The Calaveras Unified School District (CUSD) board discussed COVID-19 policies at their meeting last Tuesday, deciding to continue with the current COVID-19 protocol, which includes PCR testing for unvaccinated staff and student athletes, and mask-wearing for both staff and students.

At the school district’s last meeting, the board voted unanimously to “not enforce, support, or comply” with the vaccine mandate announced last month by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

This time, the focus was on their COVID-19 testing policy, which currently requires unvaccinated staff and athletes to receive regular Covid testing via nasal swab tests, with the option to receive a saliva-based test if medically necessary. Objections to this and the ongoing mask mandate were brought forward among other concerns at the previous school board meeting.

Superintendent Mark Campbell explained what the cost could be to the district if the board decided to provide saliva-based testing for any of its staff without a note from a doctor.

“We don’t pay for the PCR test, the nasal swab test, but the saliva-based tests cost $90,” said Campbell. He estimated that providing the nasal swab tests for staff could cost anywhere from $36,000 to $156,000, depending on how many staff members wanted that option over the free nasal swab tests currently available.

Campbell based his calculations on a survey conducted by the school district, which polled 120 staff members about their interest in the saliva-based testing option and received about a 50% response rate. Of the 62 staff members who responded, only 20 indicated they would prefer the saliva-based test, 15 replied “maybe,” and 27 were not interested in the option, Campbell reported. If all staff members opted to have the saliva-based test, the cost could be anywhere from $72,000 to $126,000, according to Campbell.

Campbell also advised the board that there is not sufficient money set aside to cover these costs, so they would have to either pull funds from “Covid money” or the general fund, which means taking money away from other necessary expenditures.

In addition to the cost, Campbell outlined other factors such as limited supply, time constraints for obtaining the supply, a more complicated testing process, and that it would require the district to “add time to staff or add staff to do so.”

He continued, “With all those factors in play, we figured if there was a medically-based reason for somebody to access the saliva test, then we would provide that. That’s a countywide protocol at this point.”

After discussing these concerns, the board decided to continue with the current policy for now and revisit the issue at the next meeting on Dec. 14. They are hoping to get more information regarding the nasal swab test availability and the difficulty of getting the required medical note.

Some are concerned that it would prove difficult, due to reports of doctors being able to provide a limited number of exemptions for the vaccine mandate. Campbell pointed out that there are no legal limitations placed on these doctor notes, unlike the vaccine exemptions. It would be at the discretion of the doctor or medical office’s policy.

The school board also decided to continue with mask mandates in its schools, even though some mask policies have begun to loosen, though not in California schools.

Board member Christine Noble said of her decision regarding upholding the mask requirements, “This is not a hill I’m willing to die on,” a sentiment that was echoed by other board members in the meeting. Noble said it was a “professional decision,” not personal. This is in stark contrast to the previous meeting, where board members emotionally voiced their refusal to comply with the vaccine mandate, despite risks to their professional, financial, and legal standing.

Noble said, “I’m hoping what we can all agree on is CUSD’s priority is to educate your students.

We do not want distance learning. This is not as effective as in-person learning.”

Noble presented a chart, titled “Masks on Campus,” which contained bullet points of input gathered from students, staff, and parents, and community members. Noble polled around a dozen students, 10 teachers, and all but one of the district’s principals about their feelings regarding mask-wearing at school. She also included comments received by email and in-person conversations with parents.

Students expressed annoyance at wearing the masks, with some wanting them gone but others saying they would continue to wear them. Students and staff stated they believe it should be an individual choice. Some staff members also expressed concerns over masks disrupting learning by impeding on hearing, “classroom management issues,” and requiring teachers to monitor proper wearing of the masks. Teachers also provide students “mask breaks” which allow them to go outside and remove their masks, taking away from classroom time. According to Noble, many staff members also reported that they would be very concerned for their health if masks were removed, and some said they will leave their jobs if masks are removed from schools.

Noble’s findings were that parents are pretty evenly “split down the middle,” with parents on either side of the issue threatening to pull their kids from schools.

Noble referenced the current shortage of substitute teachers, which is putting strain on classrooms and staff already.

“With county health dictating our quarantine and contact tracing protocols, your student will have a higher percentage of missing school without the masks, and that’s just reality,” said Noble, adding a disclaimer that “this does not mean that I am up here saying I want everybody in masks. ...If our goal is to educate your students and to keep everybody in the classroom, this is where we’re at.”

Board member Cory Williams added that with the recent lawsuit in San Diego County and OSHA fining a school in Oregon, there is now legal precedent for upholding the mask mandate in schools, putting the entire district and teachers at risk of losing credentials if they do not comply.

Williams stated her biggest concern, however, is the possibility of athletes being disqualified from competition and playoffs. Students she spoke to at Calaveras High had the same concern, and would rather wear masks than risk losing sports, according to Williams.

Williams echoed Noble’s earlier statement, saying “I might die on the vaccine hill, but I am not willing to risk losing my job or my credential over masks.”

Other board members agreed that the risks of defying the mandate were greater than the nuisance of keeping kids and staff in masks, especially when it could be the difference between keeping them in schools or going back to distance learning.

For now, CUSD schools will keep the masks and nasal swab tests in their COVID-19 policy. The next CUSD school board meeting will be held virtually, with a public session opening at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 14.

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Marie-Elena studied creative writing, art, and photography at University of Nebraska at Omaha, graduating with a BA in Studio Art -Visual Media. She moved to California from Nebraska in 2019 and is happy to call Calaveras County her home.

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