At a special meeting on Dec. 8, the Hollister School District Board of Trustees approved a recommendation to maintain campus closures beyond Jan. 4 in response to COVID-19. The board is expected to consider reopening in a Jan. 26 meeting where, according to a recent news release, they will evaluate positive test rates, new case rates and vaccination availability.
The latest decision to continue with campus closures comes on the heels of a new regional stay-at-home order, which went into effect in San Benito County on Dec. 7. The new order is based on intensive care unit availability, and the San Joaquin Valley Region—which includes San Benito—has 4.2% availability as of the last update on Dec. 9.
With 338 classified employees and 313 certificated employees in the district, board members discussed how they wouldn’t be able to approve an opening without protecting all HSD employees first.
Superintendent Diego Ochoa revealed at the meeting that one district office employee was confirmed to have contracted COVID-19, which led to both district nurses placing 50 contact tracing calls. The calls resulted in 30 district office employees, including the superintendent himself, working solely from home under quarantine.
Ochoa and trustee Jan Grist read aloud 10 public comments submitted through email. The first came from parent Ashley Neuman, a proponent of offering options for parents who want to return to some form of in-person instruction. She cited a report of an 11-year-old boy in the San Joaquin Valley who shot himself while engaging in distance learning.
“He had his camera off and was muted and shot himself,” Neuman wrote. “I understand that this is uncomfortable to talk about, but this is the reality of what is happening to our kids. They are isolated, they are falling behind and no one is doing anything about it.”
Grist read a public comment from teacher Anne Tayes who said she looks forward to returning to in-person instruction, only after vaccines have been administered.
“While school personnel are not included in the first wave of vaccinations, we will apparently be included in the second,” Tayes wrote. “Once that is done, it is reasonably safe to return to our site.”
Grist also read a comment from Hollister School District nurse Anita Sarringhaus, who is a parent to a student in the district. Sarringhaus stated that four student COVID-19 cases reported to her in October “would have affected four different classes at three different school sites, and roughly 64 students would have had to return to distance learning.” Noting that there were 10 reported student cases in November which would have impacted 10 classrooms at six different school sites, having students on campus “would’ve caused a disruption in learning for 160 students as they returned to distance learning.”
Ladd Lane Elementary School, the only campus in the district that was briefly open for in-person learning for students with special needs and disabilities, is now closed. The district switched those 45 students back to a distance learning-only schedule on Dec. 8 following the recent surge in COVID-19 cases locally, according to Ochoa.
Trustee Rob Bernosky asked if there was any demand to return to in-person instruction. Ochoa said, “We have the survey still open online, so we get new survey responses every day,” adding that 12.5% of those surveyed are requesting a return to in-person instruction as soon as possible. The district sent a survey to parents in November seeking input on how distance learning has gone for families, as well as their opinions on reopening when the district is able to do so.
Ochoa announced that the district plans to send out a paper survey to all families. Results are expected to be presented to the board on Jan. 26.
Bernosky then asked how many teachers were willing to come back. Ochoa did not give an exact number but said it was “a very low amount.” This data would also be available from the new survey to be sent out.
“We’re just not trying,” Bernosky said. “We’re looking for excuses to stay closed as opposed to how can we open up at least for those parents that want to be there. Let’s look for ways to open for people that are willing to accept the risk, until we have a reason not to.”
In reference to Bernosky’s recent election loss to trustee-elect Lisa Marks, Grist responded, “Well the voters of your district did speak to you. So, your voice has been nullified and this conversation is over.”
Trustee Carla Torres de Luna pointed out that Bernosky was in the district office without a mask and asked Ochoa if he was in violation of county ordinances. To which Bernosky replied, “You should call 911 and have the sheriff come out Carla.”
In response to Grist, Bernosky said, “Jan I am in this office today, I am the school board president. I am not null and I intend to exercise the privileges of this office until I am no longer a member.”
The next regular HSD board meeting is scheduled for Dec. 15 at 6 p.m.
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