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Hollister School District faces COVID surge

Board of Trustees takes action to deal with teacher shortages and expand communication with parents.
Superintendent Erika Sanchez addressed some parental concerns by highlighting the state guidelines that show if one of two unvaccinated students are unmasked and test positive for COVID, the masked individual is still required to quarantine for ten days. Photo from YouTube presentation.
Superintendent Erika Sanchez addressed some parental concerns by highlighting the state guidelines that show if one of two unvaccinated students are unmasked and test positive for COVID, the masked individual is still required to quarantine for ten days. Photo from YouTube presentation.

Hollister School District met Jan. 10 to identify options for dealing with extreme staff shortages and student attendance 12% below normal owing to a local surge in COVID cases.

The emergency session of the HSD Board of Trustees was called to adopt a plan for increasing staff and addressing the additional challenges caused by the recent surge. During public comment, parents expressed concerns about how schools are handling student exposure to the virus, as well as communication and COVID testing.

The trustees approved a motion to waive the CBEST requirement for newly hired substitute teachers, effective through June 30. In addition, the board agreed to consider a substitute pay increase at a future meeting. 

The HSD board also decided to notify parents that they can choose to sign their child up for a short-term independent study contract, available for a period of three to 30 days. 

Superintendent Erika Sanchez gave trustees six actions to consider: 

  • Assigning all administrative staff to school sites on a daily basis to help cover school staff absences.
  • Waiving the CBEST requirements for substitute teachers, requiring new substitutes to have only a bachelor’s degree and take a TB test and live scan (fingerprinting). 
  • Promoting short-term independent study contracts.
  • Offering school sites for COVID testing and/or vaccination, and/or to distribute COVID rapid tests to students.  
  • Conducting a survey of staff, HSD parents and labor leadership on which options they prefer.
  • Revising the academic student calendar and the certificated work calendar.

Sanchez also mentioned closing schools or implementing distance learning, but said those options could not be pursued at this time. 

“Distance learning is not an option under California guidance,” Sanchez said. “In California there is something called the J-13. It’s a way for the state to work with school districts if there is a need to shut down a school. This is not meant to deal directly with COVID. For example, if we were to say tomorrow we were going to file a J-13 with the state, it would be denied. It is currently accepted only due to staffing shortages. That is the only thing that could link it to COVID. And a district is required to demonstrate that all efforts to acquire staff to backfill vacancies have been exhausted. We are not there yet.” 

The HSD board's special meeting on Jan. 10 prompted a number of public speakers calling to voice opinions and concerns. Photo from YouTube.
The HSD board’s special meeting on Jan. 10 prompted a number of public speakers calling to voice opinions and concerns. Photo from HSD YouTube.

Sanchez asked the board to choose which options to consider. The trustees agreed that a survey should go out to staff and parents, but decided not to offer the options of revising the academic student calendar and certificated work calendar, or the option of filing a J-13 with the state.

When school resumed on Jan. 4, the absence rate for classified and certificated staff in the district was at all-time lows, stressing the educational system. Last week there were no more than 25 substitute teachers available to the entire district. Classified staff filled in for the substitute shortage.  

Sanchez said intervention teachers, administrators, principals and vice principals have been covering classrooms when no substitute or classified staff members were available. This occurred in up to 12 HSD classrooms last week.

Sanchez also reported that the average daily student attendance throughout the district for Jan. 7 was 83.4%. “Typically we are in the mid-90s in a normal circumstance,” Sanchez said. “This is probably one of the first times I’ve ever seen our attendance dip into the 80s, and we’re in the low 80s.”

Speakers phoned in during public comment, mostly HSD parents as well as an educational advocate, to voice concerns over the methods the district has used to notify them about COVID protocols, exposures to positive COVID cases and access to board meetings. As the district is currently communicating only through its website and emails, callers reminded the board about parents who do not have internet access or computer devices, or who speak Spanish only. Two parents had issues with the way schools had identified unvaccinated students, after their classrooms were exposed to positive COVID cases. The parents said this action could lead to bullying or harassment from other students once they return to school, and requested an apology to these students from the school and the district.

Trustee Jan Grist proposed that the board create a standard policy that describes how administrators will notify parents and students that their student is being quarantined because of a positive COVID case in the classroom. She said that if a child is exposed to COVID during school hours, a letter should be given to parents as their student is being sent home, notifying them that the school has test kits “if we have them”. 

“We also have mental health facilities available for parents and for their children who are at home; that we have hot spots available for them, and that we will help them find testing facilities if we can—definitely if we have them, and we will be handing [testing kits] out to them,” Grist said. 

In her presentation, Sanchez outlined California’s school employee COVID-19 vaccination requirement or weekly COVID testing.  

  • Staff members who provide written medical verification that they are fully vaccinated are exempt from weekly COVID-19 testing.
  • Staff members who are unvaccinated or do not provide written medical verification that they are fully vaccinated are required to take a COVID-19 test provided or made available by the district at least once weekly.
  • HSD has hired a contracted employee to assist with the weekly testing. 

“We are dealing with a lot in the educational world,” Sanchez said. “It is by no means a normal situation. At no other point in time had a pandemic clashed with the educational world so violently—that also mixes in with our personal lives, that mixes in our health, that mixes in political views, that mixes in media coverage, that mixes in a shortage of staffing, that mixes in all sorts of different avenues and concepts of today’s life as we know it.”

 

Jenny Mendolla Arbizu

Jenny is a Hollister native who resides in her hometown with her husband and son. She is a San Benito High School graduate, and received her BA in Literature from UC Santa Cruz and her MA in Education from San Jose State University. Jenny has written for the Hollister Freelance, San Benito and South Valley magazines. She enjoys meeting new people in San Benito County, sharing breaking news with the community, and spotlighting the county’s events and businesses. When not writing, Jenny can be found performing with SBSC, singing with the Hollister VFW, or working out at Cold Storage CrossFit.