High Desert K-12 systems blame COVID-19 policy as absences strain in-person learning

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  • Gavin Newsom
    Gavin Newsom
    Governor of California
Ron Williams, superintendent of Victor Valley Union High School District, teaches a math class at Hook Junior High School to help cover a surge in absent teachers at the start of 2022.
Ron Williams, superintendent of Victor Valley Union High School District, teaches a math class at Hook Junior High School to help cover a surge in absent teachers at the start of 2022.

As record volumes of COVID-19 testing produce record positives, schools across the High Desert are marking students and teachers as no-shows at rates unseen in normal times.

But according to four of the region’s K-12 systems, sickness isn’t fueling absences. They blame California’s COVID-19 policies instead, citing strict quarantine rules as the source of their current shortages.

Leaders at these rural schools want to keep in-person education alive in its fullest form. Some of them argue Gov. Gavin Newsom’s emergency measures are creating more harm than good.

“I believe it is our moral imperative to be open for our families and students who wish to come to school,” says Peter Livingston, superintendent of Lucerne Valley Unified School District. “It is time for Newsom not to want to be the first in the nation on something and allow society to return to normal.”

Record tests, record cases

The end of winter 2021 school breaks have coincided with unprecedented COVID-19 testing across San Bernardino County.

The county’s online center for COVID data as of Thursday reported a single-day record of 35,201 PCR tests for the virus on Jan. 4 alone. (A total of 34,087 tests were reported as of Wednesday, reflecting the rolling nature of pandemic data that has led to small and large corrections of some prominent data)

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At the turn of the new year, San Bernardino County’s all-time high was a bit more than 31,000 PCR tests in a single day, coincidentally on Jan. 4, 2021.

Last week, the new high was 12% higher than that former record — which was also surpassed on three other days last week — and a more than 30% increase from daily PCR tests reported one week prior, on Dec. 28.

The resulting volume of positive results have come back to their record highs.

The county reported a daily rate of 222.6 new COVID cases per 100,000 people from Dec. 26-Jan. 1.

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That’s more than three times the rate of daily cases reported one week prior. The rate for next week will likely be higher when the county says that data, as this will reflect the current record totals of PCR tests.

Yet, High Desert schools say COVID-19 isn’t noticeably affecting health or safety for their students and staff.

Many system leaders lament staffing shortages resulting from proactive testing rules, largely producing positives in asymptomatic workers.

Fact check: Yes, asymptomatic infections are real

While it’s confounding to many people that a virus can spread before the person who is infected with it even knows that they are sick or showing any symptoms, it’s not unusual, said Dr. David Beckham, an infectious disease specialist who studies viruses in a lab he runs at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is known as an RNA virus.

“With RNA viruses and other respiratory viruses, it’s quite common for people to be asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic. That’s probably an important way for them to spread,” Beckham said in an interview with the USAT TODAY Network.

Schools tout their efforts

At least one K-12 system in the High Desert says positive tests as a whole are virtually non-existent in its schools.

Barstow Unified School District’s most recent count of post-winter break absences is about 15% for both students and staff at all of its K-12 schools, according to spokesman Marseilles Chavez. That’s a slight hike from roughly 8-10% it usually sees this time of year.

But among these absences, Chavez says only 0.002% of students and 0.01% of staff are confirmed positive COVID-19 cases.

He cited parents monitoring their kids’ health before sending them to school and BUSD requiring staff and students to wear masks indoors. “Providing free testing to our staff, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated, has helped us maintain an adequate workforce,” he added.

Livingston, the Lucerne Valley superintendent, said absences among his teachers are the same as usual. Attendance also isn’t much different for his middle and high school students.

Elementary students and custodial staff such as counselors are missing school at a slightly higher rate than usual for LVUSD, he said, citing mandatory close-contact quarantines as a more significant cause than actual COVID-19 cases.

Livingston hopes the governor considers reducing quarantine requirements for school workers who test positive to five days, in line with recent changes for California health care workers, he said.

“We need to view education as California has our nurses and allow them to come to work immediately if asymptomatic,” he added. “The harm done through the state-mandated closures cannot be repeated from last year.”

Strains worsening in 2022

Kris Riley, public information officer for Victor Valley Union High School District, described the harsh impact absenteeism is currently creating in his schools.

“The absenteeism this year from both staff and students has been significantly higher than a normal year, and that’s putting it mildly,” he said.

Teacher shortages have gotten bad enough to require fill-ins from the top of the food chain, Riley said. He shared a photo of the Victorville district’s superintendent, Ron Williams, teaching a math class at Hook Junior High School earlier this week.

Multiple campuses in the eight high school systems have logged single-day absences “upwards of 500 kids” on recent occasions, according to Riley.

He referenced multiple potential causes. On the split between COVID-19 cases and close-contact quarantines, Riley said he didn’t have the numbers and hasn’t yet responded to a follow-up email for the breakdown.

“But I can say that the combination of kids either being out sick or just being out because of the COVID protocols, it certainly has caused a lot of absences,” he described.

Riley said separately, cases of the flu are hitting significantly harder this school year than last.

With that, he says a hike in absences is always expected after the winter holiday. It could be due to vacations stretching beyond the off-days, Riley said, or necessities like a VVUHD student who needs to babysit a younger sibling on a different school break while their parents are at work.

“There are people who, maybe we just won’t see them for a week after break. But that’s just like, a normal year.”

Apple Valley Unified School District is running at just under an 85% attendance rate this year, roughly 10% lower than it typically sees, according to AVUSD spokeswoman Zoee Widener.

Numbers are worsening as January goes on, with as many as 30% of the district’s students being out on some recent days. The majority of these absences, Widener said in an email, are due to:

  • Mandatory quarantine after potential “close contact” exposure to COVID

  • Illnesses, both from COVID and other viruses such as the flu

  • “Independent Study” students not completing their work

Independent Study is an at-home alternative to in-person schooling governed by California. The state made it mandatory that every district and county provide an Independent Study option for the first time this school year.

If students fail to complete their Independent Study work, that amounts to an absence.

Widener says if “we are forced to implement a school closure due to lack of staffing,” AVUSD’s only option is to transition all students to Independent Study in partnership with the county and state.

To avoid that, she said AVUSD may soon cut some services and programs to focus on unique needs currently created by its short staff.

Classes and shift duties have already been changed with this aim, she said, and AVUSD has even shut down 10 of its school-bus routes as a shortage of drivers sets in.

“We saw the profound impact of at-home instruction on our students and the community,” she said. “There may come a point when we must explore a closure, but we must exercise every available option to avoid that.”

Charlie McGee covers the city of Barstow and its surrounding communities for the Daily Press. He is also a Report for America corps member with the GroundTruth Project, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the U.S. and around the world. McGee may be reached at 760-955-5341 or cmcgee@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @bycharliemcgee.

This article originally appeared on Victorville Daily Press: High Desert K-12 systems blame COVID-19 quarantine rule for high absences

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