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LATEST UPDATES: Election 2020: Live Results | Tracking COVID-19 | Racial Justice

Pandemic’s Death Toll 66% Higher Than Official Counts

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CREDIT: GRAPHIC ILLUSTRATION BY BRAD RACINO AND JILL CASTELLANO/INEWSOURCE

Above: This graphic illustration shows lines and points from a line graph overlaid on top of a family photo of Rosie Sanchez, left, an 81-year-old Lakeside resident who died during the pandemic.

Far more people have died during the pandemic than previously known. inewsource uncovers new details about the death toll in San Diego County. Plus, Measure B asks for a Commission on Police Practices that would have the power to subpoena and conduct investigations into police officer misconduct. And Measures C and D focus on school board elections and accountability. Plus, San Diego City Council District 1 candidates agree on what to do about issues like homelessness but disagree on short-term rentals. And some parents are able to form learning pods and hire tutors to help their kindergarteners with online learning, while others cope with far fewer resources. Finally on the Rad Scientist podcast, we meet Dr. Chandler Puritty and learn lessons on environmental science and the complex relationship of Blackness in STEM.

Speaker 1: 00:00 An investigative report finds COVID related deaths have been under counted. That pandemic is hitting communities of color, even more significantly than what's been previously reported. I'm wearing Cavenaugh with Alison st. John. This is KPBS mid day edition. The pros and cons of San Diego's measure B on police oversight, increased awareness of police brutality and racial disparities have given more emphasis, more attention to this measure. We'll check back in with San Diego kids attempting to do kindergarten remotely and a UC San Diego researcher explains building her identity as a scientist on today's excerpt from rad scientist. That's ahead on mid day edition,

Speaker 1: 01:01 Officially more than 850 people have died in San Diego County from the coronavirus pandemic, but a closer look reveals that San Diego's overall death toll increased significantly from March through August, indicating an undercount of virus related deaths estimates from an I new source analysis show that roughly 1,181 more County residents died in that time span. Then in a normal year under counting COVID related deaths, that's happening across the nation. According to the CDC, their new figures report nearly 300,000 more Americans have died this year, then in a typical year because of Corona virus. And joining me is Mary Plummer. She's an investigative reporter for, I knew source, which is an independently funded nonprofit partner of KPBS and Mary, welcome to the program. Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. Why would COVID deaths be under counted according to your investigation? What our County health officials missing?

Speaker 1: 02:05 Uh, the county's official, uh, death numbers only include people with positive COVID-19 tests. So if you were never tested, but died from an infection, you wouldn't be captured in their numbers. Um, our data analysis is much broader and includes people who died from the virus, but were never tested as well as those who didn't contract it, but lost their lives because of the pandemic. Anyway. So it's really giving a fuller picture of the overall loss at an includes. People who died indirectly from the pandemic due to problems caused by job loss isolation or shut downs of vital services. Um, the classic example of this is someone with heart attack symptoms, who is scared to go to the hospital because they think they'll contract the virus and then they die at home from a heart attack that could have been easily treated by a doctor. Mary, can you explain the concept excess deaths and how they're determined?

Speaker 2: 03:02 Excess deaths is a calculation used by researchers to determine how many more deaths have occurred than what is expected in normal circumstances. Basically, uh, you look at the last few years of death data and you see how many more people are dying this year that tells you how many are connected to the pandemic. As I mentioned, the County public health office has been reporting the number of people who tested positive for COVID-19. Our calculation looks at excess deaths, which is it's more representative of the full death toll, but they are two different numbers.

Speaker 1: 03:36 And what percentage higher our COVID related deaths in San Diego County. If you rely on these new numbers,

Speaker 2: 03:44 Our analysis includes two kinds of people. The people who died directly of COVID infections and the people who died from the pandemic for other reasons, there's no easy way to tease apart how many people there are in each of these two groups. But we can say that County officials here in San Diego and experts around the country acknowledged that in the early days of the pandemic, some COVID infections were missed because it was harder to get tested. We do know from our reporting that testing has been a challenge here in San Diego County. We have interviewed families who struggled to get testing and found the followup from public health officials, extremely lacking, which

Speaker 1: 04:25 These are being hit the hardest with these related deaths.

Speaker 2: 04:29 Uh, the uncounted desk that we found in our data analysis are concentrated in minority communities. More than a third of the people missing from the county's deaths. Total are Hispanic and Asian people and black people are also big parts of the dataset with a pandemic is hitting communities of color, even more significantly than what's been previously reported in San Diego. Um, and this is backed up by community sources. You know, we've spoken to at mattress, some of the challenges that people are are living day to day right now. Now in your report,

Speaker 1: 05:02 In your investigation, you give several examples of people who didn't die of COVID, but who died because there was COVID. And tell us about one of them, tell us about Rosie Sanchez.

Speaker 2: 05:14 Rosie Sanchez is an 81 year old who died of post-polio syndrome. In August. We interviewed her daughter, Becky McBride, who explained that Rosie's life was really turned upside down by the pandemic. Rosie was extremely active socially. She was a long time Padres season ticket holder. She was someone who never missed birthdays. She was also a very devoted gym goer. And when the pandemic hit and her routine at the gym was no longer possible her muscles atrophied, which ultimately led to her death and her daughter, Becky believes her mother died prematurely because of the pandemic. And we heard this from several families we talked to who described that in cases really painful circumstances, COVID causes and their lives. Um, even for folks who did not, uh, you know, contract the virus itself, you talk to epidemiologists and other public health experts about this. Do they agree?

Speaker 2: 06:11 COVID deaths are being under counted. Yes, absolutely. Eight epidemiologists. We spoke with supportive the data analysis we conducted and back the approach, uh, excess death calculations are a widely used tool in many parts of the country. But as we've been talking about, it's not something that San Diego County has used during the pandemic. Our analysis is the first look at this data for San Diego County that we're aware of a it's also a calculation that's used nationally. The CDC for example, has an excess desk dashboard that updates with, uh, totals for each state, what our San Diego County health officials saying about this under count investigation, what's their position. So they pushed back on our reporting and it's not totally clear why in an email, a spokesperson for the county's health agency told us the analysis was quote, premature and should not be conducted until after the pandemic is over.

Speaker 2: 07:07 If at all, um, another staff member from the agency also questioned the findings saying this kind of calculation should be used after floods or wildfires rather than during pandemics. Uh, but we have not found any experts who agree with those concerns. In fact, the experts we spoke with strongly disagreed with the county's statements. And in fact, you've spoken with people that say having an accurate count of the death toll related to the pandemic is very important. Tell us why. Yes. I'd like to play I'm a little bit from an interview I did with dr. Matthew Winnier, he's the director of a bioethics program at the university of Colorado.

Speaker 3: 07:45 Having an accurate count of the total impact of a disaster is important for just understanding what we have lost. What has been the toll of this virus so far.

Speaker 2: 08:01 And, you know, it's also important in informing policy decisions, um, having accurate counts of where people are sick and where, and why are are dying, uh, helps inform decision makers on where to send resources, um, from our reporting, we can see that home deaths are up in San Diego County. I've been speaking with Mary Plummer who was an investigative reporter for I news source. Mary, thank you very much. Thank you.

Speaker 3: 08:30 This year

Speaker 4: 08:31 Has seen protest demonstrations over racial profiling and police practices that demand more focus on questions of police accountability. In the city of San Diego voters will have a chance to decide whether to form a more independent police oversight body who to explain how measure B would change. The existing system of police oversight is KPBS investigative reporter, Claire Traeger, Sarah Claire. Welcome. Thank you. So now measure B would disband the current community review board and police practices and replace it with a commission on police practices. It may sound like just replacing a name, but there is a significant difference between the two, right?

Speaker 5: 09:10 Yes, definitely. The commission on police practices, uh, would have its own staff and an independent attorney and the power to subpoena and conduct investigations into police officer misconduct. Um, and that's, that's different from what the community review board was able to do. Um, and the new commission would also review complaints against officers and make recommendations on police officer discipline and police policies.

Speaker 4: 09:41 So what was not happening under the, the current community review board that the people who want to see measure B pass say needs to happen,

Speaker 5: 09:50 Right? So it's the big picture is that it's really about independence from the police department. So currently on the review board, all the members are appointed by the mayor. Um, but the new commission would have members appointed by the city council. So that's one difference. Another difference is right now, uh, the lawyers who help the community review board are part of the city attorney's office, but the new commission would have an outside attorney. And then it would also have staff that are not part of the mayor's office or the police department. And then really most importantly, the new commission would have the power to subpoena witnesses and documents. Whereas right now the board can only review the internal affairs investigations that are done within the police department. And so, you know, there's questions sometimes about whether that internal affairs is, is really doing as thorough an investigation as maybe the community would like.

Speaker 4: 10:47 Right. So, so who currently makes the final decision about whether a police action was justified or not

Speaker 5: 10:54 Sure? So in terms of a shooting, that would be the district attorney. And even with this, with if measure B passes, it would still be the district attorney who would decide whether a police officer shooting another person, uh, was justified or not. Um, the new commission would really make recommendations to the San Diego police chief for discipline of an officer, and then written into the measure in measure B, it says the chief must consider, uh, the recommendations that that commission makes.

Speaker 4: 11:24 Now, you mentioned that the city council would now be approving the members of the commission rather than the mayor. Would there be any public input on who's on the

Speaker 5: 11:31 Commission shirt? Yeah. So this is interesting. Um, it's going to be interesting to see how this process goes. If the measure is approved, because right now the mayor appoints the board, as we said. And so it seems easier for one person being the mayor to pick out who will serve, but when you have an entire city council picking out members, uh, they'll have to establish a system for how they do that. And that's, that's what the measure says is that the city council needs to set up how it's going to go about this process. So whether that's each council person gets to a point, a certain number of people or people nominate themselves and the council votes, I'm not sure how it will work. So to answer your question, members of the public, won't get to vote on the commission members, but, um, maybe they would have more say just by, you know, being able to contact their, their council office, uh, more of a direct representation that way.

Speaker 4: 12:28 So what do police officers think of this development? I mean, has the police union reactor, do they see this as, as threatening or unfair? Yeah,

Speaker 5: 12:35 So we should say there's, there's no organized opposition, uh, to this measure. Um, and the police union is neutral on it. I asked a police union, president Jack Schafer for an interview and he just sent an email and said, the voters can decide what type of oversight they have in terms of how police officers will feel about it. I suppose it will depend on how it operates, but Andrea st. Julian who's supporting the measure, says the whole idea is to treat officers like other professionals. Um, so here's what she said.

Speaker 6: 13:08 These officers are professionals just like doctors and lawyers and dentists. And so they deserve to be treated in the same way that other professionals are treated. And that means having independent oversight to decide complaints against you. That's really, all this measure is about treating police officers, just like other professionals.

Speaker 4: 13:31 No. Where does San Diego fall in relation to the rest of the state for, for example, Los Angeles, do they already have an independent commission to oversee police?

Speaker 5: 13:39 Well, it's interesting. They have, I guess it's called a board of rights panel. Um, so officers can choose whether to have that panel, which is made up of three civilians review their discipline case, or they can choose a board with one civilian and two police department command staff members, and actually read a story in the LA times that said, officers are more likely to choose the three civilian board because they feel like civilians are more friendly to the police than maybe these command staff members. They have pretty much a different system than, than what San Diego is proposing.

Speaker 4: 14:15 Interesting. Now, do you think that if we had not seen George Floyd die under the knee of a police officer back in may, do you think this measure would be on the ballot this November?

Speaker 5: 14:26 Yes. I think that it would, this measure has actually been a really long time coming. It first started back in 2016 with a activist group called women occupy San Diego, and they've been trying to get it on the ballot. They tried to get it, uh, in 2018 and due to some procedural hurdles. It, it didn't quite make it, um, so they were working well before, uh, the events with George Floyd, um, to get it on the ballot. I think that, that, that, and

Speaker 7: 14:52 The kind of increased awareness of police brutality and racial disparities that came out of that have given more emphasis, more attention to this measure. I'm Claire. We should explain that measure. B is for San Diego city police force. So it doesn't apply to the County Sheriff's for example, or the police departments in other San Diego cities. But do you see it as setting an important precedent for the region, perhaps? Sure. I mean, San Diego County actually already has the citizens law enforcement review board called clerk, and that does have subpoena power, but that's only for reviewing actions of Sheriff's deputies. Um, so, so with the San Diego now joining, uh, with its own board of measure B passes, other cities may then follow suit, for example, a Lamesa city council just approved a citizens oversight board, um, after some of the events with that arrest that was caught on camera. Um, earlier this summer, uh, I think the question for all of this just seems to be, you can set up a group like this, but what power those groups actually have, um, to see if they're effective in doing what community members want them to be able to do. We've been speaking with KPBS, investigative reporter, Claire tracer, Claire. Thanks so much. Thank you.

Speaker 7: 16:15 This is KPBS mid day edition. I'm Maureen Cavenaugh with Alison st. John two local ballot measures could change the way San Diego unified school districts board members are elected and held accountable KPBS education reporter. Joe Hong explains the arguments for and against measures C and D

Speaker 8: 16:35 Right now, elections for San Diego unified use a hybrid model during the primary only voters from McKennan at subdistrict can cast ballots in the November general, the candidates compete in an at large election campaigning across all of San Diego. Unified is five subdistricts supporters of measure C hope to change that they say at-large elections, give disproportion power to the city's white majority and thus marginalize the votes of people of color in certain sub districts, if passed the measure would make them November general abide district elections starting in 2022, Sharon White, hers pain is an incumbent board member running for reelection in subdistrict II in 2016, she took second place in the primary, but one in the general, she said she supports measure C because it would simplify the election process.

Speaker 7: 17:17 My main reason for supporting it has to do with simplification. It's so complicated for folks to understand why we had district only, and then city wide,

Speaker 8: 17:29 But her opponent Lawanna Richmond said measure C would do more than simplify lotions. It would remove financial barriers to campaigning and encourage more community members to run for office. She used the example of campaign mailers to show just how much more it costs to run in an at large election

Speaker 7: 17:45 Primary. I was able to get on a couple of them, um, for a total of like a

Speaker 8: 17:50 Thousand dollars for the general election, just to get them one, they wanted $5,000. Richmond said that ultimately measure C could help diversify the school board by encouraging more people to run, but outgoing board president John Lee Evans said the current system already promotes diversity while ensuring that candidates represent both the needs of their sub districts and those of the overall district Evans who's voting against measure C set a by district election could encourage board members from more affluent parts of the district to neglect the needs of schools, serving more vulnerable student groups. When I was running, I was accountable to the voters in the entire district, as opposed to I'll just take my subdistrict and make sure we get the resources we need and not pay as much attention to what's going on the other areas. And I think that's, that's been a benefit and that is a potential detrimental.

Speaker 8: 18:40 If it were to pass Evans does however support measure D which would change the San Diego city charter to give the school board power, to remove a board member for misconduct or failing to carry out his or her duties. But he said the measure couldn't be used by a majority of the board to Alice, the political opponent in the minority. The measure does not allow for an unpopular board member to be removed for some or some small reason. It has to be very major. The measure was proposed by San Diego city council members, Chris Cate, and Vivian Moreno if passed the city charter would be modified. So that school board members convicted of crimes or failing to carry out their duties could be removed with a three fourths vote by the other board members. But if they felt for whatever reason that this high school board member at any time is derelict in their duties, there is a process by which they can remove that school board member absent, a recall or resignation, which we know is very costly and are very difficult to get both measures C and D need a simple majority of the votes to pass.

Speaker 1: 19:39 Joining me is KPBS education reporter Joe Hong and Joe. Welcome. Thanks for having me. Did you find out any reason why San Diego unified adopted the current hybrid plan of subdistrict elections during the primary and then citywide elections and the general?

Speaker 8: 19:58 Yeah. So several years ago they had this problem where all five board members were sort of coming from the same, more affluent areas of San Diego. So you would have candidates sort of all coming from LA Jolla, Clairemont, Mesa, and areas like that. So they adopted the by district primary to address that issue. And then they kept the, the general election at large to sort of make sure that everyone in the school district gets a vote on all the school board members.

Speaker 1: 20:29 And the argument and supportive measures C seems to center on diversity and cost. Is there currently a lack of diversity on the San Diego school board?

Speaker 8: 20:41 I wouldn't say that, you know, you have, uh, Sharon Whitehurst Payne, who is an African American woman. She represents sub-district II, which serves Southeast San Diego. You have Richard Berrera, who's Latino. He serves the subdistrict D which covers downtown Barrio, Logan areas like that. And then, yeah, you have three white representatives representing the other parts of the district.

Speaker 1: 21:11 Now the additional cost of a citywide race in the general election must also give an advantage to the incumbent.

Speaker 8: 21:18 Yeah. Yeah. I would say that, you know, incumbents typically typically have sort of more, more resources. They have more name recognition. Um, I spoke to, uh, Lawanna Richmond who is running against Sharon White her's pain in subdistrict E. And she was telling me the cost of a mailer during the by district primary is about a thousand dollars to send those around for the general to send mailers across the entire district cost $5,000, which is exactly five times the cost.

Speaker 1: 21:47 Do those opposed to measure C think board members elected only by their sub-district would threaten the wellbeing of the district as a whole.

Speaker 8: 21:57 Yeah. So this is sort of an interesting complexity to this, to this measure. The argument that is that by doing, uh, by district elections only it would create a more equitable school board, local communities, uh, serving more minorities would, uh, be able to push their representatives forward. Um, but on the other side board president, John Lee Evans, who's against the measure. He told me that, you know, you could have a situation where folks from LA Jolla get elected and they sort of only care about their subdistrict and they're politically incentivized to just take care of their own rather than the entire district.

Speaker 1: 22:36 Okay. So that's the argument against measure. Say, let's move on to measure D the school board found out last year, it had no way to remove a trustee for cause if that school board member did not voluntarily resigned. Remind us briefly about the controversy involving trustee, Kevin Biser.

Speaker 8: 22:55 Yeah. So in 2019, some allegations of sexual abuse surfaced against Kevin Biser. I believe it was four men who accused him of, of misconduct and the school board before any type of charge or conviction, they voted on re resolution to, uh, asking Kevin Biser to step down. Um, Kevin Beizer refused to step down and the school board and the city council also, they all sort of realize that there's no sort of mechanism for, um, removing a school board member if that school board member had been convicted of, of misconduct. So that's sort of where this measure comes from.

Speaker 1: 23:39 And, and what does measure D say about the reasons a trustee could be voted out? One of two needs to happen.

Speaker 8: 23:46 A trustee needs to be convicted in a criminal court of, um, sexual abuse or whatever it is, or number two in a civil judge needs to find that, uh, trustee was the, the word is derelict in their duties, meaning they're not showing up for board meetings, not carrying out their responsibilities, et cetera. And once one of those two things happens, the board can, the remaining board members can vote. And if they get a three-fourths vote, they can vote that person out.

Speaker 1: 24:16 Now, uh, a sexual misconduct lawsuit against Biser was settled last year. And he remains on the school board. That sounds like a very awkward situation. While measure D is on the ballot, has Biser commented on measure D

Speaker 8: 24:31 No Biser has not commented on the measure, but, um, I want to be very clear. I spoke with his lawyer the other day, and visor did settle the lawsuit against him, uh, from one of his accusers, uh, where he, he works in the Sweetwater school district. He's a teacher there, and the district itself conducted an investigation and found no evidence of wrongdoing and visor has actually been teaching there for, for has gone back to teaching there for about a year now. So I just want to make it very clear. That's where that sort of investigation stands. They've sort of found no evidence of wrongdoing

Speaker 1: 25:06 Are any other school board members saying much in support of measure day.

Speaker 8: 25:10 It seems like the school board unanimously supports measure D I think they want to create a mechanism for, uh, keeping school board members accountable. If something more serious were to happen in the future.

Speaker 1: 25:25 And I have been speaking with KPBS education reporter Joe Hong, Joe. Thank you.

Speaker 8: 25:30 Thank you.

Speaker 1: 25:48 San Diego city council district one covers a lot of coastline from LA Jolla up to the border with Del Mar among the neighborhoods. It serves our Carmel Valley Sorento Valley university, city and UCS D district one is currently represented by my oral candidate, Barbara Bray. So she's not running for reelection in the district. Two Democrats are in the race to replace her candidates, Joe LaCava and Wilmore KPBS reporter. John Carroll joins me with more on the race. And John, welcome to the show. Thanks Maureen. Tell us about the candidate who got the most votes in the March primary. That would be Joe LaCava

Speaker 8: 26:26 That's right, Joe LaCava. He is a civil engineer and he's also a public policy consultant by trade. Uh, he says that San Diego most crucial issues will be producing housing for moderate income and low income families dealing with homelessness. He believes the city can meet its housing within existing

Speaker 9: 26:44 Community plans without pushing density on single family neighborhoods. Uh, he has served on many community boards, various city committees over the years. His opponent has as well, but the housing is the main thing that both of them agree on housing and homelessness is the key issue in this race right now. One of the things that he says about that is that the process of getting housing built is just too difficult right now, and that needs to be fixed. And here's what he had to say about that. We needed to take a look at the incredibly complex financial mechanisms, income, restricted housing, and how that adds to the cost. We have to look at the rent and deliver housing at that point and how we can streamline that. So LaCava believes the city can meet its housing needs within existing community plans without pushing density on single family neighborhoods. He pretty much in fact, relies on community plans.

Speaker 1: 27:38 Now, candidate will Moore also wants to see housing go up faster in the city. What's his background

Speaker 9: 27:45 As a lawyer. Um, interestingly after he graduated from college, he joined the peace Corps and worked in Senegal, uh, teaching people there, how to start up and be successful with small businesses after he returned to the U S he went to law school and he says, 20 years later, by the way, he's still paying off some of his student loans. So you can imagine how he feels about that issue. Um, not surprisingly here now in San Diego, his specialty in the law is working with small business. Like LaCava, he's a member of several charitable organizations, including the rotary club. Like LaCava, he says it is just too difficult to get permits in this city to build anything. And in this matter of fact, he says the folks at city hall, the bureaucracy, as he calls it, have been keeping it that way for a long time. Now here's what he had to say about that. We've had a regime in this towns in the last 30 years that has been frankly, affirmatively against building housing, unnecessary hurdles over-regulation. So unlike LaCava, he really says there needs to be more density in housing, but he also says that that does not mean putting up 30 story buildings in neighborhoods.

Speaker 1: 28:49 Now, a huge issue in district one has been short term vacation rentals like Airbnb, and it's been a seemingly intractable issues for the city council. What was the latest city proposal to address the issue and what happened to it?

Speaker 9: 29:05 Well, Maureen you're right. It has been an issue in San Diego for years and years. I remember covering the story in my previous job years ago, and it's still with us. Uh, the most recent proposal came before the city planning commission earlier in October. And that proposal would have slashed to the volume of homes available for short term rentals, by as much as 60% it had the support. In this matter of fact, it was proposed by a city council, woman, Jen Campbell, who represents a lot of the neighborhoods that would have the do have Airbnbs. It failed by one vote, and they sent it back to a city staff. And it is now due to come back up for reconsideration in early December.

Speaker 7: 29:46 How do the candidates and district one stand on short term rentals? Do either of them support this latest proposal?

Speaker 9: 29:53 Yes. Uh, Wilmore said that it wasn't necessarily as strict as he would like, but he says the, in this case, the enemy of the good shouldn't be perfect. I think what we should be doing instead of just waving a flag to have a rhetorical point is trying to work towards a solution that actually reduces the impact of SVRs on our community. And that practical solution is what I'm after. LaCava thought that it didn't go far enough. He disagreed with the proposal, let's adopt regulations for home sharing, and let's keep whole home rentals in our commercial districts.

Speaker 7: 30:30 Who's come out in support of LaCava and who's come out and supportive.

Speaker 9: 30:35 Well LaCava has been endorsed by a group called save San Diego neighborhoods and given his position on air B. And B's, that's not surprising because this is a group that lobbies for vacation rental guidelines. He's also gotten the endorsement of the Sierra club, uh, San Diego chapter, and he was endorsed by state Senate president pro temp, Tony Atkins, uh, more on the other hand has been endorsed by the San Diego regional chamber of commerce. Uh, now that is one might think sort of a more Republican leaning group, but he has also received the endorsement of the UMB Democrats of San Diego County NIMBY stands for yes, in my backyard. Also San Diego Councilman Chris ward, who is running for Todd Gloria's seat and the mayor of Imperial beach surge, Dina, as well as the mayor of national city Alejandro Sotelo Selise

Speaker 7: 31:24 Does Joe LaCava still hold the advantage in this race because he got the most votes in the primary.

Speaker 9: 31:31 Well, that's a good question. He did best more by more than 3000 votes in the primary, but there were more than 25,000 votes split between all the other candidates. So at this point, it's hard to say

Speaker 7: 31:43 I've been speaking with KPBS reporter, John Carroll and John. Thank you so much.

Speaker 9: 31:48 Thank you, Maureen. San Diego unified announced last week, it was bringing back about 10% of students for in-person learning, but that move won't help. The vast majority of kids still trying to learn from home KBS reporter Claire, Trey

Speaker 7: 32:08 Checks back in with kids who are attempting to do kindergarten remotely. What's that good word? That starts with a gym? Yeah, it's very quiet in the Ramos household. As four kids sit and work on their laptops. The living room has been completely remade into a classroom. There are word cards on the floor charts on the walls and a giant timer to help the kids stay on schedule. It smells like warm muffins, and pretty soon the stopped to take a snack break. Two families are in this learning pod. They've paid a private tutor, $2,500 a month to guide their kids through online lessons each day. Plus come up with extra activities. She's moves between the kids to see if they need help. The first day, the kindergartners there,

Speaker 2: 33:05 I was just like, what's going on? Like actually one of them was even like on the verge,

Speaker 7: 33:10 There are two kindergarteners in this learning pod and she says they especially need her help. They've never been in school before and are learning to read, follow a teacher's instructions, even do gym class, all remotely reading

Speaker 2: 33:25 Workshop, writing workshop. Um, they have kind of a checklist that of independent activities they have to do.

Speaker 7: 33:32 That's true across the school district, but for families without extra help, it's really difficult to handle.

Speaker 2: 33:39 When we first started this, the swim classes, it was at the center,

Speaker 7: 33:44 Danielle Hernandez, his daughter, Jasmine is in kindergarten in North park. She can't work from home. So her plan was to have her mother helped Jasmine with online school.

Speaker 2: 33:53 You know, there was, there was times where my mom was telling Jasmine to sit down and just pay attention to the teacher. And she was like, no, but the teacher is telling me to stand up.

Speaker 7: 34:02 So then Hernandez brought in her cousin who takes night classes in college to help guide Jasmine it's better, but are still lots of issues.

Speaker 2: 34:12 She had a couple of fence cause she was like, I know the answer. I know the answer, but there's, there's too many things.

Speaker 7: 34:18 Hernandez is worried about her daughter being so stressed out, but also about her falling behind.

Speaker 2: 34:24 I saw it about just pulling her out. I'm just like, okay, maybe I just pulled her out. But then at the same time, I'm thinking, no, maybe just a little bit that she's getting or maybe the assignments and the one Oh one that she's getting from my cousin. It is helping her

Speaker 7: 34:42 Across the district. Kindergarten enrollment is way down there ended up being about 2,500 fewer students than expected. And two thirds of that drop were kindergartners.

Speaker 2: 34:54 In some cases, you know, we think parents are making a conscious decision to not enroll their students. Um, but we think that there are other cases where, you know, parents, this might not be clear about the process

Speaker 7: 35:08 Is vice president of the San Diego unified school board. He says the district is trying to find families of kindergarten students to get them signed up.

Speaker 2: 35:17 That's a challenge because if a student is not in our database right now, cause they've never been enrolled in our district, we might not actually know who they are.

Speaker 7: 35:27 Getting students enrolled in school may benefit them, but it won't fix the huge inequities online learning is creating while some parents like Hernandez are thankful. If their kindergartners can just get a little learning that something is better than nothing, others are launching ahead in their kindergarten curriculum. I feel like Maya and Kaia are learning to read. Yeah, Nicole Ramos is one of the moms in the learning pod we visited. She says all things considered. It's going really well. The kids every morning, wake up and they're just, they're excited for school. They're excited to see their friends. In fact, even if her kid's school reopened, she's not sure she would send them back because she doesn't want to disrupt the routine. They've established Clare Trek, Asser KPBS news.

Speaker 6: 36:21 Uh,

Speaker 7: 36:25 This is KPBS mid day edition. I'm Maureen Cavenaugh with Alison st. John on the fourth episode of rad scientists, the grass is always greener host Marco wall introduces us to dr. Chandler purity, an ecologist and adjunct professor at UCS D we'll pick up Chandler's story at the beginning of her undergraduate experience at Howard university, where she starts building her identity as a scientist, Chandler was taking science courses, perhaps because she had been primed from an early age to appreciate.

Speaker 6: 37:03 So I was only allowed to watch animal planet and discovery channel. So if you're looking for a Chico to make your child any ecologist, that is it. And one day in biology class

Speaker 7: 37:18 Chandler's stumbled across an opportunity

Speaker 6: 37:20 In lab. There was a flyer on the wall and it was like, are you interested in science? Do you want to get a graduate degree? Do you want to make $15,000 a year? Yes, that's all it took.

Speaker 7: 37:37 Flyer was advertising a four year program funded by the national science foundation to increase the presence of black people in environmental sciences where they're underrepresented and being a part of the program meant 20 hours of research. A week, summer research experiences and a contract to at least apply to grad schools at the end of college Chandler got into the program and started doing science with our cohort.

Speaker 6: 38:02 And that was when science was demystified for me. And that was the moment where I was like, Hey, maybe I could do this because I saw girls that looked like me, girls with their hair out and Afros girls with braids sitting there with stopwatches or like little clickers counting leaves, you know, talking about their boy problems. I was like this I can get behind

Speaker 7: 38:27 The school year ended. And it was time for her first summer research experience. She was assigned to Blandy farm in Virginia, a couple hours outside of DC, kind of in the middle of nowhere. And all of the scientists stayed in a building called the quarters.

Speaker 6: 38:50 The building was like painted white. All of the upstairs was screened in wooden floors, painted gray, rocking chairs, old rocking chairs. Every room had two bunk beds, very small window, barely any closet. And then a screen door was all we had to close.

Speaker 7: 39:15 And there is something about the place where she was staying, that hadn't been relayed to her Blandy farm. Wasn't always a laboratory and Arboretum originally it was a plantation,

Speaker 6: 39:28 But the kicker is that we all stayed and slept in literal slave quarters. So like I slept in a bunk where slaves slept. I left there every weekend. Cause like being there, it was really heavy for me. And I don't know if I'll ever process through that.

Speaker 7: 39:57 Even after that upsetting experience Chandler had at Blandy farm, she continued her program, fulfilling the requirements, applying to doctorate programs. And before she knew it, she was a grad student at UC San Diego.

Speaker 6: 40:11 And all of a sudden I was getting my PhD. I was like, Whoa, Whoa, that escalated.

Speaker 7: 40:15 She joined a plant ecology lab.

Speaker 6: 40:18 Obviously it's clear. I have a thing for plants.

Speaker 7: 40:21 And she has a special affinity for plants native to Southern California. But native plants are not the only kind growing around these parts. There are other species that compete for resources like exotic plants or plants that don't come from California.

Speaker 6: 40:38 Mostly come from Europe. They were brought here when Southern California was colonized by missionaries

Speaker 7: 40:45 And they brought over some grasses, invasive ones,

Speaker 6: 40:48 Those grasses that were brought over here 250 years ago now cover 10 million hectares hectares of the state of California.

Speaker 7: 40:59 That's nearly a quarter of the state.

Speaker 6: 41:02 If you ever see a grass that is one single blade growing out of the ground, it's exotic.

Speaker 7: 41:08 These exotic grasses live for one growing season, produce some seeds and die. There are native grasses too, but they're very different. They grow in bunches and their perennial meeting. They don't die the same plant just regrows every year. But the native plants that do best in Southern California are shrubs like the lemonade, Berry Bush.

Speaker 6: 41:29 It has like little pinkish yellowish berries and they're tart. And you can like put them in your water and they won't kill you

Speaker 7: 41:35 Volks. Please don't try this at home. Neither Chandler nor I will be liable for your vitality. The success of native versus exotic plants is important, both for the health of local ecosystems and also for the safety of us and our homes, especially with the increase in wildfires brought on by temperature rise, AKA climate change, the native plants.

Speaker 6: 42:02 It's like they're Woody, they're shrubs. They burn hot, but they burn slow. So it's easier to contain those fires. But these grasses, I mean, it's Tinder, it's literal Tinder. Like it just

Speaker 7: 42:15 Bush. When Chandler started graduate school, California was in one of the most severe droughts in its history. In 2014, then California, governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency. Now drought is bad for agriculture and for wildfires, but some people thought there might be a silver lining.

Speaker 6: 42:37 So people had this idea that the drought would save us all from these grasses because the grasses need to reproduce every year. So they were like, well, if we don't have water for two years, then the grasses should die out.

Speaker 7: 42:49 Right? Chandler was measuring this. She was comparing the growth of these plants that were located on the same piece of land, some plastic,

Speaker 6: 42:57 Mostly native, right. And some plots that were mostly,

Speaker 7: 42:59 And what she saw was exactly as expected.

Speaker 6: 43:03 Okay. Drives taking away exotic. It's all good. All good.

Speaker 7: 43:05 And the native plants they were doing fine then comes 2017. The state of emergency is lifted as massive amounts of water. Pour down all over California

Speaker 6: 43:21 Rained like three times the annual average that year.

Speaker 7: 43:25 And this gives Chandler the chance to ask a really interesting question like, okay, the droughts did negatively affect the exotic plants, but what's that effect long lasting or would the return of water bring them back? Maybe even with more force than before

Speaker 6: 43:43 I go back after it rains,

Speaker 7: 43:46 She inspects the plots with lots of exotic acts.

Speaker 6: 43:49 During the drought. I could walk on dirt paths between my plots. After the drought, the biomass came up to my chest everywhere.

Speaker 7: 43:59 Exotic plants had gone from barely there to the highest levels that had been observed during the experiment. Meanwhile, the native plants were growing at their normal slow rate. So while native plants might be more resistant to drought, exotic plants are more resilient.

Speaker 6: 44:17 Basically these exotics were laying dormant throughout the drought. They had been stockpiling basically. So they're smarter than we thought they were.

Speaker 7: 44:26 This is not good news in the fight between natives and exotics and there's cause for concern, one predicted outcome of climate change is even more dramatic. Extremes of weather were Strout outs and bigger rainfalls. This might tip the scale in favor of exotic plants, helping to stoke wildfires in the future.

Speaker 1: 44:56 That was an excerpt from the latest rad scientist episode. If you want to hear more about Chandler's journey, like what motivated her to start a new chorus at UCS D exploring racism in science, all you have to do is search for rad scientist in your favorite podcast app, or go to kpbs.org/rad scientist.

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KPBS Midday Edition

KPBS Midday Edition is a daily talk show hosted by Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon, keeping San Diegans in the know on everything from politics to the arts.