By Guananí Gómez-Van Cortright
At Watsonville High School, students packed the quad during the first few weeks of school while classrooms sat empty. There were not enough teachers to teach them.
And though Santa Cruz County schools reopened in August—after 19 months of pandemic distance learning—the turmoil is far from over.
“This year is much harder than even last year was,” says Travis Walker, a history teacher at Watsonville High. “We’re trying to carry on like school is normal, but at pretty much every level, we’re failing to make changes to accommodate for the new normal.”
“I’ve never seen teachers as stressed as they are now, never heard as many teachers saying, ‘I need to go on leave, I can’t do this anymore,’” says Casey Carlson, president of the City of Santa Cruz teachers’ union.
Most of the teacher vacancies at Watsonville High School have been covered since September by pulling other staff from their duties. While students are no longer stranded in the quad, 20 credentialed teacher positions remain unfilled.
And staffing shortages aren’t the only problem. As the pandemic drags on, schools must provide a complex set of Covid-19 precautions. Students need to catch up on the social and academic skills they lost during lockdown. The threat of the coronavirus lurks behind every joyful moment of in-person interaction.
Providing a glimmer of hope is the rollout of vaccines for children between the ages of 5 to 11, which began late last week. But it will take much more than that to provide teachers and students with what they need to succeed in the hardest school year ever.
Shot in the Arm
Children under 12 are currently the largest group of unvaccinated people in the U.S. According to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, nearly one-third of infections in kids in the U.S. were diagnosed between August and October 2021—just as many schools across the country were reopening in-person. Even though children are less likely than adults to become seriously ill or die from Covid-19, they can still suffer from being infected, as well as spread the virus to vulnerable people in their families and communities.
County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah is optimistic about the uptake and impact of vaccines for children. In Santa Cruz County, 70% of teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 are vaccinated against Covid-19, compared to 53% in California and 32% across the U.S. Sabbah predicts that as younger students are vaccinated, Santa Cruz County will see a downward trend in case numbers.
“We feel that it’s going to help protect them from, or minimize the risks of them, getting Covid, and minimize the risks to the community at large,” says Sabbah.
The Santa Cruz County Office of Education (COE) organized clinics so that parents can vaccinate their children in early November. The clinics are run by Inspire Diagnostics, the same company that has been operating testing services. Vaccines are available at clinics in elementary schools across the county.
Although Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Covid-19 vaccine requirements for students in October, Sabbah worries that some people misunderstood Newsom’s statement.
“I think there was some confusion in the community from parents, that this was something that was going to be required right away,” he says.
Mandating vaccines at the state level requires several steps, including approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Pediatrics Association. At the earliest, mandatory vaccines would come into effect for 7th-12th graders for the 2022-23 school year.
Carlson looks forward to the potential relief of vaccines for young students, but doesn’t think vaccination will have a palpable effect at the school level until it becomes mandatory. Teachers are not allowed to know if their students have been vaccinated due to medical confidentiality rules, and when Carlson walks onto campus, she feels nervous about the potential for virus transmission.
“I think until we have a vaccine mandate, there will be that anxiety,” she says.
Need for Support
To reopen safely, Santa Cruz County schools upgraded ventilation systems, set up accessible Covid-19 testing and hired mental health and social-emotional counselors. Schools in Santa Cruz County require masks as per the state mandate, and school nurses report and do contact tracing whenever a student in their school tests positive.
According to the Santa Cruz County Office of Education (COE), over a third of students have opted into weekly testing available through Inquire Diagnostics. The COE created an online dashboard to track cases in county schools and show the results of the testing program, and the numbers have been encouraging.
Covid-19 mitigation strategies are not the only efforts schools are making to support students as they return to class. They are also addressing the toll the pandemic has taken on social skills and mental health.
In South County, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) put together new programs to help ease the transition back to school. Psychologists and counselors developed a restorative start program featuring six lessons about identity, belonging and agency.
“We now have more social-emotional counselors, more mental-health clinicians within the schools than ever before,” says PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez.
As of this year, the district has 17 social emotional counselors (65% more than in 2019), 14 mental health clinicians (180% more than in 2019) and 22 school psychologists (27% more than in 2019). But even with the increase in counselors and programs, the demand for social and emotional support is staggering.
Walker says many of his students tell him they have not been able to secure appointments with counselors, and those that have are not receiving the ongoing support they say they need.
“Social-emotional counselors are overwhelmed by the need and can’t keep up,” says Walker. “I don’t know that I could say the restorative start has been particularly effective.”
Learning in person provides students with opportunities to reconnect with teachers and peers and access the housing, food, health and other support programs and resources that schools offer. But despite all these benefits, the transition back to in-person school is fraught. Teachers must grapple with the learning losses and emotional hardships students have endured during the pandemic every day.
“This year, the emotional needs, health, and safety of our learning communities is overwhelming,” says Nelly Vaquera-Boggs, president of the teachers’ union in the PVUSD.
Teachers must contend with helping anxious students catch up on skills lost during months of lockdown. Some kindergarteners and first-graders are attending school in person for the first time. They need to learn basic skills like raising their hands, taking turns, working in groups and even how to hold a pencil. Students and teachers are expected to catch up on the academic skills missed in the past year, while also covering new material for their current grade level. Walker says his students have told him they are struggling to navigate the complex social hierarchies of high school after more than a year in isolation.
But most of all, teachers are struggling because there simply aren’t enough of them to serve all the students in the county.
The county’s largest district, PVUSD, serves 19,000 students. They began the school year with 40 unfilled teacher positions. The result was situations like the one at Watsonville High School, where students spent teacherless class periods waiting in the quad. The district filled half of the teacher vacancies by hiring substitutes to work long-term, leaving fewer substitutes to cover daily absences across the county. Many substitute teachers are retired, a group that did not come back to teach this year because they are at a higher risk for breakthrough infections and severe illness from Covid-19.
Twenty vacancies remain in PVUSD, and 16 other positions have been filled by a teacher who was taken away from work they were originally hired for to cover the position. When a teacher is absent due to quarantine or any other reason, the district pulls other teachers away from precious prep time to cover those classes. When administrators and teachers doing district level work are pulled away from their original positions, it leaves all teachers with less support to do their jobs. This puts a great deal of pressure on teachers already struggling with the slew of extra responsibilities this year. Teachers at schools with the most vacancies, such as Pajaro Middle School and Watsonville High School, feel the strain every day.
“We just don’t have the people to effectively run a school right now,” says Walker. “[It’s] absolute chaos. Nothing works the way it should.”
According to Walker, quarantine and other Covid-19 related absences are especially hard for teachers, since the district did not renew Covid leave. This leaves teachers with a total of 10 paid personal or sick days per school year.
County superintendent Sabbah launched an effort to recruit new substitutes by lowering job requirements and publishing a call to community members in local media.
“We’ve been able to fill some of those substitute spots,” says Sabbah. “But there’s a need to really look at this long term and figure out how we are going to bring more teachers into the profession.”
The California State Teachers’ Retirement System released a statement reporting a 26% increase in teacher retirements in the second half of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. In their retirement survey, 62% of members responded that they retired earlier than planned, with the top three reasons being challenges of teaching in the pandemic, not wanting to work remotely and not wanting to risk exposure to the coronavirus. In Santa Cruz County, there is currently an 8% teacher retirement rate, with only 3% to 4% new teachers coming in.
The lack of teachers and substitutes is not unique to Santa Cruz County, or even California—it’s a national crisis. The 2020-2021 school year left even the most dedicated teachers exhausted and reeling, and drove a surge of teachers to burnout, early retirement, and switching careers. But the teacher shortage is not a new problem solely caused by the pandemic: the number of new teachers joining the profession has been dwindling for years.
Teacher certifications dropped by more than a fourth between 2008 and 2016, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s 2019 report “The Perfect Storm in the Teacher Labor Market.” The pandemic worsened deep-rooted issues of low pay and deteriorating work conditions that were already driving teachers to quit and discouraging potential teachers from ever entering the profession. This has left classrooms empty and districts struggling to fill vacant positions. According to the Washington Post, school districts in South Dakota and Texas reported starting the school year with teacher position vacancies in the hundreds.
According to Walker, what Santa Cruz County teachers need first and foremost is to have all teacher positions filled. Then, they can use their prep time for everything they are responsible for beyond class: planning lessons, grading assignments, giving feedback, setting up classrooms and so on.
“It became clear more than ever before that the amount of work teachers do doesn’t fit into a school day,” says Carlson. “They work so far above and beyond what a school day is, and they need to be compensated for that.”
According to Walker, living in Santa Cruz County on a teacher’s salary is nearly impossible. He spends 60% of his income on rent and relies on support from his parents to cover basic living expenses despite having a master’s degree, working 50 to 60 hours per week and having taught in the district for four years.
The City of Santa Cruz teachers’ union successfully negotiated for a 2% wage increase for this school year, but Carlson points out that it is still not enough to keep up with 5% inflation.
Vaquera-Boggs had a second job for her first five years working in the district, and she and Walker both know teachers who work other jobs to make ends meet. Walker said he’s frustrated that the district is presenting the teacher shortage as a new issue created by the pandemic, when Watsonville High School has struggled to recruit and retain qualified staff since before he began working there.
“I plan on leaving next year because I just can’t do it anymore,” Walker says. “This district does not pay enough to live here.”
Time to Vent
As schools scramble to fill vacancies and staff struggle to support students and enforce pandemic precautions, reopening has also been nerve-wracking for parents.
“I’m pretty concerned about the schools’ approach to pandemic safety,” says Graham Freeman, whose sons attend Bay View Elementary and Mission Hill Middle School in Santa Cruz. “Literally three days and both my kids got Covid symptoms.”
Freeman took his sons to get their shots the day after vaccines for children were approved last week. But he still worries that Santa Cruz schools are not doing enough to keep students safe, especially when it comes to ventilation.
Santa Cruz County schools spent $4 million upgrading heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems before reopening this year. But when Freeman read the report, he was unimpressed.
“They really talked [ventilation upgrades] up in a way that the report didn’t support, so it made me skeptical of their claims,” he says. “They’re not testing in a way that will tell us if something stops working part way through the year.”
Freeman wanted to understand the day-to-day air quality when his kids were in the classroom, not just the one-time test after upgrades were installed.
Fresh airflow indoors is key to decreasing the risk of spreading Covid-19, which can become airborne when an infected person speaks or breathes. The Delta variant can infect someone in as little as 5 minutes of exposure. Measuring the concentration of CO2 in a room can show how much air is being inhaled from people’s exhalations. The lower the CO2 levels in an indoor space, the more fresh air is circulating that hasn’t just passed through someone else’s lungs.
Upon learning this, Freeman asked if his kids could bring CO2 monitors to check classroom airflow. Santa Cruz City Schools superintendent Kris Munro said that was not allowed, stating it would not be appropriate to have individual students monitoring air quality.
“I did it anyway,” says Freeman. He sent his sons to school with CO2 monitors smuggled inside their cargo pockets, determined to get his own air quality data.
Freeman is not alone. According to a New York Times article from October, parents across the country have snuck CO2 detectors with their children to monitor air quality in schools. The CDC says CO2 levels below 800 parts per million (ppm) are a sign of good ventilation and a reduced risk of coronavirus infection.
Freeman found that whenever his sons’ classroom windows and doors were open, CO2 levels were acceptable (about 700 ppm). But when windows or doors were closed and there was no longer a cross breeze, CO2 levels rose quickly. Within 5 minutes, they became higher than recommended.
“I’ve seen some fairly high spikes in CO2 reading—always strongly correlated with any time there’s a lack of a good cross breeze, such as when a classroom door is closed due to construction noise or a lockdown drill,” Freeman says.
Based on these results, Freeman has advocated for leaving classroom doors and windows open at all times, even as the weather gets colder or if there’s construction noise outside. Classrooms can have as many as 35 students, making airflow even more crucial for healthy ventilation. In PVUSD, building code does not allow portable classrooms built to alleviate crowding in schools to have windows that open.
Freeman feels that Santa Cruz schools have been dismissive of his findings. He continues to reach out to school administrators and advocate for the use of CO2 monitors.
“I’m trying to get indoor air quality monitors in as many classrooms as I can,” he says.
In addition to improving ventilation, Freeman would like to see schools enforce the use of standardized, high-quality masks for all staff and students. He also advocates for mandatory testing for all students, instead of the current optional tests.
“Otherwise, we’re just going to keep playing Whack-a-Mole with this sickness,” Freeman says.
Returning to in-person school this year has been a struggle, but also a relief. Students are reconnecting with essential services. Children get to learn and play with their friends again. Teachers, counselors and intervention specialists can address the losses students have experienced during lockdown and provide support.
“The focus this year should be on catching the kids up academically, supporting them socially and emotionally, and getting us through the year safely,” says Carlson.
For this year to be successful, schools will have to keep up and improve Covid-19 precautions, such as masks, tests, revamped ventilation and vaccinating young children now that they are eligible. They will also need to address the teacher shortage and find more effective ways to alleviate the burdens that reopening has put on educators. How Santa Cruz County schools navigate this school year is key to how the pandemic will shape the county’s future, for the good of students and the community at large.
This article was updated to correct the City of Santa Cruz teachers’ union wage increase.