Nurse Johnny Kell of the Northern Humboldt Union High School District keeps a running list of school employees who have died from COVID infections pinned to his home screen.
At its October 13 meeting, the NoHum school board voted to plan to reopen the district for face-to-face instruction in January, and with that plan Kell has a goal: No student deaths, and no staff deaths.
“Somebody told me one time that that was dramatic,” Kell told the Outpost recently over the phone. When people clash with Kell’s rigorous protocols for reopening, he thinks of that list. “Until we reach a point where these very real people aren’t being hurt preventatively, I’m not going to stop, you know, thinking about them and reminding people about them.”
As it has been everywhere else, reopening at NoHum has been a controversial topic for months. Emotions ran high at the October 13 board meeting, when parents and students attended to pressure the board one way or another. Parents worried about their children’s social and emotional well-being pleaded with the board for reopening, while others scolded the district for not setting a reopening date sooner. A few people referenced the American Academy of Pediatrics, which “strongly advocates” that schools aim for in-person instruction.
Meanwhile, some students with health complications appeared to ask the board to stick with distance learning, and others expressed concerns over the added stress that reopening will bear on their already overworked teachers.
Five hours into the meeting, the board unanimously approved a loaded motion: to plan and prepare for a reopening date of January 19, unless conditions worsen, to continue to identify at-risk students to get them the help they need, and to start a pilot program by reopening career and technical education programs first, for those students who may wish to attend. Rather than reopening at the start of the second semester, which begins the first week of January, the board opted to wait in case there’s higher spread over the holidays.
Provided conditions don’t “worsen,” NoHum will be the largest Humboldt school district to completely reopen come January, with 1,665 students and five schools — Arcata High, McKinleyville High, Pacific Coast, Six Rivers Charter and Mad River High. Around the county, more and more school boards are voting to reinstate face-to-face learning. Nine districts are open now, ten are offering hybrid models, and many others are bringing special ed or high-need students on campus for additional support. Some, like NoHum, are currently doing distance or hybrid learning, but are in the process of developing reopening plans. Last week, the Southern Humboldt Unified School District board voted to bring back “small pods and stable cohorts” of students. Earlier this week, the Eureka City Schools board voted to offer in-person instruction to grades K-6 “as soon as practicable,” to allow in-person club activities and to continue to develop a reopening plan for grades 7-12.
Between physical technicalities, enforcing safety measures, reimagining schedules and accommodating students who want to carry on with distance learning, reopening safely is a complicated task, and each individual hurdle has its own range of complications.
Kell, who is highly involved in developing reopening protocols, reminded the board of the evolving nature of the virus at the October 13 meeting. Some scientists speculate that the virus is more contagious than it was in the spring, due to an amino acid mutation. The virus has also become less deadly, as the mortality rate has dropped from about two to three percent to one percent in the US, making it about six to ten times deadlier than the seasonal flu. There is more information now about post-infection health complications, which Kell reported can impact every major body system. And, there is fairly new confirmation that airborne transmission by virus-infested aerosol microdroplets — which can linger for hours — is a legitimate cause of infection.
Over the phone with the Outpost, Kell said that because California doesn’t publish COVID data specific to schools — something that all but ten states do — it’s harder to reopen confidently, because it’s difficult to learn what’s working and what isn’t for other schools.
With the threat of airborne transmission, Kell thinks that the most present danger in reopening is stale air. His main priority is upgrading the district’s ventilation systems. Calculating the risk of indoor airborne transmission is a big math problem — it depends on the size of the room, how many people are in that room and whether those people will be breathing heavily or need to project their voice for some reason. “If you multiply the cubic footage of the room, and then you add up the liters, you know, respired per person, you can see how quickly the air fills up with human breath,” Kell said.
NoHum’s five schools must consider each individual classroom’s size and layout — for instance, if a classroom’s door and only windows are on the same wall, there won’t be proper airflow, Kell explained. Ensuring air circulation also depends on where current filtration systems are located in the classrooms, which is often in the corner. NoHum also needs to eliminate airflow eddies, or currents of old air circulating in the corner of a room that has otherwise satisfactory ventilation.
At the moment, “by and large, we don’t have ventilation,” Kell told the Outpost. “For most of our classrooms, there’s no active air in or active air out.” Most classroom heaters circulate air rather than bring new air in; however, filter and furnace professionals recently evaluated the situation and were optimistic about prospects for updating filtration and ventilation, Kell said. He couldn’t say for sure that it will be possible to fix every classroom’s ventilation issue by January 19, but ensured the district is going to try their best to reach that goal.
Other technicalities, like establishing strict entrances and exits on the normally open campuses and enforcing one-way hallways are other ideas that Kell mentioned. Once students are on campus, the district will implement other safety measures, like a temperature and health screening, social distancing and, of course, a mask requirement.
faculty opinions are somewhat divided, a vast majority — nearly 75
percent — said they are concerned about returning to campus for
face-to-face teaching during cold and flu season in a district-wide
survey that was presented at the October 13 meeting. But elsewhere in
that survey, five faculty said they would not be willing to regularly
get tested or wear a mask if schools reopen face to face. In that
survey, 79 of 92 people responded. Superintendent Roger Macdonald was
adamant that safety protocols would be enforced for both staff and
students when trustees expressed concern over that survey finding at
Also in that survey, 51.9 percent of teachers said they wouldn’t get a doctor’s note in the event that schools reopen, while 25.3 percent said they would consider getting a note and the remaining teachers already have one or will soon. Many teachers indicated that at-risk family members or children who are still distance learning might impact their ability to return to campus.
In a recent phone call with the Outpost, Macdonald said that they’re “doing everything we can to provide for an on-campus learning environment that is as safe as possible,” but that if people still feel unsafe once those safety measure are in place, “it would be a challenge” to operate in-person if all of those people actually do get doctor’s notes to stay off campus. The district would work with those employees to try and accommodate them. If they end up with a shortage of staff, “that will be a problem,” Macdonald said. “We will do everything we can to find staff to fill those positions.”
Shannon Kresge, a science teacher at Arcata High, says that she has a condition that places her in the high-risk population, and said that she will not go back until she feels conditions are safe. “I give my whole life up to teaching. I give it every minute I can, but I’m drawing the line at dying for someone else’s children,” she told the Outpost. Kresge said that the district is “doing a good job listening to our whole community, and trying to keep everybody safe,” and said that she’s proud of the work and time everyone has dedicated.
What might be more difficult to conceptualize than safety is how the district will manage to teach in-person students and those who remain virtual at the same time. Recent survey results of NoHum families show that 54.6 percent of students would opt in for in-person instruction, while 21.8 percent would continue learning virtually and 18.3 percent are unsure at this time. The remaining students are either on independent study or plan to start independent study once schools reopen.
Macdonald told the Outpost that scheduling isn’t completely worked out yet. He did specify that the district wants to ensure that curricula match between those who are physically present in school and those who aren’t, so that in the event of an outbreak a transition back to entirely remote formats would be swift. Macdonald also said that maintaining peer interaction for those who stay home is a priority for the district. He unofficially suggested giving teachers headsets and in-person students Chromebooks so that virtual students could tune into live classes and interact with their classmates over Zoom. During the board meeting, another solution he suggested was staggering classes every other day in order to limit the number of people in classrooms. It’s not clear at this point how students will be limited to cohorts or how large those cohorts will be. Macdonald said that figuring these details out will depend largely on how many students officially opt to come back.
Kresge told the Outpost that teaching in-person and virtually at the same time would up the ante for faculty. Fortuna High, which has been open for face-to-face learning since August, has teachers simultaneously teaching in-person and virtually — a design that wasn’t working out for some students who originally hoped to stay remote at the beginning of the year.
Like many others, Kresge also addressed disparity. She wants to prioritize students who are house- and food-insecure and students who are struggling to be successful virtually. She also mentioned prioritizing bringing back students for hands-on classes, like science or woodshop. This was part of the board’s motion, and since then teachers who want to work with students in very small groups — following COVID protocols — have been developing a program for that.
As school-wide reopening plans unfold, the district will approach more immediate goals to continue identifying and helping students with higher needs. For the last couple of weeks NoHum has served a few of those students on-site. They’re stationed in large auditorium-style rooms, socially distanced, masked and divided by plexiglass barriers.
“We’re using the vastness of the building to kind of mimic the amount of air you would have outside,” Kell told the Outpost, adding that for those few students, safety has been “relatively easy to implement, and it’s been successful.”
In collaboration with Humboldt County Office of Education, NoHum also has a therapeutic learning center called Eagle Point, which has a therapeutic clinician, behaviorists and teachers on-site. There, enforcing social distancing and masking is easy because the staff to student ratio is balanced, Kell said.
During the board meeting, Gayle Conway, director of student services, said that the district is working to expand these offers and hopes to begin home visits for students who aren’t attending or engaging in classes.
In terms of district-wide reopening, a plan from the district, which will include reopening protocol and criteria for what safe local conditions are specifically, will be evaluated at the regular November 10 meeting. The final call of whether to reopen on January 18 will be made at the December 15 meeting.