools.
As we work our way through Omicron, schools are still doing a great job of keeping students and staff safe. For the time being, most schools have enough masks and test kits, though shortages are looming. Schools are adjusting schedules, even changing dates for spring break in some cases. They are combining classes so a single teacher can oversee students for a quarantining colleague. In secondary schools, teachers are giving up their prep time to cover classes for colleagues on quarantine. Sometimes, however, they must suspend certain services for lack of personnel, services such as transportation—forcing parents to adjust their routines.
Oftentimes, schools have little time to react to changing conditions. One recent change from CDPH came at 9:00 pm the night before the change went into effect. So, if you think schools are not keeping you in the loop, be aware they may be communicating just as fast as they can. They cannot share information they do not have. Locally, Mendocino County schools and Mendocino County Public Health, under the leadership of Dr. Andy Coren, are in constant communication. So that helps us all.
As you come into contact with teachers and other school staff, please remember that they are at least as emotionally exhausted as you are. Not only are teachers trying to educate students who are understandably disengaged after two years of pandemic learning, school officials are often pummeled with questions before they’ve had a chance to interpret how mandated changes will be implemented. No one likes to sit with unanswered questions, but that’s where we are. It’s no wonder everyone feels so anxious and frustrated.
Another group doing their best under tough circumstances are educational board members, both on the county board of education and on school district boards. These folks are doing their best to meet students’ educational needs while also providing resources for the physical and emotional health.
Please remember that educators of all kinds have students’ best interests at heart. Try not to take out your frustration on them when they are simply trying to comply with public health mandates and the laws governing public education, while they try to navigate a system in which they must be ready to educate all but are only funded for those who show up. Imagine trying to run a business where you are required to serve everyone but only paid for whoever decides to walk in the door that day—not a great design, and absenteeism has gone through the roof. Burnt-out students are not showing up as often as they used to.
As the pandemic weaves its way ever so slowly toward a new normal, let’s all do our best to be patient with each other and to focus on our common goals of helping students learn all they can under difficult circumstances.