This afternoon, in response to Public Records Act requests from both the Outpost and the North Coast Journal (if not others), the Humboldt County Joint Information Center released a series of emails between Humboldt County Health Officer Dr. Teresa Frankovich and Humboldt State University President Dr. Tom Jackson.
The emails, dating from Tuesday through Thursday of this week, concern the COVID-19-related risks associated with students returning to campus for the fall semester. Frankovich tells Jackson she doesn’t believe it can be done safely, prompting a contentious back-and-forth in which Jackson says HSU plans to proceed with its plans to resume limited face-to-face instruction. He also accuses Frankovich of being prejudiced against students in light of the open businesses and active tourism being allowed.
There are five emails included in the documents released today. Shortly after noon on Tuesday, Frankovich emailed Jackson asking if he had any time to talk that afternoon between 1 p.m and 3 p.m.
At 6:03 p.m., having apparently received no response, she sent a much lengthier email, the key sentence of which is this: “I believe we have moved to a place in which on-site instruction cannot be accomplished safely at this moment in time.”
As justification she cites guidance from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and lists her specific concerns regarding the latest local conditions in the COVID-19 pandemic. Those concerns include the county’s rapidly increasing case count and limitations on both contact tracing and testing capacity.
Frankovich says Public Health has been working with community partners and hopes to have more robust testing capabilities by October, but until then most of it is being conducted through the department’s own lab and the Optum site at Redwood Acres. These resources, she says, “would clearly fall short in meeting demand for a large surge occurring in context of a return of students to dorms and on-site learning at HSU.”
Before signing off she writes, “I completely understand the enormous impact of this for all involved, including our local community and cannot tell you how much I regret that I do not see any way in which public health can support on-site instruction and dorm living at this time.”
Jackson sent a response via email at 10:55 the following morning, saying, “It is unfortunate your perspective has shifted despite our best efforts as a major and essential enterprise to be due diligent [sic] and helpful to your office. I also regret you not waiting and speaking to me first before writing a long email to me.”
Regarding her stance on the safety of students returning to campus, Jackson says simply, “Your perspective is noted.”
He also provides a link to state guidelines for higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic “in case you are not familiar with them.”
His email wraps up thusly:
As we proceed as we have consistently and carefully planned, we will continue to update you on additional measures we will be taking given Public Health’s limitations. The days are long but let’s try and find a small window of time to chat.
About half an hour later, Frankovich wrote him back saying she, too, would have preferred to speak in person but felt the need to send an email since time is short.
“The Governor’s guidance was actually quoted in my email so yes, am definitely aware,” she writes. “The issues are not Public Health’s issues, they are our community’s issues and being faced by communities across the state. That is why we have been transparent in discussions all along that the COVID landscape could change and necessitate a shift to virtual learning only. It is the same discussion we have had with K-12 schools for months as well.”
At the end of the email Frankovich reiterates her stance. “I would be happy to talk about options and sincerely feel that a delayed start date could serve everyone well. I look forward to speaking with you.”
Jackson didn’t respond for more than 24 hours, though when he did, shortly after 1:00 on Thursday afternoon, he referenced a phone conversation the two had had the previous evening.
“As you know from our phone call last night I am shocked at your sudden shift in position despite the fact that your team has been working with HSU on our plans for fall semester since June,” Jackson writes. “I am disappointed and our confidence has been shaken in your department’s ability to meet this challenge as our partner.”
The university is moving ahead with plans to bring “a very limited number of students” back to residence halls on campus, he says.
“If you have any further plans to use your authority to obstruct this plan (in spite of supporting it earlier), we must be informed immediately,” he continues [emphasis in the original]. “We anticipate such an action would produce a hardship for many students who do not have other housing arrangements. We have further concerns that many students would need to quickly find housing in the community, and in that case we would not have the same capacity to help monitor them and influence their activities.”
We’ll go ahead and reproduce the rest of his email below. It’s the last in the thread of documents released this afternoon. We’re also providing a link at the bottom of this post to all the emails.
It also seems perplexing that you are suggesting we should deny housing to students, who are also county residents, who will reside in Humboldt permanently when 150 hotels, 87 groceries, 34 gyms and studios, 145 barbers and hair salons, and 125 restaurants in the county are currently open and accepting guests from all over the country. Thousands of tourists have been welcomed into our County given that the travel restriction has remained lifted all summer. Restriction on travel continues to be lifted because there was an identified need county-wide for economic stimulus. We are struggling to understand the distinctions you are making between the threat/risk of the thousands of tourists coming in and out of the county, providing a very temporary economic stimulus, compared to the social and economic value of the University bringing a more stable population (adhering to public health protocols) to accomplish the same public goal.
We are moving forward with our plans for very limited face-to-face instruction according to the Governor’s and CSU guidelines and current public health protocols. As you know, in our approved plan, the face-to-face aspects of our instructional operation begins September 8. If you anticipate using your authority to further obstruct this plan, we must be informed immediately. Such action would be inconsistent with the Governor’s guidelines, with which we are in compliance, and unusual across the CSU with the other campuses offering some form of face-to-face instruction or service to students in their counties.
I can appreciate your concerns regarding your office’s inability to potentially meet a substantially worse outbreak. As only one of 23 communities with a CSU, and thoroughly knowing and participating in the development of our operational plan since June, it was our expectation that Public Health would have anticipated these limitations within your area well before now and adjusted service delivery in preparation for and support of the implementation of our plan. We welcome conversations with you about what else we can do to help you and your department address any resource or capacity shortcomings within your department.
As we offered earlier, HSU will substantially increase our testing ability for students. While we recognize this is a resource managed and available by Public Health, given the limitations in the County, we have acted swiftly to incorporate student testing into our campus plan for the Fall semester.
I can also appreciate your feeling that you will be better prepared by October. Unfortunately, denying on-campus housing until October isn’t a viable option for a major institution such as HSU, especially given that there is no guarantee what you described will be available in October. We are willing to work with you to become ready now. We can also advocate for additional support to your department if you want us to do so.
There are prejudicial statements in your email that are concerning. It seems irresponsible to assume that students from outside the county are a threat, particularly in a county that remains fully open for travel and tourism. While the younger adult population certainly fits the risk profile, residents remain able to leave and return to the county. Businesses all over Humboldt County are open, hairdressers are cutting, patio seating is available, gyms are open, apartment complexes are renting, hotels are open, airplanes are arriving, and retail stores are selling goods. These alone account for a substantially greater number of adults than what HSU would have on campus and in isolation. The focus on HSU students is inequitable and perplexing.
HSU has one of the best operational plans for a higher education institution in the state. While health is your primary concern, your position seems based on several projected assumptions connecting directly to HSU students. If I close housing based on these assumptions, I need to consider the impact of triple digit layoffs, hundreds of students possibly stopping their education, loss of health care insurance, collective bargaining agreements, and potentially millions of dollars lost to the region. HSU also houses some people that may have housing insecurities, low income, or are coming from abusive environments. I doubt you are suggesting we put these people on the street. We also house many persons of color. Again, I do not think you are suggesting we put these individuals out onto the street or suggest they should not progress toward a degree in this community, but your position will lead us there. Having limited campus housing actually helps the County because it allows HSU to provide concentrated support, testing, safety, and education to students that would not be as readily available in the County. Many students have already cancelled their leases and will be a part of this community whether they are in the residence halls or in private housing.
We have more than exceeded the Governor’s recommended guidance. We have also offered to you other alternatives to try and alleviate your recent fears, which you have not yet accepted. Those were examples of a university trying to assist you in your role without success. The condition of the County is not a result of newly arriving student residents. It is directly related to the soundness of partnerships like ours and Public Health’s commitment to promoting the health of all residents, including residents enrolled at HSU.
We have kept our commitment, as an essential and critical organization in this community, to keep your department informed. Our assessment of our campus readiness is strong. While we have never tried to meet the impossibly high bar of being risk free, we have been consistent and diligent in our risk reduction. We are committed to being a partner and hope Public Health remains committed to being a partner for the better good of our entire community.
I am copying a number of important individuals so they are aware of this email and its context.
Dr. Tom Jackson, Jr., President
Humboldt State University