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School Board Hears Detailed Report on COVID-19 in Pasadena Public Schools

Updated Covid-19 protocols test patience of students, teachers, and staff; teachers cite unsanitary classrooms; District maintains it’s ‘not safe’ to loosen rules now

Published on Friday, January 14, 2022 | 6:14 am

Approximately 330 Pasadena Unified elementary students and 142 secondary students have tested positive for COVID-19 since the opening of campuses on January 3, according to an update delivered to the PUSD Board by district staff at a Special Board Meeting Thursday,

A total of 28 PUSD staff members from all campuses and district offices also tested positive in the same period, according to the report.

PUSD has conducted 73,930 PCR tests from August 9, 2021 to January 11, 2022.

The numbers were part of a detailed COVID-19 update presentation outlining the District’s response to the recent Omicon variant surge.

Before the presentation, the Board heard comments from a number of frustrated parents on both sides of the at-home learning and vaccination equations. Some parents pleaded for the district to ease restrictions and vaccination regulations, while others pledged not to return their children to campuses until the pandemic has run its course.

At least one teacher also complained about the current condition of classrooms, leading to a testy confrontation between Board Member Michelle Bailey Richardson and Leonard Hernandez, PUSD director of facilities and maintenance.

Jackson Elementary School teacher Sabrina Grimes told the Board in the online meeting that Jackson is short of custodians, her classroom is dirty with infrequent cleaning, there is no “fogging” for airborne viruses, and there is a lack of sanitizers, among other issues.

“I come into my classroom, and it’s not even clean,” she said. “Air filters are flashing red.”

Grimes added, “I don’t want to go remote, but I want my kids to be safe. They’re not safe right now with Omicron. It’s ridiculous. Safety procedures are not being followed.”

Hernandez responded by saying the District was exploring outsourcing for more employees, as well as offering overtime to current employees to work extra shifts, as well as working with the classified employees union to find a “consensus.” Hernandez also said they are addressing the issue of fogging.

“I hear your voice, and I hear your safety concerns,” he continued. “We’re absolutely trying our best. We are looking at every measure to ensure classroom safety, as it relates to classroom cleanliness.”

Board Member Michelle Richardson Bailey seemed unsatisfied with Hernandez’s responses and continued to press him.

“This is an emergency situation,” she said, “and I believe that the Board would agree with me, that we should be acting with more of a sense of urgency. I don’t understand the process and the fact that checklists aren’t available to keep track of when classrooms are sanitized. None of that is acceptable.”

Board President Dr. Elizabeth Pomeroy asked Hernandez if he could prepare a presentation of how the department is managing cleanup efforts to present to the board. Both Pomeroy and Bailey asked Hernandez to make a list of whatever might be needed, whether labor or equipment, to assist with his efforts.

The health report presentation, led by Chief Academic Officer Dr. Elizabeth Blanco, and Director of Health Programs Ria Apodaca, emphasized the safe return of students to campus.

“We know that students learn more when they are in-person at school,” the presentation said. “Research shows that they have fewer distractions, increased concentration, and are better equipped to handle stressful situations through face-to-face connections.

“Lack of motivation and technology deficits for students at home,” the presentation continued, “have been major barriers to effective distance learning for some students. Many parents and guardians are unable to help students with distance learning format.”

In what PUSD is terming its “Rapid Response” to the Omicron surge, the district has moved all parent/community meetings to virtual settings, offered testing and vaccination clinics throughout winter break, and suspended staff development to “focus attention to school sites’ needs.”

The District has implemented a COVID Safety Plan Exposure Management for its PALS and Early Childhood programs and barred any visitors that do not provide essential services to campuses with no in-person parent and staff meetings.

The district has also limited field trips to one class per bus, with social distancing and staggered seating.

In addition, PUSD has now barred spectators from any indoor athletic events.

A lower-risk exposure management plan is also being implemented for students who have tested positive for COVID-19.

The presentation also stressed the importance of mask-wearing for all students, noting that all students 2 years old and older must wear a mask at all times when indoors, except when carrying out activities that preclude the use of a mask such as actively eating or drinking, showering, swimming, napping, or playing an instrument or singing when in a room alone with the door closed.

All students 2 years and older must wear a face mask when outdoors when unable to reliably maintain physical distance at all times, except when actively eating or drinking. All students 2 years and older must also wear a mask at all times when riding on a school bus, van or other school transports, according to the protocols..

A medical-grade surgical mask must also be provided to symptomatic students who are waiting in the designated isolation area prior to leaving campus, if they are wearing less protection.

The district has also provided upgraded masks to students since last April, the presentation noted, and students have been able to wear their own cloth masks provided at their school sites. However, students can now only wear their own cloth masks over a surgical mask.

All employees must wear a medical-grade surgical mask or higher level PPE face mask at all times when indoors, except when working alone in a private office with closed doors; when working alone in a larger open workspace; or when actively eating or drinking.

All employees must wear a face mask when outdoors when unable to reliably maintain physical distance at all times, except when actively eating or drinking, and must wear a mask at all times when riding on a school bus, van or other school transports.

Cloth face coverings alone are no longer acceptable for employees, said the district, as they do not provide the same level of source control or personal protection as a medical-grade surgical mask or higher level PPE.

For the longer term, said Blanco, the district will rotate schedules for central office staff to support sites and maintain central office functions and supports, use an internal substitution process for a temporarily absent unit
member, and continue “robust” weekly testing program at every school site.

The district will also continue to offer vaccinations, booster shots and testing daily at the PUSD District Health Clinic.

Blanco also pointed out that the District continues to receive information and direction from the LA County Office of Education (LACOE) daily, and is constantly responding, but stood by the district’s newest recommendations.

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One thought on “School Board Hears Detailed Report on COVID-19 in Pasadena Public Schools

  • I write to point out three important misconceptions that may arise from the staff presentation at the PUSD School Board meeting on January 13, 2022. It is my hope that presenting these here will help community members make more informed decisions.

    The first possible misconception is that only 330 students in PUSD schools have been recently infected. This number correctly reports only the count of students reported to PUSD by Friday, January 7, to have positive test results. Due to lags in reporting and then posting the information to the dashboard, incomplete reporting to PUSD, and incomplete testing, 330 is a vast undercount of the recently infected students. During the explanation of the presentation, staff revealed that about 16 percent of students voluntarily undergoing testing in the 5-day period leading up to the start of the school year tested positive. This indicates that over 2,000 PUSD students recently became infected prior to the start of school (16 percent of 14,373 is 2,300). Given the continuing high community spread, it is likely that an addition 2,000 students or more became infected during the first week of school.

    The second possible misconception is that students learn better when they are in-person at school. While there is research to support this in general, that research examines in-person learning as we have historically experienced it: 98+ percent of the students are in attendance, the same teacher is almost always there, there are few distractions inside the classroom, etc. What “in-person at school” actually means during this surge is that only about 75 percent of the students are in attendance, with the composition changing from day to day, there are substantially more teachers absent than usually and only half of the absences can be filled by regular substitutes, and there are persistent distractions about mask compliance, proper ventilation, and pervasive anxiety about disease and possible harm. There are no studies to compare the present reality of in-person learning to remote learning.

    The final possible misconception is that the community should believe that the district is doing everything feasible to keep children safe. As was evident from the various comments during the meeting, it is one thing to come up with a plan but another thing entirely to implement the plan. There are known failures to adhere to the safety plan with respect to maintenance, mask compliance, vaccination requirements, and more. Some safety measures are not tracked or monitored at all, and information about those that are monitored does not immediately become available to the community. In addition, the plan in place addresses a variant of COVID-19 that is different from the variant currently circulating. It has been stated, and I believe it is true, that staff are trying their best and undertaking immense efforts – staff members care and want our students to be safe. This alone is not sufficient, however, to ensure that students are safe.
    In summary, thousands of PUSD students are being newly infected every week, many students may not be learning as well in-person as they could remotely, the district is not doing everything feasible to keep students safe.