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A closed Heber School, which had an outbreak of COVID, is shown on Thursday afternoon, Jan. 13. The district and its schools are closed until Jan. 24 due to staffing shortages caused by COVID-19 quarantines and student absences. | MEGAN JONES PHOTO

Heber Schools to Reopen Jan. 24 After COVID-related Closure

District Had 300 Student Absences a Day, 24 Classrooms Impacted, 35 to 40 Percent of Staff Effected by COVID

HEBER — Heber School District will reopen Jan. 24 with increased safety protocols after a wave of COVID-related infections and absences — including an outbreak at Heber School — prompted quarantine measures that have resulted in a shutdown of the district that officially started on Thursday, Jan. 13.

Since returning from winter break last week Heber Elementary School District between Heber School and Dogwood Elementary had seen about 300 student absences a day out of 1,100 students, with at least 24 classrooms impacted by COVID-19 quarantines and about 35 percent to 40 percent of staff being affected, Heber district Superintendent Juan Cruz said on Thursday.

Juan Cruz, Heber Elementary School District superintendent | COURTESY PHOTO

Ultimately, the reason for the short-term closure of the district is the shortage of teaching and non-teaching staff at Heber schools, he said.

The closure will allow all staff who are currently in quarantine to finish out that quarantine to prevent infection for the next six days and slow the number of staff that is being quarantined, Cruz said.

“I felt that if our students continued to come to school and our staff continued to come to work in the conditions we were in, they were likely to be impacted with COVID,” Cruz said on Thursday. “We couldn’t with confidence tell our community that we can make sure this place is safe, so we made that decision to close.”

When students and staff return on Jan. 24, they will come back to schools with updated COVID protocols.

Heber will begin increasing the amount of testing, retrain staff, and double down on previous safety efforts. This includes social distancing, more structured systems with mask usage checkpoints on campus, and an update to quarantine protocols.

When schools reopen, Cruz said, all students across the board will be required to take a COVID test prior to coming on campuses. There will be no requirements of vaccines, but the district highly recommends vaccinating any child aged 5 and older who is eligible.

Not all of the present closure is outbreak-related. There is only an official outbreak at Heber School, which is one of four Imperial County schools in such status, according to Imperial County Public Health Director Janette Angulo.

There are 12 total outbreaks in the county and 13 sites under investigation as of Friday morning, Jan. 14.

“Heber district, it’s been a mix of factors not just COVID,” Angulo wrote in a message on Friday. “Truly, we see quite a few out on quarantine because of exposed (sic). You have to take that into consideration, and also that not all is COVID. There are other illnesses out there. … Also, a common trend is household (COVID) exposure.”

Meanwhile, Heber custodial staff will be doing a deep cleaning of all school facilities during closure and curbside pickup meal distributions will continue from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

Teachers who are not in quarantine will still be required to report to work during the closure. They will be contacting all their students to help where they can and will be keeping daily office hours.

Supplemental work packets will be going out to students for the week. Cruz did say the independent study program could be going through changes, augmenting the program in case of more closures in the future.

A closed Dogwood Elementary School in Heber is shown on Thursday afternoon, Jan. 13. The district and its schools are closed until Jan. 24 due to staffing shortages caused by COVID-19 quarantines and student absences. | MEGAN JONES PHOTO

He is also hopeful that with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s latest temporary order that allows districts to hire substitutes and rehire retired teachers easier, the district will be able to quickly put more people into the position of substitute teacher. There will also be student teachers coming to the Heber district from San Diego State University that can take substitute positions as well, according to Cruz.

Staff had been shuffled around with paraeducators taking the roles of teachers due to a lack of substitute teachers in the district. Teachers had to be assigned to different classrooms during their prep periods, and administrators were covering rooms and food services, even Cruz said he had to do some supervising he didn’t normally do.

The closure was a difficult decision, Cruz said, requiring collaboration with several entities, including the Imperial County Public Health Department, the Imperial County Office of Education, and the State Board of Education.

The county Public Health recommends 10 days of closure, but Cruz said the school will closed for six school days since the district will count the two weekends and the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as part of the recommended quarantine time.

“The closure allows for all the staff that is in quarantine status to clear their quarantines,” he said. “It prevents at least infection over these next six days and hopefully slows down the mass need for quarantines, and we feel it will.”

Cruz insists there will be no return to distance learning, echoing the words that the state itself has been saying since the start of the 2021-2022 school year.

“I want to be able to confidently tell our students and staff that when you come to work, I know I’ve done everything to keep you safe,” Cruz told the Heber Elementary School District board during Thursday night’s board meeting. “And it got to a point where I could not confidently say that to my staff or my students, and I have to close.”

Cruz said the district will be submitting a J13 waiver, meant to waive the lost days due to an emergency closure. In this case, the emergency is the staffing shortage. The state will either honor the waiver or not, but Cruz said that the district does meet the criteria to qualify. Whether the district will have to make up the time in the future, he is unsure.

Board President Tony Sandoval said during the meeting he has already alerted the California School Board Association about HESD’s situation and said the organization is standing ready to help if the district is denied a waiver.

One parent during the meeting was concerned her students’ teachers will not communicate with families about grades. Cruz asked that parents have patience and that there will be documents on the school website.

Teacher Elena Maciel said though the Heber teachers’ association favors keeping schools open, they understand this is the best for the students and staff.

“We trust when we return for the second part of the school year, we will be even stronger and healthier,” Maciel said.

He does wish to assure the parents of Heber that the schools will be back open on the Jan. 24 with no further interruptions. He says HESD knows the schools need to be open but want to make sure it is as safe as possible for all.

“We know how important it is for school to be open to our students and we take that very seriously,” Cruz said. “We also take the well-being of their child and our community to a very high standard.”

Richard Montenegro Brown contributed reporting to this story.

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