Big Creek Elementary School sits high in the Sierra southwest of Huntington Lake and serves 56 students. Thus far, there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 in the tiny community.
So Big Creek might seem a likelier candidate than most schools to qualify for a waiver from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mandate announced last Friday that schools in counties on the COVID-19 watchlist must remain closed.
But Fresno County’s interim health officer Dr. Rais Vohra told GV Wire on Wednesday afternoon that he’s not optimistic that any schools in Fresno County — even in remote locations like Big Creek — can get a waiver based on the county’s rising infection rates.
Instead of pinning their hopes on the possibility of a waiver, Vohra said, school officials need to “spend their time, energy and talent” on designing the best possible online learning curriculum for the new school year.
“The big lesson here is that a waiver is a shortcut,” he said. “We can’t cut corners when it comes to safety and keeping people out of harm’s way.”
Community Actions Can Slow Virus Spread
In addition, Vohra said, if community members want schools to reopen sooner rather than later, they need to take the steps for health safety — wearing face masks, practicing social distancing, staying home and avoiding gatherings — that are necessary to lower the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19.
“We need to get out of the surge before we can talk about reopening (schools),” he said.
Under the governor’s mandate, schools can’t reopen until counties on the watchlist reduce the rates of coronavirus infection and hospitalizations, and keep them lower, for 14 consecutive days.
However, a portion of the mandate allows elementary schools in those watchlist counties to open more quickly if they can obtain a waiver from the California Department of Public Health, through their county’s health department.
According to the California Department of Public Health, superintendents of elementary schools that can meet health and safety guidelines can request a waiver.
State Hasn’t Released Waiver Template Yet
Vohra said Wednesday during the Public Health Department’s semi-weekly news conference that he expects the state Department of Public Health will release the waiver template and metrics to be considered within the week.
He said he expects those metrics will be similar to what the county is already reporting regarding infection and hospitalization rates.
There are conflicting reports about whether children are at risk of spreading COVID-19 to their classmates and teachers, and of bringing the virus home from school. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is highlighting a study out of South Korea that followed contract tracing and determined that children younger than 10 are much less likely to transmit the virus, but those 10 and older transmit the virus just like adults do.
Because Fresno County’s numbers continue to be high, Vohra told reporters, “all of these are currently pointing to a scenario where a waiver would not be granted to us for us to reopen some of our (elementary) schools.”
Might Seek A Waiver
But at least two elementary schools in Fresno County —Big Creek and Kingsburg Elementary Charter School District — are giving some consideration to seeking a waiver.
Sarah Ballard, executive assistant to the Kingsburg Elementary Charter superintendent, said Wednesday that the district is “possibly interested” in requesting a waiver but is seeking more information on the specific criteria that will be used in the waiver process.
Big Creek’s School Board will take up the issue at a meeting next week, board president Ramiro Rojas told GV Wire. Rojas said he’ll vote to apply for a waiver.
The school, which has a capacity of 150 students, has plenty of space to provide adequate social distancing for the 56 who are enrolled, he said.
Social distancing in transportation won’t be a problem since only 12 students ride a bus that can hold 60, Rojas said.
In-person Beats Online Learning
If Big Creek has to return to distance learning, technology isn’t an issue for students in the remote mountain hamlet, Rojas said. The school is equipped with fast internet service and Big Creek students have a Chromebook or another device, he said.
But distance learning is a poor substitute for having students and teachers in the same classroom, he said.
“In my opinion, teaching happens face-to-face,” he said. “Particularly for younger children, they need an adult in person.”
Because speech therapists are in short supply, Rojas said, Big Creek students have worked with speech therapists remotely for the past two years, “and it’s very difficult.”
The final months of the school year, when Big Creek students had to shift to distance learning, reaffirmed Rojas’ conviction that distance learning is a stopgap solution that should only be short term.
“It’s not an IT issue, it’s a human issue,” he said. “Children need human-to-human contact to learn.”
Trustee Says Fresno Unified Needs Waivers
Fresno Unified trustee Terry Slatic is asking the district’s administration to consider submitting waivers for elementary schools, both for general education as well as special education students.
Providing adequate social distancing in classrooms for students with special needs should be easier to achieve, since those classes tend to be smaller than general education classes, he said.
Slatic said he was surprised to hear that district spokeswoman Nikki Henry told GV Wire on Tuesday that the district was not applying for waivers.