Big Creek, population 188, is in essence a Southern California-Edison company town — one where parents live with their children year-round.
The parents run the region’s massive hydroelectric project that generates one-sixth of all the hydropower produced in California, or about 4 million megawatt-hours per year.
These are the folks that make sure the power stays on so your air-conditioning can keep running. Clearly, they are some of the most essential of California’s essential workers.
The state of California has taken pains to keep essential workers on the job by making sure that child care facilities remain open, even as schools shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But for Big Creek’s elementary age children, all 56 of them, there are no child care centers closer than two hours away. Big Creek School, down the road from Big Creek General Store, has to remain closed because of Fresno County’s high rates of coronavirus infections.
Superintendent Toby Wait says county Public Health Department officials tell him their hands are tied by state rules that forbid issuing waivers to elementary schools because the county is a designated COVID-19 hot spot.
Child Care Center Considered
Wait had considered trying to get the school licensed as a child care center and open it to Big Creek’s children. Child care centers are overseen by the state.
“There’s got to be some rare exceptions. We’re not saying open every elementary school in Fresno.” — Jim Yovino, superintendent of Fresno County schools
But Big Creek is a school and thus falls under the purview of the county Public Health Department — and the county takes its orders from the state Public Health Department that has banned the waivers for hot-spot counties like Fresno.
Under the state mandate, schools in counties that are on the state watchlist for high coronavirus infection rates must remain closed until the counties are off the list for 14 consecutive days.
Wait said he’s particularly mystified about why the state is allowing some businesses and nonprofits in Fresno and Clovis to operate as virtual learning spaces for students, but schools have to remain closed.
The debate over why child care centers can remain open even as schools must remain closed has been part of the coronavirus pandemic dialogue for some time, Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Jim Yovino told GV Wire℠ this week.
Big Creek Is ‘Unique’
But Yovino noted that the situation in Big Creek “is unique” because of the community’s small size, remote location, and absence of other facilities.
“There is no community center,” he said. “Big Creek School is the community center.”
Yovino said he’s been in contact with the Fresno County Public Health Department to advocate for Big Creek School.
“There’s got to be some rare exceptions,” he said. “We’re not saying open every elementary school in Fresno.”
No Exceptions So Far
The state needs to make exceptions for cases such as Big Creek, said state Sen. Andreas Borgeas said, whose 8th District includes the mountain hamlet.
“Big Creek is a beautiful community in our district, and the plant provides power to communities throughout California,” he said in an email provided to GV Wire℠. “The state should consider granting an exemption to rural communities with no other child care options, so long as they follow state and local health protocols, in order to utilize school sites as a temporary child care facility.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s press office did not respond to emails seeking comment.
There have been no cases so far of coronavirus in Big Creek, in part because of its remote location high in the Sierra. The community connects to Highway 168 via a twisting mountain road.
Wait acknowledges that COVID-19 could still come — residents make the two-hour drive to Fresno and Clovis, where the virus is rampant, to buy their groceries and other supplies.
What About Equity?
California’s political leaders, including Newsom, have made equity in education a major push, Wait said.
But how can there be equity when Los Angeles can spend millions of dollars to hire tutors for pop-up centers, while smaller communities like Big Creek, or Firebaugh, or Tranquillity lack access to the kinds of community-based organizations that are presenting virtual learning options for other school districts, he asked.
Rural California is being left behind, Wait said, adding, “We talk about equity and access, but at the first pandemic it goes out the window.”