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Holtville High School sophomore Alexis Piper (left), 15, and Calexico High senior Ethan Noriega, 17, share their thoughts on returning to school. Although the state recently provided guidance to school districts on steps to return to in-class instruction, Imperial County could be far from being back in the classroom due to ongoing hospital capacity problems. | PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

While School Districts Forced to Remain Closed, Some Students Lament Prolonged Closures

HOLTVILLE – Of the few things that 15-year-old Holtville High sophomore Alexis Piper said she finds pleasant about distance learning are the shortened school days and the ability to sleep in.

Yet, those relative perks are outweighed by what Alexis considers some of the more inconvenient aspects of the virtual teaching model that she and her classmates now contend with.

Holtville High School sophomore Alexis Piper, 15, is shown. | COURTESY PHOTO

“I miss my friends the most. Socializing with people,” Alexis said in an email Tuesday, Jan. 19. “I miss softball and cheerleading. Although I do not have an animal this year, I miss all the activities involved with FFA.”

Countywide, public schools remain largely closed for traditional in-person instruction because of the COVID-related restrictions stemming from the county’s high rate of positive cases and intensive-care unit hospitalizations.

And even though the California Department of Public Health recently revised its guidelines to make it slightly easier to resume in-person instruction, local conditions have effectively barred any local districts from taking advantage of the state’s latest revision and proposed incentives.

For her part, Alexis said she is looking forward to the pandemic’s end and is of the opinion that schools should reopen if done safely by following all the COVID-19 guidelines.

“We should be able to prove that we are responsible enough to take care of ourselves and others,” Alexis said.

The Holtville Unified School District had argued just as much last year, when in November it had unsuccessfully petitioned the California Department of Education for a waiver to resume onsite instruction for transitional kindergarten through fifth-grade students.

The state had made TK-sixth-grade waivers potentially available for school districts located in areas where schools and non-essential businesses remained closed due to COVID-19 and which had met certain criteria to safely reopen.

At the time, Holtville Unified Superintendent Celso Ruiz stated that the district would continue to monitor local conditions and renew its application once an opportunity presented itself, which does not appear to have happened.

The Calexico Unified School District indicated on Tuesday, Jan. 19, that ongoing COVID-related conditions prevent it from considering the state’s proposed incentives to resume in-person instruction.

As much as he misses onsite learning, Calexico High senior Ethan Noriega said he supports the district’s decision to forego onsite instruction until conditions improve.

Calexico High School senior Ethan Noriega, 17, is shown. | COURTESY PHOTO

“I think it is something that should be done and is correct because of how uncertain everything is,” Ethan said on Jan. 19. “But I do hope that it gets better for us to be able to do non-contact sports.”

The 17-year-old varsity tennis player and Associated Student Body president said he, too, has found both positive and negative aspects to distance learning.

Initially, he had found enjoyment in distance learning, especially the shortened school day, being able to sleep in and the relative ease with which he was able to complete his class assignments. But as time progressed, he realized the downside of it all for a senior such as himself.

“Going into my second semester it like hit me — we aren’t going to have a normal senior year,” Ethan said, referring to his and his classmates’ ability to attend prom, grad night and homecoming events. “Now I realize that I would rather go back in person because all of those things are not possible due to COVID.”

As of Jan. 19, the county Public Health Department reported a COVID-19 positivity rate of 38.68 percent.

That figure is well above the 8 percent threshold required by the state to move into a less-restrictive tier that would allow for the reopening of schools, said Carlos Gonzales, Calexico Unified School District superintendent.

Additionally, the 83.19 new cases reported per day per 100,000 residents by the county on Jan. 19 stands well above the seven-day average of 25 or fewer cases per 100,000 residents required by the state for grades K-6 to be eligible to begin reopening under a new guidance issued Jan. 14.

In light of those current conditions, Gonzales said in a written statement on Jan. 19, CUSD does not meet the criteria to reopen.

“CUSD is updating their COVID -19 Safety Plans and Instructional plans, which include a hybrid model, to meet state requirements and be prepared to resume classes when allowed to do so,” he said. “CUSD is also in the process of addressing the additional measures outlined in Governor Newsom’s proposed ‘California Safe Schools of All Plan.’”

Those planned measures include frequent COVID-19 testing for all staff and students, with the state offering reduced-cost testing; masks for all staff and students, assisted by the state’s distribution of free surgical masks; and stricter health and safety plans negotiated with employee unions, Gonzales said.

In its announcement of the state’s revised Jan. 14 guidelines for school reopenings, the California Department of Public Health’s website stated that, “New evidence and data about COVID-19 transmission and experience nationally and internationally demonstrate that schools, particularly elementary schools, can operate safely for in-person instruction with the correct safety protocols in place.” 

During a Jan. 14 conference call with media, county Health Officer Dr. Stephen Munday stated that the state’s revised guidelines could potentially help local schools reopen.

Yet, he also acknowledged that current conditions in the 11-county Southern California region, of which the county is included, would still prevent schools from resuming in-person instruction without a waiver.

Yet he expressed some optimism that the vaccine rollout and the apparent drop in ICU hospitalizations and deaths could potentially help pave the way for local schools’ reopening.

“It is possible that we could be in a much different place six weeks from now,” Munday said on Jan. 14.

Both superintendents of the Imperial Unified and Heber Elementary school districts also reported that current conditions in the Valley prevent them from applying for a TK-6 grade waiver from the state, as well as the $450 per-pupil incentive that Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed in December to help districts resume in-person instruction. Nor has the Legislature approved Newsom’s proposal.

“IUSD has not applied for a waiver to resume in-person instruction and is waiting for the County to move to the red tier which does not require a waiver,” Superintendent Bryan Thomason said. “The safety of our staff and students is always the top priority.”

The superintendents also both reported that some limited onsite instruction has taken place within their respective districts.

At the Imperial Unified School District, special education students and intervention cohorts were temporarily allowed back onto three campuses. But that instruction was paused as a result of the surge in positive cases following Thanksgiving, Thomason said.

The district has a Feb. 1 target date to resume onsite instruction for special education and intervention cohorts, he said.

At Heber Elementary School District, supervised instruction is currently offered as a support to a small cohort of about 20 students, Superintendent Juan Cruz said.

Those students include individuals who are not demonstrating success in distance learning such as special needs, Migrant Education program, as well as other high-need populations.

“We are following many protocols for students coming to school for supervised instruction,” Cruz said in a written statement. “This includes screening protocols, temperature checks, pre-determined seating, hand washing routines, social distancing, staggered schedules, face coverings, supervised movement on campus, among others.”

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