Tag Archives: Schools

Benicia School District responds to tough questions about clean air controls during the pandemic

How good are the Benicia Schools’ HVAC Systems?

By Roger Straw, March 16, 2021

On February 26, a Benicia resident asked an intriguing question on Nextdoor:

How good are the Benicia Schools HVAC systems? Before we expel school board members and chop up the teachers union, how up – to date & how well maintained our our school’s hvac systems?  If it costs approx $300,000 to recall a board member can we put that money into upgrading the schools’ hvac systems and hiring more janitors instead?

The Nextdoor question had obvious political implications, with which, incidentally, I agree wholeheartedly.  Our school infrastructure, supplies and services for teachers and students are so important.  The recent effort to attack and unseat two BUSD trustees is ridiculously expensive ($300,000!) and the recall is also misguided in intent, targeting two fine Trustees, including the School Board President.  EVERYONE please DO NOT SIGN THE RECALL PETITION!

But… what stood out to me was the opening question, “How good are the Benicia Schools HVAC systems?”

I wondered if anyone has a good answer to that question.  A little research uncovered that Benicia’s 2014 Ballot Measure S included significant provisions for upgrading the District’s HVAC systems.

So I dug around and found that I could write to Roxanne Egan, the Bond Director for Benicia Unified School District.

I emailed Ms. Egan some tough questions, and got a thorough response.  Here is my opening contextual statement and my four questions:

Given the pandemic guidelines’ strong call for good ventilation and heating/AC in schools before returning to in-person learning, I would like to know some details:

      1. What has been done to improve BUSD HVAC systems since passage of Measure S in 2014?
      2. What improvements have been made to BUSD HVAC systems in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
      3. Has the BUSD received specific federal and state guidance on HVAC recommendations and requirements in order to provide safe space as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, and if so, what are those recommendations and requirements?
      4. In what particulars are BUSD schools up to HVAC standards proposed by the CDC and the CA Department of Health, and in what particulars are we still deficient?

Ms. Egan and directors of several other BUSD departments were thorough in gathering information that would address my questions.  I received a two-page letter from Ms. Egan and Alfredo Romero, Director of Maintenance and Operations on March 11.  After the opening thank you, Egan and Romero answered each question, beginning with the first:

What has been done to improve BUSD HVAC systems since passage of Measure S in 2014?

      • Measure S has funded HVAC improvements including the replacement of over 28 HVAC units, service and repairs to existing HVAC units, upgrades to HVAC economizers, which are the mechanical assembly that responds to the thermostat “demand” to allow fresh air intake. In addition to Measure S funding, BUSD received State Proposition 39 funding through the California Energy Commission for qualified energy improvements which included thermostat upgrades at all schools. The upgraded thermostats provide the ability to remotely access the thermostats including the ability to monitor fresh air intake and allow maintenance operators to increase and decrease the fresh air minimums based on ambient conditions. The minimums for fresh air intake are consistent with state building codes and during the COVID-19 pandemic, these minimums may be exceeded to introduce a larger amount of fresh air.
BUSD letter on HVAC improvements, March 11, 2021

The letter goes on like this.  I find it on the one hand reassuring, but on the other, rather general and couched in technical language that leaves me wondering.  I’m guessing the public might still have questions.  Please read the whole letter, and see if you agree.

READ THE LETTER from Roxanne Egan, Bond Director, and Alfredo Romero, Director of Maintenance and Operations, March 11, 2021.

Questions?

If not for the pandemic, parents and grandparents like me could all gather in a school auditorium and ask questions, or maybe even get a guided tour with HVAC examples.  I wonder if the District could convene a ZOOM meeting and interact with us on these and other in-person learning issues that concern us.

Benicia Mayor and Solano County Public Health Officer disagree whether teachers should get vaccine sooner

Benicia mayor asks Solano supervisors to move teachers to front of vaccination line

Fairfield Daily Republic, By Todd R. Hansen, February 10, 2021
Benicia Mayor Steve Young

Benicia Mayor Steve Young asked the Solano County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to move teachers to the front of the vaccination line so schools can open quickly and safely.

“And the key, as I see it, and absolutely to do that, is being able to vaccinate each teacher and member of the (schools’) staff,” Young said.

Educators are scheduled as part of the first tier of Phase 1B, the same as residents who are 65 to 74, agriculture workers, as well as child care and adult care workers.

The county is currently working through the groups in the final tier of Phase 1A.

Dr. Bela Matyas, the county public health officer, said the next group of seniors need to be the top priority since 80% of the county’s Covid-related deaths are residents who are 65 or older.

“So if we want to make a dent in our fatalities, we have to focus on (residents) 65 and older,” Matyas said in a phone interview after the board meeting. He was not part of the meeting agenda.

Matyas said he was aware of the pressure being applied to get teachers vaccinated more quickly, but does not agree that politicizing the issue is the best way to make health decisions.

Young’s comments came during the public comment period of the board meeting, during which Michele Guerra also called on the board to open the schools.

She said students, especially those who are deaf or hard of hearing, need to be back in the classrooms.

“Students are struggling with all this technology,” she said. “We need to get these schools open. Many of these students are falling behind.”

The board heard a similar message early in the pandemic from Superintendent of Schools Lisette Estrella-Henderson.

She told the board she was concerned with the potential effects of having schools closed on students with disabilities because of the reliance on distance learning and technology.

The schools closed to in-class instruction at the start of the pandemic in March. The vast majority remain closed, with children and teens receiving instruction online from their teachers….

ANALYSIS: School reopening becomes the new partisan wedge issue

See also this local perspective on reopening schools: Benicia Black Lives Matter letter opposes School Board recall effort

CNN POLITICS: What Matters

CNN, by Zachary B. Wolf, February 5, 2021

(CNN) The debate over when and how and whether to put American kids back in school is taking on a predictably partisan tinge in Washington, with Republicans targeting teachers’ unions and Democrats over perceived resistance to reopening.

But it’s more complicated than that. The fight over schools slices through red and blue America.

In San Francisco, for instance, despite a waning but still serious outbreak, the city, led by Mayor London Breed, has sued the school district for not having a fully developed plan to get kids back in the classroom. The city attorney said San Francisco kids are being turned into “Zoom-bies.” Breed, who was among the first US mayors to impose strict Covid lockdowns in 2020, wants to know when the kids will be back in schools. She said the nearly full year out of school is hurting communities of color and driving inequality.

In Chicago, the mayor and school board are locked in a standoff with the teachers’ union. “We need our kids back in school. We need our parents to have that option,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday. “It cannot be so that a public school system denies parents that right.”

Unions representing teachers who have avoided physically returning to school buildings want vaccines and more safety measures. Parents are getting louder, organizing on social media and running grassroots campaigns to open school doors in the portions of the country where they remain shut. School districts, which are mostly controlled at the local level, keep delaying and punting.

This is a worldwide debate. There’s no consensus in Europe, either.

So which is the party of opening schools?

Democrats, without Republican help so far, are pushing a massive Covid relief package that would give new money to schools and Biden has made opening the majority of schools a key benchmark of his aggressive 100-day plan.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, said money isn’t the issue and slammed teachers’ unions, which he said “donate huge sums to Democrats and get a stranglehold over education in many communities.” Read this from CNN’s Dan Merica, Alex Rogers and Gregory Krieg on the new partisan wedge issue.

Republican governors in Ohio and Maryland are ramping up teacher vaccinations and setting early spring deadlines to get teachers and staff vaccinated in anticipation of reopening schools. In West Virginia, Republican Gov. Jim Justice said all teachers and staff who wanted a first dose have gotten it.

About half of states are prioritizing teachers, according to The New York Times. But it’s notable that some of the states with the worst outbreaks, like Texas, have both ordered schools to open and not prioritized teachers to get vaccines.

The tension between present danger and future risk

For the teacher side of things, read this CNN report about the hundreds of American educators who have been among the hundreds of thousands of American Covid deaths. For the student side of things, look at the recent studies suggesting schools that comply with safety guidance are not the cause of Covid spread.

Schools aren’t just not opening, they’re still closing. In Montgomery, Alabama, the school district closed this week until school staff can all get vaccinated after a string of teacher deaths from Covid.

But new US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday vaccines might not be necessary to safely reopen. “There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely,” she told reporters. “Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for the safe reopening of schools.”

That’s not official guidance, cautioned White House press secretary Jen Psaki. When asked about the comments, Psaki said she’d like to see that officially put out by CDC. “Certainly ensuring teachers are vaccinated, prioritizing teachers, is important to the President,” she said.

Re-opening schools won’t immediately fix the problems caused by a year out of them. In Chicago, where the city’s liberal mayor is at war with the city’s teachers’ union, data released by district about who will actually come back when schools open suggests it’s the White kids who will return, while the Black and Brown kids stay home.

Read this from the Chicago Tribune:
> When CPS offered the choice to return to schools to families in the first two waves, 67% of white students opted in, followed by 55% of multiracial students, 34% of Black students, 33% of Asian students and 31% of Latino students. Students with special education plans opted in at a lower-than-average rate, 36%, as did economically disadvantaged students, 32%.

The New York Times points out more White kids have returned to school in New York than Black kids and tries to explain mistrust of the system in communities that have already been frustrated by institutional racism in school facilities, funding and curriculum.

Mistrust of schools and mistrust of vaccines

There’s a frustrating similarity that should be explored in that the same Black and Brown communities that have been slow to adopt the Covid vaccine have been slow to return to school when given the opportunity.

Everyone’s doing things differently. In Virginia, the state Department of Education tracks what each district is doing, and the state map is a color-coded patchwork of open, virtual and hybrid.

Biden’s nominee for education secretary, Miguel Cardona — who was recently in charge of Connecticut’s education system — was asked at his confirmation hearing Wednesday if kids should be tested in this weird year, and whether the federal government will still give districts who don’t test students the federal money that is normally tied to it.

Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, asked the question in a simple way, according to the Washington Post: “Do you feel like the states should incorporate standardized testing this year given the circumstances of the pandemic?”

Cardona gave a very complicated answer. “I feel they should have an opportunity to weigh in on how they plan on implementing it and [on] the accountability issues, and whether or not they should be tied into any accountability measures as well,” he said.

That’s a definite maybe on the testing question, which is better than the “I don’t know” a lot of parents hear from local districts who won’t set timelines to return.

100,000 children have the virus – thank goodness Benicia Schools will open Aug 17 with distance learning only

[For latest info on Benicia Schools see August 6 Virtual Plan Update. For other BUSD information see Reopening / COVID Response. – R.S.] 

Children and the virus: As schools reopen, much remains unknown about the risk to kids and the peril they pose to others

Washington Post, by Haisten Willis, Chelsea Janes and  Ariana Eunjung Cha, August 10, 2020
Parent Amanda Seghetti was concerned when photos on social media showed students — bereft of masks and not observing social distancing — crowding Georgia schools last week. (Lynsey Weatherspoon for The Washington Post)

DALLAS, Ga. — The photos showed up on social media just hours into the first day of school: 80 beaming teens in front of Etowah High School near Atlanta, with not a mask on a single face and hardly six inches of distance between them — let alone the recommended six feet.

Amanda Seghetti, a mom in the area, said her parent Facebook group lit up when the pictures of the seniors were posted. Some people thought the images were cute. Others freaked out. Seghetti was in the latter constituency.

“It’s like they think they are immune and are in denial about everything,” Seghetti said.

Pictures of packed school hallways in Georgia and news of positive tests on the first day of classes in Indiana and Mississippi sparked the latest fraught discussions over the risk the coronavirus presents to children — and what’s lost by keeping them home from school. Friday brought reports of more infections among Georgia students, with dozens forced into quarantine in Cherokee County, among other places.

For months, parents and teachers, epidemiologists and politicians have chimed in with their views on the many still-unanswered questions about the extent to which the virus is a threat to children — and the extent to which they can fuel its spread.

A report from leading pediatric health groups found that more than 97,000 U.S. children tested positive for the coronavirus in the last two weeks of July, more than a quarter of the total number of children diagnosed nationwide since March. As of July 30, there were 338,982 cases reported in children since the dawn of the pandemic, according to data from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.

President Trump has repeatedly maintained the virus poses little threat to children.

“The fact is they are virtually immune from this problem,” Trump said Wednesday in an interview with Axios.

Eight months after the World Health Organization received the first report of a “pneumonia of unknown cause” in China, much remains uncertain about the coronavirus and children.

Doctors are more confident that most children exposed to the virus are unlikely to have serious illness, a sentiment backed by a report published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that concluded children are far less likely to be hospitalized with covid-19, the illness caused by the virus, than adults. But when children do fall seriously sick, the burden of illness is borne disproportionately: That same CDC report concluded that Hispanic children are approximately eight times more likely and Black children five times more likely to be hospitalized with covid-19 than their White peers.

Early studies on children and the virus were small and conflicting. But accumulating evidence suggests the coronavirus may affect younger children differently than older ones.

For example,doctors say themultisystem inflammatorysyndrome linked to the virus — known as MIS-C —that has appeared in some children weeks after infectionpresents differently in younger children than in teens and young adults. Infants and preschoolers who have been diagnosed with the syndrome have symptoms mirroring Kawasaki, a disease of unknown cause that inflames blood vessels.In the older group, the consequences appear more severe, with doctors describing it more like a shock syndrome that has led to heart failure and even death.

Several studies suggest adolescence could mark a turning point for how the virus affects youths — and their ability to spread the pathogen.

One paper published in July in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that children younger than 5 with mild to moderatecases ofcovid-19 had much higher levels of virus in their noses than older children and adults — suggesting they could be more infectious. That study, conducted by doctors at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, used data from 145 children tested at drive-through sites in that region.

A study out of South Korea examining household transmission also found age-based differences in children. Puzzlingly, it seemed to reach an opposite conclusion about transmission than the Chicago researchers did. Children under age 10 did not appear to pass on the virus readily, while those between 10 and 19 appeared to transmit the virus almost as much as adults did.

Max Lau, an epidemiologist at Emory University tracking superspreader events in the state in collaboration with the Georgia Department of Public Health, said two striking trends have emerged even as work continues on an analysis of recent data.

Disease detectives have found relatively few infections among young children even after the state loosened its coronavirus-related shutdown. Researchers elsewhere have noted there hasn’t been a clear, documented case of a young child triggering an outbreak. In contrast, cases spiked among 15- to 25-year-olds, suggesting they may be driving the spread of the virus.

“When the shelter-in-place lifted, they perceived that they could go back to normal life and that’s what I observed,” Lau said.

In May, Jerusalem’s Gymnasia Ha’ivrit high school was the center of a major outbreak that public health officials said seeded transmission to other neighborhoods. In June, an overnight YMCA camp in Georgia was forced to close after 260 of 597 children and staff members tested positive for the virus — an event some experts heralded as a parable for what can happen when young people are allowed to gather without being attentive to wearing masks or maintaining physical distance. At that camp, the first to come down with symptoms and be sent home was a teenage counselor.

Other gatherings among teens have led to smaller outbreaks. In New Jersey, it was a party at a country club that left at least 20 teens infected. In Michigan, health officials said more than 100 teens in three counties have tested positive since mid-July following graduations and other parties.

Sadiya S. Khan, an assistant professor of cardiology and preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said social practices, rather than biology, may explain why teens and young adults appear to be spreading infection.

“They are more likely to be out and about. They are more likely to not have experienced any consequences,” Khan said. “There has been a lot of attention to the fact that people who are older have a worse course and if you’re young, it doesn’t feel as dangerous, so they might think, ‘Why be as careful?’ ”

Khan said she worries schools that don’t enforce mask-wearing and social distancing can be laboratories for superspreader events rippling out to the broader community.

For years, the flu vaccine was targeted to adults. Then, researchers recognized the role of children in spreading the virus and advised they be inoculated. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Medical history tells us that children’s role in infectious diseases is not always what we first assume. In 1960, in response to significant deaths among the elderly during the 1957-1958 influenza pandemic, the surgeon general recommended flu vaccines for people 65 and older. It wasn’t until decades later that studies showed that mortality among older people could be reduced by vaccinating the young. In 2002, the CDC recommended flu shots for infants and in 2008 expanded that to school-age children.

With the coronavirus pandemic, like any disease outbreak, research takes time, and experts say decisions being made about reopening schools are necessarily being made without the full picture of the risk the virus poses to children.

For example, the CDC’s study of that Georgia YMCA camp did not include detailed tracing of how cases spread among campgoers. Did one teenage counselor spread the virus to the whole camp? Did that counselor infect a few younger children, who in turn infected other younger children?

Similarly, that study did not document what happened to families of the infected when the children returned home. Did they bring the virus back to their families, thereby dispelling the notion that children do not transmit the virus to adults? Or, if infections did spread, was it simply the result of high viral prevalence in Georgia, and not the result of contact with a campgoer?

As the case of the Georgia camp illustrates, measuring the risk younger children face in returning to school continues to be an inexact art. Parents are left with the agonizing and anxiety-riddled task of evaluating that potential peril for themselves. And they must weigh the potential health risks of the virus against the educational, social, developmental and economic consequences of children remaining out of the classroom.

Teachers unions from Florida to Ohio have protested plans to fully reopen schools, arguing that even if a few months of data suggests children are not likely to suffer severe outcomes from the virus, they could still pass it to vulnerable adults.

On Aug. 2 — hours before the first day of school — the principal of North Paulding High School near Atlanta sent a letter to parents informing them of coronavirus infections on the football team. Video on the Facebook page for the team’s parent-run booster club showed members of the team, with no masks or distance between them, lifting in a weight room as part of a fundraising event a week earlier.

On the first day of school, students posted a picture of hallways crammed with unmasked classmates. One student was initially suspended for posting the pictures. The school overturned that suspension Friday.

Within days, the school burst into the national spotlight, and the issue spawned heated arguments in a local Facebook group called “What’s Happening Paulding,” with parents occasionally descending into name-calling and expletive-laced tirades as they argued over whether the pictures should warrant concern. Sunday night, North Paulding High sent a letter to parents announcing the school would be closed to in-person learning for at least two days because of nine cases of the coronavirus.

John Cochran, the father of a ninth-grader and middle-schooler in the Georgia school system, said in an interview he felt it wasn’t safe for his children to attend school in person, in part because multiple adults in their family are immunocompromised.

“That was one thing we stressed to the kids — they’ve got too many adults that they are regularly in contact with who could be in bad shape if they pick this up from them,” Cochran said. “Personally, I didn’t want that on my kids’ conscience that they went to school and got their mother, stepdad, dad or grandparents sick.”

Seghetti has decided to keep son Kaiden, 11, out of his Georgia school.
Seghetti has decided to keep son Kaiden, 11, out of his Georgia school. (Lynsey Weatherspoon for The Washington Post)

In Georgia’s Cherokee County, where the 80 students gathered for that unmasked photo, Seghetti said she knows she’s in the minority in deciding to keep her 11-year-old son, Kaiden, home from school.

Seghetti said after seeing photos shared by parents from inside schools and learning that two elementary campuses in the district already had reported coronavirus cases — a second-grader Tuesday and a first-grader Wednesday — she is confident she made the right decision. Cherokee County schools spokeswoman Barbara P. Jacoby said the schools have implemented changes to try to keep students safe, including staggering bell times to avoid hall crowding and providing students with two masks each they can wear if they wish.

Karin Jessop’s two children, ages 12 and 13, attended that YMCA day camp at Lake Burton where the residential camp outbreak unfolded. Her children, who were at the camp for four weeks but came home each night, did not get infected; the outbreak was among those who stayed overnight, another reminder of the unpredictability of the spread.

Jessop, a technology company executive, said after news of the outbreak broke, “a lot of moms were getting stressed out about making the wrong decision and worried what people will think.”

“At the end of the day, it’s your family,” she said, adding she believes staying home affects her children’s development, which makes the camp experience worth the risk.

“Many of these kids have been home since March, and if you have super gregarious, extroverted kids, they are used to and need that interaction.”