Schools in the Santa Clarita Valley returned to an in-person school session in early August despite COVID-19 concerns and a surge instigated by plateaued vaccinations and the Delta variant.
The several school districts within SCV have assured parents that a variety of safety precautions have been implemented to alleviate the risk of contracting the coronavirus within the student body and staff.
Dr. Cherise Moore, president of the governing board for the William S. Hart Union High School District, said their schools have implemented safety precautions like encouraging vaccinations, wearing masks, distancing, infection control, ventilation systems in classrooms, testing and protocols in place for cases on campus.
She referred to their website’s COVID-19 dashboard as a helpful reference point for how the district’s protocols are keeping students and staff safe. This site is updated daily and compares cases all the way back to October 2020.
“[This dashboard] to me shows how contagious this Delta variant is and how fast it is spreading,” Moore said. “I’m a data person, so I look at those numbers to see what is happening and our protocols for how we are keeping the students and staff safe, [which] I believe are being implemented really well. When I see the positive cases that we have going up like we do, I’d rather err on the side of caution and have most people not experience being exposed, rather than have a child who is asymptomatic who may be carrying the virus, be on campus.”
The dashboard became a source of use following an outbreak of COVID-19 between the West Ranch High School and Castaic High School cheer teams following a July cheer camp gathering at Indian Wells in Palm Desert. Almost two dozen students from each school and a Castaic staffer were all advised to quarantine until they either tested negative, according to a district email issued on the matter.
She said the goal is to keep students on campus with what has been set in place for each school. Schools in the Hart District include Academy of the Canyons, Bowman High School, Canyon High School, Golden Valley High School, Learning Post Academy, Hart High, Castaic Saugus, Valencia and West Ranch.
“I am grateful for the protocols we have in place because we are seeing how quickly this variant is spreading,” Moore continued. “But [our] focus on communication… ensures that the community and parents are informed about what we are doing to keep schools open… At any time if we find ourselves in a situation where we report all of these numbers to the L.A. County Public Health Department and they say that’s too many cases, we have to shut down a class or shut down a campus. That could happen. So I think these protocols are keeping that from happening.”
Despite what the school boards may implement or have implemented, each school district in Santa Clarita answers to the Los Angeles County Public Health Department and their guidelines for keeping schools open. Each school has to meet certain standards set by the county in order to stay open, instead of creating their own. This means that the health department could shut down any schools that they believe has an outbreak or is not properly following the rules they have set in place.
Moore explained that “last spring, Hart High School was closed by the county because of cases and what they considered an outbreak that happened there. They can tell us that, which is what we don’t want to happen and that’s why we are being strict about the protocols and safety precautions.”
Hart District Superintendent Mike Kuhlman sent out an accessible video link on YouTube discussing the district’s preparation for returning to school.
“[The video] frames what we are doing as our protocol for working with students as we have cases on campus,” said Moore. “For anyone who has been exposed we do contact tracing and we try to find all of the individual students and adults who might have been exposed to the person with the positive test. That means if you’re in a classroom and you are within six feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or, more over, a period of 24 hours, you are considered a close contact. Our classrooms are larger than six feet, so you could be in a classroom and not be in close contact because of where your seat is in the classroom.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children who are 12 years or older can receive the Pfizer vaccine. For high school and junior high students who are vaccinated, the resulting outcome of exposure is different from those who are not vaccinated.
“What the protocol calls us to do is that those who are vaccinated [will] be notified that they could’ve been exposed but they’re able to come back to school the next day,” Moore said. “Whereas someone who doesn’t have the vaccination will be asked to quarantine for 10 days.”
In order to keep these students from falling behind, the district has a plan set to keep their learning consistent. This includes teachers utilizing Zoom and the Google Classroom, which many students and their families came to use frequently during the last school year.
“We have what we call a ‘Continuing Education Plan,’ which requires that every student who is in quarantine – one, is personally contacted by a site administrator and two, the teachers are providing their work in a distance-learning format for them so that they aren’t missing out on their education while they are having to quarantine.”
Although getting a vaccination is not yet mandated by the state or district for students, the learning quality for those who do not receive it may be negatively affected by the protocols that the district has to abide by, according to Moore.
“I support family choice around [the vaccinations],” she said. “It’s a decision that you and your family have to make to decide that this is what’s best for you and your child. I know that for some, the experience that they’ve had at the start of school with not being vaccinated is being quarantined the second day of school and having to be out for 10 days. The reality is that if you are not vaccinated and you’re in close contact with someone who turns out positive… you could be out once a month for ten days, who knows what could happen.”
Pfizer recently announced that its COVID-19 vaccine is safe for children aged five to 11 at a third of the dosage given to adults and is awaiting FDA approval. Approval for children under 12 to receive the vaccine could happen within the next month.
Elementary schools within the Castaic, Newhall, Saugus and Sulphur Springs districts have to follow different guidelines for exposed students since a vaccine for the younger age group has not yet been approved.
“We do inform [people] if we have a positive case in the class,” Newhall School District superintendent Jeff Pelzel said about his district’s guidelines. “We obviously contact trace based upon the L.A. County Department of Public Health guidelines… Those close contacts now are then notified by the school and those close contacts along with the student that’s positive have to now quarantine for up to ten days. There’s potential to return the close contacts [to school] after a negative test on day seven. They can return a little bit earlier, but that’s probably been the most disruptive thing in the county requirement about how we’re quarantining kids, and L.A. County is the only county that is doing that quarantine. In every other county, close contacts are allowed to stay in school and as long as they test negative twice during those 10 days. They get to stay in school the entire time and they don’t have to go home.”
Pelzel said there’s also been a lot of irritation over the interruption of learning caused by the pandemic.
“I think a lot of superintendents are a little bit frustrated right now because of the volume of students who’ve had to quarantine because of being a close contact – and we don’t see those close contacts – then in turn also come out positive while they’re quarantining,” he said. “There’s evidence that these kids staying home for seven to 10 days are missing out on in-person instruction. We give them work but they’re doing that because that’s what the county requires…”
Several of the schools in the valley have apps available to students and parents for them to survey how the student is feeling before they come to school each day.
For the Hart District, “It’s called Crisis Go. Students, staff, everybody [fills this out]… You will get this form that you fill out… it’s a form that asks you how you’re feeling, if you have a fever,” Moore said. “Everyday everyone self-responds through the Crisis Go app and all of the students have it on their phone or through their ID badge. That’s a part of how we are able to do the contact tracing too, that helps us know where everybody is on campus at different times so this has been really really helpful.”
The Newhall School District, including its 10 elementary schools, has its own COVID-19 screening methods.
“We do a covert screener with our families before kids arrive on Monday through our parents Square application, which is a communication system to our families,” Pelzel explained.
In addition to tracking cases, each school has very strict cleaning policies to aid in the sterility of the teaching environment. Pelzel said the Newhall School District has done its part as well.
“We’re [sanitizing everything] in the evenings. Cleaning, wiping down all high touch surface areas and those kinds of things and then we upgraded our filtration systems. The filters that are in the classrooms are the highest quality as our systems would allow.”
He also added that new desks have been purchased to aid in social distancing.
“Over the summer, we bought 6,000 new single desks, so that every student would have their own desk,” he continued. “A lot of times in elementary school they are doubles, which sit them right by each other so that social distancing isn’t there, but we bought brand-new desks so that kids can be three feet apart… We [also] have hand sanitizer stations around campus. We have lots of signage we have put in and installed to hydration stations that are on each campus.”
According to Mayreen Burk, president of the governing board for Castaic Union School District (which covers four elementary schools), each school has had their air filtration equipment replaced. Burk said the district is “committed to doing what we have to do so that we are able to stay and keep the kids in the class.”
“They lost so much in-person time last year,” she continued. “I know that the teachers, as well, are concerned and want to make sure that the guidelines are followed because they don’t want to see that happen.”
Burk said “it can be really hard [on the teachers]… last spring they were on Zoom and in the room at the same time. I think that they’re all happy to be back and to get the kids back in a classroom.”
Pelzel believes teachers have come through many difficulties in the last year in order to get back to a somewhat normal learning environment again. Teachers transitioned to a hybrid model of learning in February until in-person learning became full-time in April.
“I think our teachers did a really good job in the Google Classroom, but we definitely know having our kids in person with our teachers is going to get the best results that we can just because of the things that you can do with kids in person. That amount of discourse kids can have with each other in the classroom and all those kinds of things. I think for upper grades they were already using Google Classroom a lot, but I think for our primary teachers it was a shift.”
Although teachers may be eager to return to face-to-face contact with their students, other issues have been brewing. Protests erupted from educators earlier this month over the COVID-19 mandates in the Hart District that required school staff to be vaccinated or receive weekly testing by Oct. 15. It continues to look like this will be required by state and county officials.
Moore said the Hart District saw a rise in enrollment, indicating a shared enthusiasm by parents and their children to physically go back to school.
“We were worried that we would have a decline in enrollment because all of last year we were closed and other states were open,” she said. “We were hearing that students were leaving California, families were moving to other open states where they could go to school and play their sport and things like that. What we’ve actually found is that we are actually up in attendance and enrollment. One of the numbers on the enrollment is that it was higher than the anticipated number… We were up by 100. That’s really significant when you think about how the narrative has been.”
Despite a positive start, Moore assured that the online format is something many families continue to feel comfortable with.
“We have had parents enroll in our Learning Post Academy program and that program is our independent study program,” she said. “It’s an award-winning program. We have seen 400 students this year. It’s quadrupled in size. There’s a lot of folks who chose that for a variety of different reasons. Some people chose Learning Post because after being out of school for a year and realizing some of the benefits of working from home with their child and the flexibility of that. Some people chose that option because they like that independence and the students actually did better with that model than the traditional school model. Some chose it because of the masks.”
However, many parents are also strong on their stance when it comes to their children wearing masks.
“Parents are frustrated, understandably, everyone has their own opinion about masks or no masks… It’s our job to follow the guidelines so that we’re in compliance, that we can stay open and that everyone stays safe,” said Burk.
Moore said parents email her and “ask me to push against the masks and share with me about their beliefs that masks are harming students and I have to think about it from the perspective of what is going to cause the least harm and to me the masks cause the least harm and I’ve seen it in the classes and students aren’t having an issue with it.”
To each district leader, it is clear that the masks are the last concern of the students.
Moore stated that “[students] are so happy… In every visit [to campuses], I talk to the students and you can see their smiles through the masks and you can tell they’re happy. They’re so glad to be back… We see students on our campuses just happy, smiling, feeling like they belong again and excited to do the work.”
She continued to add that students take their masks off outside, including during lunchtime. Despite this, Moore pressed that wearing masks are “doable because it’s protecting their safety and the safety of everyone around them. You don’t wear the mask for you, you wear it for your neighbors, you wear it for the student who’s at the desk next to you. That’s what the mask is about.”
Pelzel said going back to school has been exciting for everyone.
“It’s very refreshing to be back in school. Seeing kids in person, seeing our teaching staff in person. Our teachers talked about last year feeling kind of isolated even though they were on campus teaching – a lot of them – rather than from home. They were teaching from in their classrooms. It still felt very isolating and I think it’s nice to bring that camaraderie back to school. We couldn’t have gotten to where we are at without our parents, parents partnering with us last year in supporting us. And now we’re trying to reciprocate that and get things back into a routine that feels safe and assured, you know, really assuring our kids that we’re there and we’re spending a lot of time focusing on the social emotional support for the kids. Getting them back into the routine of what school really looks like.”
As the school year continues, many people are eager to see education move back into something somewhat recognizable to how it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Moore stated the opposite.
“I don’t want things to be normal,” she said. “I want things to be better than normal. Better than before. We have learned so much from COVID-19 [about] what we can do better. We’ve learned so much about the inequities that can happen in our communities and with our students that this has unmasked. We can be better than we were. So I don’t want to return to normal, I want to return to better than we were, and we are.”
The Castaic Union School District and William S. Hart Union High School District both have sites available to the public that give daily updates on COVID-19 in their schools. You can see a list of each of the Hart District school’s cases here and different COVID resources through the Castaic District here. Newhall School District tracks their COVID-19 cases as well, which is available here with other resources also present.
Representatives from the Saugus and Sulphur Springs Union School Districts did not respond to discuss their guidelines in time for publication. However, Saugus has their COVID-19 protocols listed here and Sulphur Springs has a letter to its community here.
This is Part 1 of a series focused on the “new normal” of schools in the Santa Clarita Valley and how districts, teachers and parents are acclimating to in-person learning despite the ongoing pandemic.
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