Old School

Pacific Grove Unified School District is considering applying for a waiver that, if granted, could include sending students back to Robert Down Elementary School.

The pandemic is more widespread in Monterey County than in almost any other county in California, according to state metrics. The local Covid-19 rate places Monterey County firmly in the state’s Purple Tier, which means that schools cannot reopen for on-campus instruction.

There’s one major exception, however. Schools in Purple Tier counties can apply for a waiver to allow students from transitional kindergarten through sixth grade to return to class.

In Monterey County, 12 schools have already applied, according to county Public Health Officer Edward Moreno in a presentation he gave to the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 6. Of the 12, three are public, eight are private and one is a charter school. Moreno said his office has reviewed five of the applications so far and three were approved following consultation with the state Department of Public Health.

Those three are Chartwell School, All Saints Day School and Anthem Christian School.

Some additional schools are publicly discussing applying. San Antonio Elementary School in Lockwood, for example, sent out a letter on Oct. 2 announcing it had applied:

“Student safety, social and emotional well-being and academic success are at the forefront of our district request,” Superintendent/Principal Josh Van Norman wrote. “While this is in no way a guarantee our students will be able to return, it is our attempt to let the County Health Department know our ambition.”

Pacific Grove Unified and Carmel Unified school districts, among others, are weighing whether to seek waivers.

In considering applications, the county health department contacts state health officials, who can provide feedback. As of Oct. 5, the state’s list featured 713 schools, all but 11 of which have been approved for K-6 reopening.

The county health department began accepting waiver applications on Sept. 15 when the coronavirus rate fell below the state-imposed threshold of 14 cases per 100,000 residents.

The state rules for waivers require that schools follow certain steps before applying. They must publish reopening plans that address disinfection, distancing, contact tracing, and other topics. The schools must also consult with teacher unions or representatives, with parents and with community groups.

Some teachers at Santa Catalina School in Monterey, a private school, are accusing the administration of sidestepping them and ignoring safety concerns in seeking a waiver. The allegation was made by the California Teachers Health and Safety Alliance, a new advocacy group.

The group says the school didn’t properly survey teachers. In a tally of teachers supporting reopening, the school allegedly counted yes responses together with nonresponses and with responses that raised serious concerns but did not explicitly oppose reopening. In a statement, Meg Bradley, the head of Santa Catalina, said she was “surprised” by the allegations. “The health and safety of our employees is a top priority and we’ve provided multiple opportunities for faculty and staff to express their comfort levels with returning.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the names of the three schools that have so far received waivers. County officials did not provide those names prior to the Weekly's print deadline. 

Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers the environment, agriculture and K-12 education, as well as Seaside, Marina, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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