Lucerne Valley Elementary School opened its doors last Thursday to in-person instruction for nearly 200 students, even though San Bernardino County is on the state’s watchlist for counties with high rates of coronavirus infections.
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The county has had twice as many reported COVID-19 cases and deaths as Fresno County, not surprising since San Bernardino County’s population is two times bigger than Fresno County’s.
Even so, the San Bernardino Public Health Department issued a waiver so Lucerne Valley Elementary, which is in a remote portion of the upper Mojave Desert east of Victorville and north of the San Bernardino mountains, could reopen for on-site classes.
Fresno County health officials, on the other hand, appear to be dragging their feet when considering waivers for two tiny, remote schools high in the Sierra mountains, Big Creek Elementary and Hume Lake Charter.
Still in Conversation with Schools
At Tuesday’s Public Health media briefing, interim health officer Dr. Rais Vohra said the county is still talking with the schools about their requests for waivers to the state’s mandatory school closures.
In an effort to slow the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus, the state decreed in July that schools in counties being monitored for high infection and hospitalization rates must remain closed. However, the state guidelines give counties the option of issuing waivers so children in grades K-6 can attend school in-person.
Vohra said Tuesday, as he has at past briefings, that waivers remain out of reach because Fresno County’s cases are in excess of the threshold set by the state of 200 cases per 100,000 population.
But San Bernardino County’s numbers also were past 200, which should have precluded the waiver for Lucerne Valley. District superintendent Peter Livingston told GV Wire℠ on Tuesday that San Bernardino County health department officials initially were disinclined to issue the waiver until he presented compelling data that convinced them otherwise.
Similarly, Big Creek, a Southern California Edison employee community southwest of Huntington Lake and 11 miles from Highway 168, has had no cases of COVID-19.
Few Infections, Remote Location
The Lucerne Valley district spreads out over 750 miles in the high desert, so social distancing is not an issue, Livingston said. And even though the overall infection numbers for the county have been high, Lucerne Valley’s numbers are well below the threshold for a waiver, he said.
In addition, Livingston said, the state “highly recommends” no waivers when cases exceed 200 per 100,000 but doesn’t actually forbid them in counties that are on the watchlist.
Once the Lucerne Valley district convinced its county health department that its metrics didn’t mirror the county’s, public health officials moved quickly to submit the district’s waiver application to the California Department of Public Health, which had a three-day deadline to respond to the proposal, he said.
On Aug. 12, Livingston learned from the county that the waiver had been approved.
Hybrid Schedule Is in Effect
Even so, Lucerne Valley Elementary started its school year on Aug. 17 on distance learning to give officials time to make final tweaks to the hybrid schedule that started Thursday.
About 20% of parents opted to keep their kids out of school and on distance learning for now, Livingston said.
Of the remaining 80% of the elementary students, about 190 attend on Thursdays and Fridays, and the other 190 on Mondays and Tuesdays. They do online instruction on the days they are not at schools, he said.
How Hard Is Fresno County Fighting for These Schools?
Vohra said Tuesday that Fresno County health officials are still “in conversations” with Big Creek and Hume Lake Charter about their reopening plans.
Asked if the plans have been submitted to the California Department of Public Health, he said, “The state has already laid out what their guidelines are” for awarding waivers based on a county having fewer than 200 cases per 100,000 population.
Big Creek Elementary School District superintendent Toby Wait said Tuesday he was previously told that the Fresno County Public Health Department already had submitted the school’s waiver request to the state and was surprised to hear from GV Wire℠ that apparently it has not.
Like Lucerne Valley, Big Creek proposes a hybrid schedule that would split the K-6 students into morning or afternoon attendance schedules, keeping class sizes below 10. Big Creek’s enrollment in grades K-8 is about 56 students; the older students would remain on distance learning under Big Creek’s plan.
The school’s reopening plan, previously submitted to Fresno County Public Health, also outlines the protocols and guidelines to be followed to keep students and staff safe, including requiring masks and sanitization of surfaces.