After Mammoth Middle and High Schools were closed starting Monday, September 20 due to an outbreak of Covid-19 among students, administrators, and teachers, the questions from parents started coming in.
There was a fear that this was a repeat of March 2020, a two week break that stretches into an entire year. What was being done to prevent that scenario? What was the logic behind quarantining vaccinated individuals?
Mammoth Unified School District (MUSD) Superintendent Jennifer Wildman and the Mammoth Unified School Boatrd held a series of meetings on Wednesday and Thursday to address these questions and more. Lunch’s take on the Wednesday morning Board meeting appears on page two. This story covers the Wednesday evening parent meeting where Wildman was joined by a panel of MUSD staff, school board members, and health professionals.
Mammoth Hospital Chief Medical Officer Craig Burrows served as moderator for the discussion.
“Lest anyone think the Covid pandemic is over, it is not,” Burrows said at the meeting’s outset, “[The people on this panel] are trying to keep the community safe and schools open.”
“It is way harder than it was last year,” Wildman said of running the schools, “Being all in- person has definitely caused us to examine how we have school and how we can keep it as safe as it can be especially for our littlest friends or family members who are not vaccinated.”
Wildman gave a presentation addressing questions that she had received from parents/community members about the closures, grouping them into categories that the panel could address.
The first matter of business was addressing the events and process that lead to the school closures.
On Friday, September 17, Wildman received an early-morning phone call that more than one Covid case had been detected in the school system.
“We started the contact tracing process, and realized we are headed for somewhat of an outbreak,” she explained, adding that an outbreak is defined as 3 or more related cases, and that the school system is currently experiencing multiple outbreaks.
After a testing clinic on Monday, September 13, MUSD got results back on Friday, September 17. Of the 71 tests administered county-wide, 21 came back positive.While some of those results were not from the schools, enough were to raise the alarm, especially as school administrators began the contact tracing process.
“We started to link cases together and realized how many were linked to one another,” she said of contact tracing efforts. Siblings, staff, and administrators had all been exposed and parents at home were testing positive as well.
“We have 600 elementary students that can’t be vaccinated,” Wildman added.
Mono County Epidemiologist Emily Janoff said that positivity rates and new cases per 100,000 have increased in recent weeks. The case rate current sits at over 30 new cases per 100,000 residents. “The last time it was that high was the second week in January 2021,” Janoff said.
Reduced staff at the county has also contributed to the headache, as more work falls on fewer shoulders.
Dr. Burrows stepped in to add, “There is no way we are going to eradicate this, at least not in the near future,” he said. That leaves two options: aggressive containment or getting to the point where it’s akin to other more common illnesses (i.e. the flu).
Many parents expressed concerns about their children’s mental health, given the return to virtual learning after finally being able to return to in-person classes.
Jennifer Burrows, Deputy Director of Covid Operations at Mono County, has been working to bring the county’s behavioral health staff on board. More kids than ever before are experiencing depression and/or are on medication, she noted. The MUSD team is working to bring mental health professionals into the schools and provide additional resources/services for MUSD.
“Our attitudes matter,” Wildman said, “If school closes and we all cry and we’re mad, then our kids see that. At schools, we try to model ‘We’re okay, this is a problem we can manage’.”
What is abundantly clear from listening to panel is that the guidance in place, the concept of modified quarantine, is complicating the safety process immensely.
Modified quarantine allows for students to continue attending school in-person if they have been exposed to Covid-19, albeit in a restricted capacity that limits all activities outside of the classroom. Keeping track of who is and isn’t on that list is challeneging, as the timelines are often distinct from one another and if one of those students tests positive, then a new contact tracing/quarantine protocol begins.
“The reality is that a plan that looks fantastic on paper,” Dr. Burrows said, “[But] when you put it on the ground with people that have to live it, it doesn’t work.”
As a result, “You are relegated to trying to make a decision in the best interests of the most people you can try to accommodate,” he said.”
The schools are currently rapid testing students with any symptoms that could be attributed to Covid-19.
Colleen Moxley, MUSD Health Coordinator said 18 students had been tested for Covid-19 on Wednesday.
MUSD is working on establishing a rapid testing drive-through clinic at Mammoth High School in the mornings.
Students have also been showing up to school with symptoms, forcing the school to test and potentially quarantine them after they’ve already been in class.
“This way, a parent could potentially drive through, have their student rapid-tested to make sure their symptoms are not Covid, and then that student can come to school,” Moxley said.
“If your kids are symptomatic, please get them tested,” Jennifer Burrows said, “Don’t send them to school.”
Wildman said that teachers are asking students questions about exposure and symptoms every morning to determine if someone may need to be tested.
“Every morning, there’s a little parade of kids to the office,” Wildman said.
When asked about why other schools around the nation aren’t closing their doors and returning to online schooling, Wildman said,” They’re also closing. They’re closingjust like we are.”
Public fears surrounding a vaccine mandate also came up, and Dr. Burrows gave a pitch in favor.
“Getting vaccinated prevents you from getting severely sick or dying,” he said. “You are now putting yourself potentially in a hospital bed that someone else may need for something else. Your hospitalization can be avoided by being vaccinated.”
Meeting attendee Sheilah Brode commented that she has been working in Bakersfield where the hospitals are “overflowing.”
Those who are unvaccinated, she said, require a minimum of 15 liters of oxygen and/or are placed on ventilators.
Vaccinated patients require 1 liter or less of oxygen, or are fine with simply the air in the room.
Staff shortages present another issue to overcome at MUSD: with nearly half of all available staff and administrators quarantined, in-person teaching simply isn’t feasible.
Added into that mix is the existing staffing shortage at MUSD. “We have had a really hard time hiring,” Wildman said, noting that substitute teachers are also hard to find. Although the school board is considering a pay raise for substitutes, Wildman said more money doesn’t necessarily correlate to more hires.
“I’ve been teaching for 35 years and this is the hardest time we’ve ever experienced,” Wildman said.
So how are students going to be able to come back?
The school conducted a mass testing push on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Any students with a negative test will be allowed to return to school on Monday, September 27.
Those who test positive will have to wait for another negative test in order to return.
“I am watching Jennifer Wildman, your superintendents, your principals, your teachers working their goddamned asses off,” MUSD Board member Tom Painter said to attendees, “We’re all in this together.”
Dr. Burrow encouraged people to have faith in their decision makers, and concluded with a warning: “If this pandemic rages out of control and a fourth grader gets sick and dies from this disease, what’s that response going to be?”