As class let out at Dogwood Elementary School in Heber on Friday afternoon, Aug. 27, parents can be seen picking up their children following the first full week of all-day, in-person instruction. Heber district officials have been preparing for the worst-case scenario of classroom closures amid escalating exposures and COVID cases at schools around the county by getting packets full of schoolwork ready for a temporary transition to independent study. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO
HEBER — So far, there have been no reported classroom closures due to COVID outbreaks on any Imperial Valley campuses, but that hasn’t stopped Heber Elementary School District Superintendent Juan Cruz from being ready for any worst-case scenario.
Outside Dogwood Elementary School and Heber School things were “normal” on Friday afternoon, Aug. 27, as parents’ vehicles snaked for hundreds of yards around adjacent blocks to pick up their masked children after the first week of the district’s return to full-time in-class instruction.
Yet inside the Heber Elementary School District offices on the campus of Heber School, Cruz and his staff continued to get ready for what many Imperial County parents are anticipating will be some level of temporary classroom closures due to escalating COVID-19 infections.
“We have been prepared since before we started school; we went through four weeks of preparation,” Cruz said in an interview Friday.
Schoolwork was being stuffed into individual packets by Cruz and staff last week in the event of closures and the district is forced to make the shift to the state’s independent study model on a short-term basis before being cleared to reopen per the recommendations of the Imperial County Public Health Department.
The packets included enough work for three to four weeks, more than the recommended 10 quarantine days that would come from the county, Cruz said.
As of Friday, there were 80 students in Heber’s version of independent study, what Cruz called a virtual academy. Although data was not available for all schools, with Heber added in, there were more than 750 students in independent study as of Friday, including Calexico Unified, Brawley Elementary, and Central Union High districts. There are 17 school districts in Imperial County.
Calexico Unified alone had reported that 388 children were enrolled in independent study, as of Friday. An unconfirmed report by a Rockwood Elementary School parent on Monday morning, Aug. 30, was that the district has a waiting list of 400.
What’s Happening Across School System
As this newspaper first reported last week, as of Aug. 24 there were five active outbreaks, “including schools,” which is how Public Health Director Janette Angulo phrased it. An outbreak is defined as three or more positive classes in any workplace, according to state law, but exposures and infections in groups of one or two were being reported in nearly every school district in every city by Friday.
The number of confirmed active outbreaks increased to six, and again “some of those are schools,” Angulo stated via text message on Monday.
For the week of Aug. 18 through Aug. 24, Public Health reported 51 new COVID-positive cases in youths ages 0-17, according to information provided Friday. Of those total cases, some 40 cases were in the 5- to 17-year-olds, which would be school-age children. Those numbers had not been updated Monday, Angulo stated.
Although parents’ anxiety levels now appear to be ratcheted to previously unseen levels during the 18-plus month pandemic, Angulo wanted to assure parents that what is happening is not all that different than previous periods when school was in session.
“We’ve had positive cases in children for many, many months now. There’s this electronic portal, and because of requirements specifically for schools, if a school is to detect a positive case — a single positive case — they’re (required) to report it,” Angulo said during an interview Thursday night, Aug. 26. “It doesn’t mean that they have outbreaks.”
Public Health previously shared that through Aug. 24, there had been a total of 1,605 positive cases reported in the 0-9 age group and 3,120 positive cases in the 10-19 age group since the March 2020.
In hopes of allaying some concerns, Angulo explained many of the infections and exposures reported are likely not from cases in which students or school staff members are infecting other students or staff members on campuses.
“For the schools that just opened up, it’s too soon to see if it was actual in school transmission,” Angulo said. “What we are finding out is that — and this is across California — the majority of the cases that are currently being detected, it’s due to community transmission, meaning that they acquired the virus outside the school setting.
“Will that change in the future? I don’t know. But currently, that is what’s being seen,” she added.
The majority of Imperial County schools came back into session on Monday, Aug. 23, or Tuesday, Aug. 24, which included all Calexico, Holtville, Heber, and Imperial schools, El Centro elementary schools, and Brawley Union High. Brawley elementary schools started Aug. 16, and El Centro’s three high schools have been back in session since Aug. 9.
Reporting these pockets of infection has been a big issue for parents and schools, as there are requirements by the state for who gets to be informed, yet application has been inconsistent from district to district.
Some schools have operated with an abundance of caution, sending out letters district- or school-wide in some cases, and others have been slow to inform anyone at all, even those who have been directly impacted and are required to know of exposures or positive cases according to the tenets of Assembly Bill 685.
Central Union High School District, even though there were confirmed exposures on the campus more than two weeks ago, reporting to staff and parents didn’t start until Thursday afternoon.
Meanwhile, on Friday afternoon, there was a potential exposure at Heber Elementary district through a family member of a student off site. Following protocol, the district sent home written letters to parents, and right away, Superintendent Cruz put together a statement for the HESD website.
So far there had been no cases on Heber campuses.
“I would rather put out precautionary information as opposed to someone saying. ‘You didn’t tell us,’” Cruz said. “There’s a lot of anxiety and fear, and I am trying to be as open and transparent as possible.”
Cruz praised the parents of Heber for quickly moving themselves, alerting each other and self-monitoring their students and families.
Such has been the case thanks to the lightning-fast landscape of social media. The almost instantaneous spread of information among parents and community members all over the county has been largely filtered through the Facebook group, “Imperial Valley Schools COVID Cases,” which this newspaper first reported about Friday.
Started sometime Thursday, Aug. 26, by parent Erika Garcia of El Centro, who has a third-grade student, the page was at 800-plus members on Friday. The private group had grown to 4,300 members by Monday morning, Aug. 30.
Garcia, who is still listed as the only page administrator, hasn’t responded to several requests for a follow-up interview after her initial comments to this newspaper last week.
“I felt (it was) needed due to (Facebook) posts everywhere talking about exposure,” wrote Garcia of her reasons behind starting the group, “but a group could be the place to post it instead of the selling pages or your FB timeline.”
It has been on that page that dozens of exposures and positive cases have been reported at nearly every district through parents posting the letters they received from schools and school districts as required by AB 685.
Reporting Exposures, Pockets of Infection
Brawley Elementary School District, for one, has been following the Health Department’s guidelines when it comes to reporting and quarantining, sending home letters to inform parents of potential exposures as part of its contact tracing.
Contact tracing is the process where reporting occurs from the infected or exposed outward, meaning those who have had immediate contact with the exposed or infected.
While BESD has continued to screen students and staff as they enter campus, screening students before boarding bus, and have added robust purifiers in classrooms and dining areas, Superintendent Dr. Richard Rundhaug told this newspaper on Friday that nothing has changed in the process since the spring. The only difference being, he said, is that everyone is in school now.
Visually, parents and the community are seeing hundreds of school-age children together in classrooms, lined up for pickups, gathered on playgrounds, at levels and in volumes not seen since March 2020. Even the return to classrooms in the spring happened in cycles, with many hybrid models in place.
Public Health’s Angulo echoed Rundhaug, saying that processes and requirements have not changed, although anxiety levels have.
When a potential exposure or an infection of a staff member or student is reported, the only parties required to receive letters or emails are the “cumulative community of direct exposure possibilities, not necessarily entire campuses,” Angulo told this newspaper.
“The tracing the investigation that happens, and those that are true close contacts, they’re notified,” she said. “So, there’s a process in place, and it’s been in place for many months now.”
The letters or announcements go to those in the immediate vicinity of or who have “close contact” with the exposed, both student and staff members, and they get the announcements equally. These reporting mechanisms are a combination of California Department of Public Health guidance and state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, emergency temporary standards for the workplace, in the case of the staff members, according to Angulo.
“Close contact” is defined as an employee (or student in the cumulative community) who was “within six feet of a COVID-19 case for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or greater in any 24-hour period within or overlapping with the ‘high-risk exposure period,’” according to Cal/OSHA.
The high-risk exposure period would be different for symptomatic cases vs. no symptoms present. According to Cal/OSHA:
“For COVID-19 cases who develop COVID-19 symptoms, from two days before they first develop symptoms until 10 days after symptoms first appeared, and 24 hours have passed with no fever, without the use of fever-reducing medications, and symptoms have improved.
“For persons who test positive but never develop COVID-19 symptoms, from two days before until 10 days after the specimen for their first positive test for COVID-19 was collected.”
Angulo added that these definitions “are regardless of whether the contact was wearing a mask.”
And again, there does appear to be some differences in the way that local school districts are handling and interpreting these requirements, which in most cases exceeds the minimums.
“What is not required for sure, is notifying the entire campus,” Angulo said, adding that some school districts have opted to inform above the requirements, “some of them are going beyond, and notifying the entire campus.”
Central Union Falls Through Cracks
Late last week that was not the case at one Imperial Valley district, where both staff members and parents were starting to become vocal in the lack of reporting coming out school site and district administration.
Reporting did not start at the Central Union High School District until Thursday afternoon, Aug. 26, despite that district having its students on campus for 15 full days before administration sent out its first announcement to staff and parents.
It was already widespread knowledge at that point that there had been at least one exposure or report of positive cases at one of the district’s three high schools, Southwest, Central Union, and Desert Oasis.
Early last week, this newspaper obtained an email from an Imperial County Office of Education staff member they received from ICOE administration on Aug. 17 — nearly two full weeks ago — reporting that a possible exposure had occurred between Aug. 13 and Aug. 16 on the campus of Southwest High School in Room Q91.
That is a classroom the Office of Education uses that is not part of Southwest instruction, according to Central district Superintendent Ward Andrus.
By Thursday morning, Aug. 26, there was some amount of discontent brewing among Southwest teachers, and one source sent some pieces of correspondence while another source, both of whom are connected to the campus, indicated there were feelings that staff and student safety was not a priority for the district.
“I have had one student email me in the past week that they tested positive for COVID-19. When I asked my admin team about what happens next, it was … business as usual. The reason was that neither I nor my students were exposed to the virus,” one source wrote.
“… valid data of reported cases of COVID students would help either prove or disprove Dr. Andrus’ message on his recent Twitter post about Back to School night. He stated, ‘… no reported cases, last week…’” the source added.
Both messages were sent to this newspaper on Thursday morning.
Andrus’ Tweet, which is embedded below, was posted Monday, Aug. 23, and did including the statement the source referenced as well as saying a teacher was exposed off campus.
The nonreporting issue was resolved almost immediately following both a meeting between Andrus and representatives of the El Centro Secondary Teachers Association and, later, a meeting with the district’s principals Thursday afternoon.
Andrus fell on the proverbial sword late Thursday afternoon in an interview with this newspaper.
“We’re making a course correction effective today (Aug. 26), where we will notify the parents of each school community when we have a positive case on campus. So that’s not one of the things that’s not required of us, (but) we see our fellow districts doing that and, and we hadn’t done that initially,” Andrus said.
“I actually think today (Aug. 26), Mr. Phillips will have sent out a letter to parents … he wants to make sure that the staff notification goes out first, then the parent notification will go out regarding a positive case that was determined earlier this week (Aug. 23 and after),” Andrus added.
The superintendent explained that the reporting did fall through the cracks and a mistake was made, but that it would not happen again. He added the teachers’ association had additional concerns, and they were to meet again this week.
The president of the teachers’ union was contacted for comment last week, but he had not returned a message as of the publication of this story.
What Districts, Schools Know
Andrus mentioned that in a county with so many individual school districts, he would have thought there might have been some additional guidance coming from the Imperial County Office of Education. He had come from the Stockton district, which was a unified district with a greater cumulative student population.
All districts, including ICOE, have met weekly with the county Public Health Department for many months, Director Angulo said.
“All districts, all public and private schools, have the same set of state guidance documents. … that would be California Department of Public Health, K-12 framework,” Angulo said Thursday night. “They are subject to the same bills …
“Something else that has been happening, and this includes Office of Education and the school districts; there’s ongoing meetings, regular meetings, and these have been happening for months,” she added. “Implementation, it’s up to individual school districts.
“And actually, about three weeks ago, we held refresher trainings, and these were virtual refresher trainings, so there’s been that coordination, that ongoing collaboration.”