By Debra Moore
While Plumas County leads the state in case rates, the schools have been a driving factor in the increased cases — particularly Quincy High School. During the Plumas Unified School District’s monthly meeting Oct. 13, several teachers addressed the board about the havoc this is wreaking on the classroom and their ability to educate students.
Suzanne Stirling, who is not only a teacher, but the president of the Plumas County Teachers Association, spoke first. After commending the administration, her fellow teachers and staff, about the positive things occurring in the district, she turned to the challenges.
‘’The number of Covid-positive cases here in Quincy is of great concern to staff, students, and families,” she said. “In my seventh-grade class half were absent in first period,” she said.
Absences are due not only to students testing positive, but also to the students who are determined to be a close contact and must remain off campus. Several of the teachers who addressed the board described classrooms with one-third to one-half of their students missing. For those students, assignments are made available online or packets are sent home, but while the students have work to do, they don’t receive the instruction that their counterparts remaining in the classroom do.
Math teacher Becky York teared up as she discussed teachers struggling to teach in the classroom, produce work for those at home, and fill in for other teachers — since there are very few substitutes available. “I was out for 10 days myself,” she said. “When I came back it was my turn to pay it forward.” This involves teaching other classes during what should be prep periods and combining other classes.
Both York and Stirling pointed to Appendix B, the document designed to help the school district navigate COVID, which includes the following: “Individual school closure may be appropriate when there are multiple cases in multiple cohorts or when at least 5 percent of the total number of teachers/staff/ students are cases within a 10-day period.”
Quincy High School’s enrollment is 362 students; and, as of Oct. 12, the 10-day total of positive cases was 46, which translates to nearly 13 percent of the student body. The cumulative number of cases is 52.
“There is nothing I want more than students in the classroom,” York said, however she asked the board to consider a 10-day shutdown.” (Sierra County closed its schools for two weeks when cases escalated there to stop the spread. They are scheduled to return to the classroom Oct. 18.)
“Amen, Amen,” said teacher Tania Hutchins in response to Stirling and York’s remarks. She described beginning work at 5 a.m. as she answers parent emails while drinking her coffee, arriving to school early, working all day and then working again after dinner. She is trying to help her students confined to home keep up with their lessons, and mentioned a recent one-on-one session with a seventh-grader via Zoom.
She said her son asked, “Why can’t you just be a bad teacher?” after observing the hours she is working.
Hutchins said, “Board I hope that you’re hearing us. We want to do a good job. There are other teachers who feel exactly the same way. I hope you are hearing us.”
And it’s not just the teachers, nurses and office staff are impacted as well.
“I want to speak to the nursing situation here,” teacher Matt McMorrow said. He said there is just one per community, which leaves the office staff to help pick up the slack when the nurse is on another campus. “Since COVID has happened, the workload has gone two to three times the amount and it’s not sustainable,” he said. The work has increased, but the staffing hasn’t.
McMorrow also addressed Appendix B and noted that he has had situations where more than half of his class is out. He prepares lessons for those at home, but said some are for “Kids who are sick and are probably not ready to learn. It’s just overwhelming.” He called on the board and the administration to make proactive solutions and not reactive excuses. “Where is the help?” he asked.
Mary Juska, from Chester Elementary, said the teachers feel the same way there.
Teacher Dana Marty, who also has taught classes with half of her students missing, noted that some have been out for three weeks and “very few are keeping up.” She added that there’s not time in the day to be able to help them and suggested that the district consider a slightly altered schedule. She also requested that someone be assigned to monitoring students and their mask wearing.
While board members are prevented from responding to individuals during public comment, the board did address it later in the meeting during a discussion of COVID protocols.
Superintendent Terry Oestreich, who appeared visibly moved during some of the remarks, said, “I realize that in our efforts to keep a safe work environment and keep in-person learning, there is an impact.” She acknowledged the multiple types of learning that are taking place and said she appreciated everyone’s commitment to work together to find proactive solutions.
During a conversation the day after the meeting, Oestreich reiterated that she and others were so busy trying to adhere to all protocols and keep the doors open, that they failed to think about what it was doing to teachers and other staff. She said that they would be addressing the needs presented at each campus.As of Oct. 12 the cumulative cases for the elementary schools:
Roy Carmichael in Portola: 6
Pioneer campus in Quincy: 8
Alder campus in Quincy: 8
At the high schools:
“We were aware that we needed to take action,” said Lisa Cavin, deputy superintendent, and discussed the cancellation of extracurricular events and enlisting the state’s help with additional testing. During the two-day state testing opportunity, 169 individuals were tested with three positives. Some symptomatic individuals whose test results were negative, were given a PCR test which was sent to the state for processing.
Human Resources Director Scott Corey addressed Appendix B noting that the words “could” and “may” are used, which allows some leeway in responding to situations. He said that the district wants keep classrooms open, but put safety first. “These are daily conversations and Public Health is consulted. It’s obvious that all staff are maxed out,” he said.
Administrator Kevin Beane discussed the considerations the district takes when determining whether to close a classroom. He noted that they have discussed the situation not only with the county’s public health agency, but with the state’s department of public health. Following factors are considered:
- Staffing capacity to cover classrooms
- Inadequate ability to test and trace
- Undue burden on admin, teachers and support staff
- Multiple cases comprising at least 10 percent of students, teacher, staff within a specified core group
Corey said that in the early rounds of athlete testing, 25 percent of the cases were positive, but the most recent round of testing was 2 percent. “It’s a trend Dr. Satterfield (the public health officer) finds encouraging,” Corey said.
While the case rate appears to be receding, there are still a lot of students out as a result as of being identified as a close exposure. “As many as a third of QHS students are out,” Oestreich said during the meeting.
Cases will continue to be monitored and actions taken as needed.