Public health officer discusses school closure order, community members voice concern
Local parents, school staff and students voiced concerns and asked questions regarding the recent school closure order that stopped most in person instruction for Lassen County K-12 schools through Dec. 31 during a Tuesday, Dec. 8 Lassen County Board of Supervisors meeting, during which Lassen County Public Health Officer Dr. Kenneth Korver explained the county’s COVID-19 situation saying he had to do something to stop the spread.
“I felt being off for those few weeks might give us an opportunity to get this coronavirus to slow down a bit. It is not slowing down, that’s where the problem is, because we cannot keep up with what’s going on there are so many of these cases,” Korver said Tuesday.
“My feeling is the schools should be open. Everybody is correct, the schools should be open, the schools are not the problem for the coronavirus, the kids don’t get that sick … The problem is, they go back and give it to their grandmother and grandfather … My job is to take care of the county of Lassen, and schools are a part of it, a small part of it and not the full part of it, because they are not the people that get the sickest. But they spread it, which they do, and then we end up with more of these cases and we can barely handle where we are now,” he continued.
At least 60 people attended the meeting inside Jensen Hall, some waiting for the later commercial cannabis cultivation item or other discussion items, and the crowd featured a mixture of some with masks and some without.
Some speaking during public comment shared their pleas for the schools to reopen for the benefit of local children and their education and mental health, with others expressed frustration that schools were closed when other areas in the county could remain open.
Ultimately, the supervisors directed Korver to work with school administrators and county staff to come up with what each school has to do to reopen in January. The supervisors also mentioned schools should have a choice to remain in person as long as they follow their individual site plans, but the final say comes from the supervisor-appointed Public Health Officer.
During the meeting, Korver detailed some of the difficulties plaguing the area, from limited staff managing the rising number of cases to the recent outbreak at a local skilled nursing facility where two patients died.
“In the rest home, for the first time we came up with positives. We came up with seven positives. In five days two people were dead, I couldn’t transfer them to the hospital,” he said, saying medical staff was finding a hard time trying to get a hospital to accept transfers, calling hospitals even in the Southern California area.
“We really are about to lose the ability to control what’s going on as far the number of people that we have,” he added.
As of Wednesday, there were 431 active community cases, five hospitalized and four deaths.
During the meeting, though, a mixture of school administrators, board members, parents and students voiced their concerns on how the situation was handled and some called for schools to reopen, advocating for the mental health and well-being of local youth.
School administrators, including Lassen County Superintendent of Schools Patti Gunderson, Lassen High School Superintendent/ Principal Morgan Nugent, Janesville School Superintendent/ Principal Ed Brown and Richmond Elementary Superintendent/Principal Sabrina Greiten, spoke saying they want kids back in the schools, and many asked what they needed to do as a staff to ensure they could bring kids back on campus.
“Whatever hoops we need to jump through, we’ll do it,” Nugent told the board.
Gunderson confirmed they wanted schools open. However, she said the districts weren’t sure of what needed to be done to ensure schools could reopen, and asked for a discussion to clarify what benchmark steps they had to take to bring back students on campus.
She also spoke about the importance of protecting staff and maintaining staffing levels. Currently, she said, three schools wouldn’t be able to reopen due to the number of COVID positive staff, and said there are only 12 substitutes available.
“As educators, we’re responsible for our students, but we’re also responsible for our staff and that includes all of our staff. So our job is to make sure we have a safe working environment for all of them,” Gunderson said.
According to Barbara Longo, health and social services director, there are about 36 total positive cases between students and staff, with students making up 44 percent of positive cases from the school sector, and right now, about 187 students and staff are in quarantine, in addition to those in isolation.
“When I looked at numbers, the community spread, which is something that we look at when we try to mitigate this, we are seeing over 81 percent of that community spread is from that close contact from the students. So while the students are 44 percent of the positives, it’s 81 percent of the potential transmissions,” Longo said regarding the school sector, noting there has been student-to-student transmission.
Gunderson noted the plans for the schools have been working, with districts opting to close when needed.
“I think the surge was the scary part because the health department itself was overwhelmed not being able to keep up with the notifications, therefore, we really didn’t know how many students should have been home maybe under isolation … they were coming to school after a direct positive exposure,” said Gunderson.
Moreover, she said they are seeing cases among staff that are having stronger symptoms, putting people out for two or three weeks.
During about an hour and a 20 minutes of public comment, parents and county residents also voiced their concerns, ranging from poor Internet for students during their distance-learning classes, lack of social interaction with classmates, poor education, and difficulty teaching young children Zoom.
Many speakers also shared frustration that they could visit businesses around town freely, but schools were closed to their children, or that they didn’t want their kids living in fear.
“Kids are safer in school,” said one parent.
“Our children are becoming a causality,” said Diana Bailey, saying she wishes Korver stayed to listen to the public comment. “What are we doing for our future? By sending them home, alone, we are not helping them and we are not stopping the spread of this virus … you closed down the one place that has the least impact … it is hurting our teachers, it’s hurting our students, it’s hurting our parents and a lot of the frustration comes from the inconsistency.”
Other concerns focused on why individual schools were not able to make the decision to close when they didn’t have cases on campus.
Moreover, Dr. Petersen and Dr. Clinite, also spoke advocating for schools to open for instruction when done with proper precautions.
While shutting down the schools made sense in the beginning because much was unknown about COVID-19, now there is research about spread at in-person schools, Petersen said.
“Largely, there is minimal spread in schools, especially among primary aged children … We are medical professionals, and we understand that COVID is here and that it’s bad, and that people are dying and that there’s limited hospital space. We totally, totally understand that the situation is not good. We just feel there is a massive amount of scientific evidence that does not support school closure because that’s not going to help the situation,” Petersen added, noting the school closures haven’t stopped the spread. However, she added there was good scientific data about masking.
Clinite also spoke asking what public health was doing for the places where the virus was spreading, saying it wasn’t spreading in schools between kids. She questioned what was being done outside of the schools to slow the spread to ensure schools could stay open.
“If our goal as a community is really to open the schools then what do we need to do as a community to get those numbers down to do that?” Clinite asked.
Moreover, LHS 2021 Class President and Miss Lassen County Autry Satica said she been hearing from her peers, and even experiencing herself, the lack of drive to finish assignments since there were not the usual incentives of school like athletics, friends and conversations with teachers. She also noted students were following more COVID-19 protocols at school, than outside of it.
Other frustrations raised focused on why the Lassen County Board of Supervisors held this meeting during the day when many worked, and some called for an additional meeting at a more convenient time.
If unchanged, the current school order ends Dec. 31, and students are slated to return to campus Jan. 4 unless the order is extended.
“I closed the schools because I hoped to slow it down, it really has not slowed it down and I’m really kind of at a loss exactly on what to do when the times comes to reopen it. I would love to reopen it, I don’t want to close the schools, but I really cannot have a larger spread in the community,” Korver said.