Local educators, parents and students are celebrating that every school district in Humboldt County managed to partially reopen campuses before the academic year’s nearing end. From preparing safety protocols to accommodating in-person and remote students simultaneously, bringing kids back on campus was no small accomplishment.
Post-opening campuses, the work hasn’t stopped. Going to school in-person requires constant vigilance over masking, social distancing and sufficient ventilation. However, there is one resource that schools could access — thanks to state aid — but aren’t. COVID testing kits and training (for both PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and rapid tests) are free to all school districts in California, but most Humbodlt schools are opting out.
So instead of celebrating, nurse Johnny Kell — who works full-time at the Northern Humboldt Union High School District, and who is tuned in to health in education county-wide — is still stressing. He thinks regular testing access in elementary schools should be a priority, but most elementary district administrators don’t feel the same way.
“The training is minimal and literally anybody can do it,” Kell told the Outpost. Because vaccines aren’t expected to be available to kids under twelve until fall or later, he believes it’s worth it to take advantage of those testing opportunities. Because schools aren’t testing, he predicts that countless outbreaks are happening as a result, probably off campus.
Asymptomatic testing is not a requirement in schools, but it has been encouraged by some leaders in education. In addition to social distancing, masking and proper ventilation, testing can serve as an effective extra layer of protection. The California Department of Education hosted a webinar that promoted and discussed on-campus testing options in March. “Testing can really supercharge the effort to get kids back to school safely,” Dr. Charity Dean, assistant director of the California Department of Public Health, said at that webinar.
“Frequency of testing really matters,” Dean added, referencing models that show a dramatic decrease of infections when folks are tested every three days rather than weekly, bimonthly or never. “As long as there are cases in a community, there are going to be cases walking into schools. It’s unavoidable.”
The Humboldt County Office of Education is offering to streamline the state-funded testing opportunity by ordering and disseminating the tests to schools that request them. HCOE currently provides tests to one private school, one charter school, and seven of Humboldt’s 32 public school districts, according to Ken Conlin, HCOE Communications Center manager. There may be other school districts that are ordering the tests from the distributors — Primary.Health or Color — directly, but other than the Scotia Union School District, the Outpost wasn’t able to identify any of those.
The other 24-or-so districts opted-out perhaps because of a few logistical barriers. Schools might not feel they have the bandwidth to set aside the time and personnel to administer tests (additional costs that aren’t covered by state funding), and schools that do test their students need parental permission. However, none of the superintendents asked to comment for this story cited either of those challenges (most didn’t respond to requests for comment).
Superintendent Jeff Northern of Fortuna Elementary School District told the Outpost in an email that regular testing doesn’t feel necessary in his district. “Quite honestly, we have not had a need to provide ongoing testing of our students,” he said. “Onsite testing may have been necessary if we had maintained our sports programs, but all FESD sports programs have been paused throughout this school year. Our main focus for 2020-2021 has been on maintaining the most safe learning environment possible for our students and in educating our student population as best we could under the circumstances.”
Northern’s practices are aligned with official guidelines from the CDC, which recommend (but don’t require) regular testing of students in counties with ten or more cases per 100,000 (Humboldt’s current numbers are 6 per 100,000), and regular testing of athletes no matter local case numbers. (Testing is required in the event of an outbreak.)
Many school districts in Humboldt health screen their students, which involves asking students about COVID symptoms or contact to a known case and taking their temperature. (Not all schools in the area undergo these protocols; some ask parents to do it at home.) If students and families want tests, some administrators (particularly those at smaller school districts) say that the most they can offer is assistance in securing one elsewhere.
Kell said that positive cases in schools are sometimes associated with student athletes withholding information during those screenings so that they can keep playing sports. Most local on-campus testing efforts are linked to school sports, because that’s where the most — and, hopefully, only — physical contact is happening at school.
At Scotia Union School District, staff are celebrating a COVID-free year. Their 189-student campus has been open since Sept. 1. Although their administration chose not to regularly screen test their students, Superintendent Amy Gossien said the district has been offering on-campus tests to students whose parents request it, as well as daily rapid tests for their student athletes. The school hasn’t had a single positive case and never needed to quarantine a class.
The Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District also rapid tests their student athletes daily, the district’s nurse, Angie Brown, told the Outpost. Additionally, PCR and rapid testing is available to all staff and K-12 students who need it at the district’s wellness center. Brown said that the district administers about 50 to 60 tests per day.
Accounting for a massive chunk of northeastern Humboldt, testing at Klamath-Trinity is important but challenging. “We’re about an hour and a half away from any testing sites on the coast, and it’s just not accessible for our students and some of our staff and families,” Brown said. “It’s really important for us to have local testing so that we can provide that surveillance testing for our community. And if there is an outbreak of COVID, we can act quickly if we know the results of those tests.”
In addition to testing, Brown’s role at Klamath-Trinity has expanded significantly with the pandemic. She helps develop reopening safety protocols, communicates with public health, and does contact tracing within the district. “It kind of creates a whole new job on top of my other responsibilities that I currently have, and that has been challenging this year — trying to do everything that needs to be done for the students and their safety, as well as carrying out my regular tasks.”
Though nurses aren’t needed to administer the tests — any school employee can qualify for training — schools’ lack of testing indirectly highlights Humboldt’s gaping shortage of nurses in local schools.
There is a correlation between schools that utilize the testing service and schools that employ a nurse; of the eight school districts that offer testing, five employ a nurse.
Based on the Humboldt County Office of Education directory, seven of Humboldt’s 32 districts employ nurses, plus one charter school, totaling eleven nurse personnel, five of whom work at Eureka City Schools, and one person who works for two districts.
The remaining school districts share the HCOE Health Team, which includes three nurses and two medical clerks. This team usually provides hearing and vision screening, health assessments and student-specific medical training, but their role has changed over the last year.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic our skilled team has been able to pivot quickly to provide support to districts for contact tracing and case investigation, communicate with families, assist public health during vaccination clinics, provide guidance to districts offering COVID-19 testing for staff or students, established a collaborative network of school nurses, and acting as a liaison between public health and districts,” Katie Cavanagh, director of special education at HCOE, told the Outpost in an email.
According to the Population Reference Bureau, Humboldt’s school nurses average a 4,704:1 student-to-nurse ratio in Humboldt County. The recommended student-to-nurse ratio is 750:1, by the National Association of School Nurses standard, and smaller if regular one-on-one care is needed for any student. (No county in California meets that metric).
The nurses we spoke to for this story — Johnny Kell at NoHum and Angie Brown at Klamath-Trinity — said they’re stretched too thin, serving 1,700 and 1,000 students, respectively.
Kell believes that school itself is safe. Noting that he is confident that school safety protocols — like distancing, masking and purifying air — are sound, Kell also stressed that there is too much risk in what goes unsupervised. Between un-frequented areas on campus (like bathrooms), potentially untested athletes, and after school hangouts, he thinks it’s important to take every measure there is to protect unvaccinated kids.
Pockets of unvaccinated people cause spikes, Kell said, and “elementary schools are reservoirs of unvaccinated individuals.”
The Humboldt County Office of Education said they weren’t allowed to share how many cases have been traced back to schools. According to Humboldt’s COVID database, people aged 9 and under account for 7.59 percent of local cases (326 total), while people 10-19 make up 13.18 percent of cases (566 total, plus two hospitalizations).
Even though the school year is nearly over, school, for many students, is not; some will need to enroll in summer programs to account for learning loss.
As the adult world becomes more and more open, children will resume their lives, alongside their parents, without the same protections. Kell referred to a resource called Long COVID Kids, a UK-based database that documents the long-term impacts some children have had with COVID.
Kell is surprised and disappointed that more schools aren’t taking advantage of the testing opportunity. Via a Facebook group, he regularly interacts with thousands of school nurses across the nation, most of whom would jump at the opportunity to provide testing in schools, Kell said. Locally, he feels alone with his concerns about pediatric COVID.