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Speeding Up School Reopenings

 March 5, 2021 at 10:24 AM PST

Speaker 1: 00:00 Sweetening the pot for public schools will new state incentives speed up the reopening process. Local nurses stretched to the limit during the pandemic and investigation shows how hospitals used special waivers to add to their workloads and slowing the revolving door at San Diego's jails County leaders make a change aimed at helping people inside and outside the criminal justice system. I'm Andrew Bowen and the KPBS round table starts. Now Speaker 2: 00:35 [inaudible] welcome to artist Speaker 1: 00:40 [inaudible] of the week's top stories. I'm Andrew Bowen. Joining me on this remote edition of the KPBS round table are Ricardo Cano education reporter for Cal matters. Jill Castillano investigative reporter for I news source and Kelly Davis, a contributing reporter for the San Diego union Tribune. Last week, it was announced that San Diego unified our largest public school district in the County would reopen on April 12th. That's assuming COVID-19 cases continue to drop and vaccinations continue to ramp up, but that's still more than a month away. And now there's a push by governor Gavin Newsome to speed up that timeline by providing billions of dollars in financial incentives, even. So these decisions are made at the local level, not at the Capitol, leading many to be skeptical of this latest plan we'll work education reporter Ricardo Cano is covering the story for Cal matters. Welcome back, Speaker 3: 01:33 Ricardo. Thanks for having me. So the state has Speaker 1: 01:36 Tried offering financial incentives for school districts to reopen before, but that hasn't had much success. What is new about this plan? Walk us through some of the details, Speaker 3: 01:46 Right? So this really is a compromise deal between legislative leaders and the governor. And this would essentially ties $2 billion worth of grant funding to school districts. If they are able to reopen in some form by April 1st, if you're a school district in the purple tier, you'd have to offer in-person instruction either full-time or hybrid to students in transitional kindergarten through second grade. Once you move up to the red tier that is extended to students through sixth grade, as well as one, uh, full middle or a high school grade. And there's a group of students, high need students, students with special needs, uh, students who are at risk of abuse or neglect foster youth who, uh, schools would be required to serve regardless of the tier level in person. Speaker 1: 02:43 The other part of that $6.6 billion total is 4.6 billion to make up for learning losses. Telephone. Tell us about how districts would be able to spend that money. Speaker 3: 02:54 Yeah, so, uh, that's the lion's share of this deal and it's mostly discretionary school districts have latitude to determine how they're going to spend that money. The idea from state lawmakers was that this is money that schools could use to either extend their school year or offer a more robust version of summer school to a broad student population to address the learning loss that that experts and studies have shown now to be pretty significant. Speaker 1: 03:29 Uh, teachers unions have been somewhat reluctant to get back into the classroom. They're concerned about, uh, health risks to teachers and other staff. Of course, what is the state doing to vaccinate those people? You've written about a haphazard approach County by County. Speaker 3: 03:44 Yeah, and I would argue that it's this area that is really more responsible for the shift in local discussions on the reopening front. Then the legislation that lawmakers sent to the governor's desk, the picture has changed very dramatically over the last month. Um, in early February, I'd reached out to public health departments in the state's largest counties and really got the sense that this was a haphazard approach from County to County with some of them prioritizing teachers, others saying that they wouldn't be able to get to teachers till April and everyone basically telling me that they were dealing with scarcity issues in the week. Since then, the governor has announced that the state will be start, will start to earmark 10% of incoming first doses for teachers about 75,000 doses were earmarked this week alone. And so we've seen availability for teachers increase in recent weeks. We've seen counties begin to prioritize teachers a little bit more. And so that's really played a significant role in advancing conversations locally for reopening were tracking the largest school districts in the state in terms of what, where they they're at with reopening. And I found that as of now, half of the state's largest a hundred school districts are planning to offer some form of in-person instruction to their students. By the first week of April, Speaker 1: 05:17 There's a political angle to this story as well. Governor Newsome is facing a recall campaign. One of his main challengers, former San Diego mayor, Kevin Faulkner is making school. Reopenings a big focus of his bid for governor. Have we heard from those critics of Newsome's reopening plans about how they would handle this issue differently? Speaker 3: 05:36 Right. What we've seen in recent weeks has been governor Newsome, essentially touring the state and being a little bit more visible than he has been, uh, in compared with previous months. Uh, because part of it is that there is a threat of a recall and Kevin Faulkner the former mayor of San Diego, John Cox, a former gubernatorial nominee in 2018, uh, have attempted to attach a business reopenings and school reopenings in particular to the governor as part of his track record, basically, uh, saying that the governor has not gone far enough to handle reopening, but it doesn't seem like their approach would be much different than, than the governors himself. Porter's asked mayor Faulkner, uh, recently about what he would do differently essentially. And whether he would take a quote unquote more heavy handed approach, uh, meaning essentially suspending local bargaining, uh, collective bargaining and mandating. When that schools have to reopen through say an executive order. And he, he told the reporters recently that he wouldn't do that. Uh, so it doesn't, you know, it's, it's kind of not clear whether Faulkner or another candidate who'd be, governor would be doing something different than what governor Newsome has done right now. Speaker 1: 07:01 You've reported that private schools have been reopening faster than public schools. Wealthier school districts are offering more in-person instruction than poorer school districts. What has the impact of the pandemic been on equity and education? Speaker 3: 07:15 Uh, well, you know, I think one of the stories of the pandemic here in the state and school reopenings has been that, uh, it really has been an uneven picture where some schools are able to open, uh, others. Aren't again, these are decisions that are made at a very local level between school district superintendents, school boards and, and their labor unions. And so we've seen, uh, instances where a public school is open five miles down the road. The next public school is closed physically, and we're seeing that with private schools. So it's been, uh, uneven and there, there is an element of inequity to it among the state's public schools. Wealthier school districts have been able to physically reopen for a greater share of their students compared with the state's poorest school districts. And so that's something that state lawmakers lamented about as they were taking up this bill. But, uh, the, the general sense was, was it was important to advance the bill rather than not have a bill at all. Speaker 1: 08:24 Yeah. Lots of learning disparities to watch further down the line. As some of these students grow up into a young adulthood, I've been speaking with Ricardo Cano education reporter for Cal matters. Ricardo, thanks for your reporting on this issue. Thank you very much. It's been a year unlike any other for our hospitals. Nurses are on the frontline and caring for COVID-19 patients and a new investigation shows how they've been stretched thin over 200 hospitals were granted special permission to nurses workloads. It was supposed to be an option of last resort, but work done by new source and KPBS found that wasn't always the case. Our guest is I knew source investigative reporter, Jill Castillano who worked on this story with KPBS health reporter Taryn mento. Hi, Joel, welcome to the round table. Thanks for having me. So, as I said, the law is supposed to see these waivers as a last resort. What are hospitals supposed to do before they take this step and start increasing the number of patients that each nurse can care for? Speaker 4: 09:25 Yeah. The state public health department makes it pretty clear. You're supposed to be trying alternative measures before you request a waiver because they acknowledge that these nurse to patient ratios are in place to protect patients and make sure that these nurses aren't stretched too thin to take care of that. So when you apply for a waiver as a hospital, you're given a list of some alternative steps you could try that includes maybe canceling non-emergency procedures or taking some of those procedures and moving them out of the hospital to clinics. So that way your nurses at the hospital aren't as stretched thin, you could try diverting ambulances to other facilities. You could also request resources from the state. The state has a staffing pool and if necessary, they could bring people on site. So the expectation is you are only requesting this waiver if necessary. Speaker 1: 10:16 And you looked into the applications that hospitals submitted to the state, you found that it wasn't exactly a, the last resort option. Tell us what you found. Speaker 4: 10:25 Yes, it certainly wasn't as clear cut as that, um, the state has approved over 200 waivers. Over 100 of those have been posted online. We were able to grab all of them and analyze them. And according to these applications, many hospitals were not filling out that they had tried these alternative steps. So for example, over half of the hospitals, we looked at applied for at least one waiver where they did not first try rescheduling non-emergency procedures. Speaker 1: 10:53 So what happens when hospitals actually get these waivers? And how does it impact the job that nurses do? Yeah. Speaker 4: 10:59 Allows hospitals to increase nurse workload. So they're taking on more patients than they normally would. And the nurses that we spoke with say it's made a huge impact for their job. It might not seem that big of a deal for an ICU nurse to go from two patients to three. But it really does when you consider it the level of care that these patients require. Some of the nurses we spoke with said they were choosing whether to care for one patient or another patient. So that means someone might not be getting the care as soon as they need it. They might not be getting their medications or treatments as soon as they need it. That's a big one. Speaker 1: 11:33 And it also impacts the, the mental health and the, the sort of stress that these nurses face as well. You spoke to a nurse at Palomar medical center in Escondido. Uh, what did they say? Speaker 4: 11:44 Yes. We spoke with George Santiago who is a crisis response nurse, uh, at Palomar. And he said that it really him and his colleagues, that they were constantly pulled in all of these directions and dealing with such an overwhelming number of patients. He could barely keep up with the number of emergencies he said after that adrenaline wears off, it hits him. And it's really, really difficult to deal with. Speaker 1: 12:09 Nursing is a very widely unionized, uh, work sector. Tell us what the unions that represent local nurses have done to push back against these waivers. Speaker 4: 12:18 We've pushed hard really, since the pandemic began, they'd have not wanted to see these waivers be used. They've been protesting. We've seen local protests at Palomar at UCS D. They've also been lobbying the state pushing to get some of these waivers rescinded or essentially overturned at some facilities. Um, some unions we have found have filed grievances because they say they weren't consulted before. One of these hospitals applied for a waiver. They've been using every Avenue they can to fight. Speaker 1: 12:49 And your story also gives an example of a hospital doing, doing things the right way, taking the proper steps before applying for a waiver to increase nurse case load. How did El Centro's largest hospitals go about this process? Speaker 4: 13:03 That's right. El Centro regional medical center in Imperial County was so strapped. It was very clear that they went through this process appropriately. They tried everything they could. We spoke with the CEO there, they canceled elective procedures. They were transferring patients and they were getting resources from the state. They tried all of this and they still couldn't keep up with the surge in patients when it got really bad in December. So they requested this waiver and we were told it really, really made a difference. They needed it, they got it. And they used it appropriately. Speaker 1: 13:36 It was not the same story at Rady children's hospital here in San Diego. What happened there? Speaker 4: 13:41 That's right. Rady children's hospital. We spoke with the COO there. He said they applied for the waiver proactively. They were very honest about it. They didn't necessarily need the waiver at the moment that they asked for it. They were anticipating that in the winter, they would see a surgeon patients. And so just in case they applied for this waiver. If you look at their application, they make it pretty clear. They haven't tried any alternative steps before making this request. They got the waiver anyway, and what's interesting is Rady children's hospital didn't even end up using that waiver. Their projections were wrong and they did not see the surgeon cases they expected. Speaker 1: 14:18 And there's another local hospital that you cite in your reporting. Kaiser Permanente, Zion in Grandville, uh, received a waiver. You found out that they had also received fines from Cal OSHA over their handling of COVID-19 protocols. Tell us about that. Speaker 4: 14:33 Right? Some of the nurses around the state have pointed out that when you are stretched so thin, it's hard to keep up with the protections that departments like Cal OSHA require in order to prevent COVID from spreading throughout your hospital. So in the case of Kaiser, Zion, what noticed is they had three waivers and around the same time, they also received some fun. It's about $1,500 in fines for multiple violations, including not having proper training programs and not doing annual inspections of their isolation rooms and not having appropriate masks for their workers. Speaker 1: 15:10 Joe, we've seen the case numbers with COVID-19 drop. It was pretty dramatically in the re in recent weeks. What is the situation like now for nurses? Are hospitals still using these Weaver waivers? Do they have to renew them at a certain point? Speaker 4: 15:24 They are, this is a system that will continue to be in place. What we have seen though is the number of hospitals using them have dropped because cases have gone down the state announced last month, that it would end all active waivers early before their scheduled expiration date on February 8th, because of how much cases have dropped, but hospitals can still reapply and some got extensions. So this is an ongoing process. Speaker 1: 15:49 And what does the state say about, uh, the mistakes that they've seen on the, on these, uh, and the hospitals? Not really doing all their homework before applying for a waiver. Speaker 4: 15:58 Unfortunately, the state hasn't really acknowledged any issues with the waiver process. They wouldn't answer our requests for an interview. They did say in a statement that they do their best to vet these waivers. Speaker 1: 16:09 Thanks for your reporting on this. Jill, I've been speaking with Jill, Castillano a reporter for I new source. Jill. Thanks. Thanks so much. Do you ever feel like you paid too much for your phone bill? I know I do. Well. What have a 30 minute call costs you about $10 or you had to pay two bucks just to leave a voicemail. Those are the rates, our County government charges inmates at jails and juvenile detention facilities, but not for much longer as the new democratic majority on the County board of supervisors turns its eye to criminal justice reform. Freelance reporter Kelly Davis is covering this story for the San Diego union Tribune. Welcome back to the round table cafe. Hey Andrew. Thank you. Glad to have you here. So let's start with what inmates in County jails have to pay to reach the outside world by phone. And why is it so expensive? Speaker 5: 16:58 Yeah, no. So that's a great question. Um, so here in San Diego, it's, it's, you know, it's 33 cents for local and instate calls and 21 cents for out of state calls. And the reason it's so expensive is because there are really only two providers of phone services for jails and prisons. There's been a lot of consolidation in this, this area. And so there's these two Securus and GTL. So there's really no competition. And no, these two companies have, have kind of monopolized the detention phone services business and, and can charge any rate they want and they make huge profits. Speaker 1: 17:37 And it's a bit of a, head-scratcher how that out of state calls are actually cheaper for inmates than local calls. How did that happen? Speaker 5: 17:44 Yeah, so as I mentioned, 33 cents for local and in-state calls 21 cents for of state calls. Um, and that's because the FCC, which has jurisdiction over, uh, calls, you know, out-of-state calls, they've been pretty aggressive in trying to bring down the cost of, of phone calls in, in detention facilities. So they've, they've put various caps on the amount that these communications providers like Securus and GTL on the amount that they can charge. And they've been FCC has been trying to kind of slowly chip away at these, these hype per minute rates, but because they only have jurisdiction over interstate calls, they've hoped that they're setting an example that will push state legislators to regulate in state calls. But, uh, so far that hasn't happened. So Speaker 1: 18:35 Let's get to the news that happened this week, newly elected County supervisor, Terra Lawson, Riemer brought forward to her colleagues, a plan to make all phone calls from jail free. What was her motivation for this move? Speaker 5: 18:48 And so I talked to, to supervisor Lawson rumor last week, and you know, what she brought up is is all this research that shows that if a person is in jail or prison can maintain a connection to friends and family, they're less likely to re-offend when they're released. So, so that's for folks who've been sentenced, you know, keeping in touch with loved ones, um, is so important, but the majority of people in, in local jails, they haven't been sentenced. I think something like 70% of folks in San Diego jails are just waiting for their trial and, and that can take them months. And so during that time, they're cut off from their family. You know, parents are cut off from their kids and people in jail are often low income, you know, that they're there because they can't afford bail. So this disproportionately impacts, you know, vulnerable populations and kids. And that's something that, that the supervisor brought up as, as motivation for introducing this, this proposal Speaker 1: 19:50 And Lawson reamer won unanimous approval for her proposal on Tuesday, all five supervisors supported this change. Were you surprised that the two Republican supervisors, uh, agreed and also voted? Yes. Speaker 5: 20:04 Yeah, that's kind of, yes and no. I, I think, um, I think it's really difficult that, you know, to argue that it's okay for someone to have to pay $10 for a 30 minute phone call with family. So, you know, there, there wasn't much discussion among the supervisors. Um, I think they saw this as, you know, once, once you, you, you know, show people the numbers, I think, um, it's kind of clear that, that this, this isn't right, you know, like as a $10 for a 30 minute phone call is, is just insane. When you know, phone calls outside of jail are much less than that. Speaker 1: 20:38 Now jails are under the purview of County sheriff bill Gore, who is a Republican, what did he say about this measure? So, so a couple of years ago, my Speaker 5: 20:48 Colleague Jeff McDonald, he reported did a story on, um, high phone rates in, in jails. And at the time he asked to share for comment and the Sheriff's department, uh, opposed lowering the cost of phone calls and said that, um, you know, cutting, cutting the cost of phone calls because a portion of, of each call goes into something called the inmate welfare fund. And so the Sheriff's department's position was this is a valuable source of revenue. Um, we use this money for educational programs. We don't want to, we don't want to cut the cost of calls. Um, but supervisor Lawson reamers proposal was included a provision to find another way to, to put money in the inmate welfare fund. So this time around the sheriff said, yes, phone calls are really important, and we're going to work with the County on a new phone plan that allows for free phone calls. Speaker 1: 21:42 Now you spoke to some of the people impacted by these sky high phone rates. There were, I know there was a lot of public testimony at the board of supervisors meeting this week. What are some of the stories that you heard? Speaker 5: 21:53 Yeah. One woman talked about how, um, she almost took a plea deal because she couldn't afford to call home and talk to her kids. She was ultimately exonerated, but she spent three months in jail. Uh, another woman talked about how her brother has to make a choice between buying you personal hygiene items or making phone calls. And, and what really exacerbates this issue is that in-person visits in jails have been halted since March due to COVID. And that's something a lot of people have brought up that, you know, they can't go and visit, which would be free. So phone calls are really their only way to communicate. Speaker 1: 22:32 And these phone rates aren't just for adults, they also apply to juvenile detainees. So how critical is it for those, uh, incarcerated at a young age to have a support system on this, on the outside, first of all, and then also to be able to reach that support system? Speaker 5: 22:48 Yeah, no, I actually didn't know until recently that calls from juvenile detention facilities cost the same as calls from jail. Uh, so I reached out to the probation department about this and they told me that yes, you know, kids who are calling from the phones that are set up in these facilities, they are paying 33 cents a minute. But what they do is they, they, uh, the probation officers, they, they do their best to let kids use. Um, I'm just going to say office phones, you know, that the phones that are there they're, you know, that you could just call out regularly. So they, they try to let kids use those phones and they have tablets that are equipped with Skype. So the kids can chat with their family this way, because you know, they, the probation department agrees same as, you know, the, the research says that that maintaining family connections is, is really important. And, and, you know, really helps folks who, including kids, especially who ended up, uh, detained, this is a relatively Speaker 1: 23:46 New trend when it comes to jail reform. You write that San Diego will be just the second County in California to eliminate charges for phone calls are other places pushing to do the same. Speaker 5: 23:57 Yeah. So, so this has been an issue, you know, advocates for incarcerated people. They've been pushing for years for, for lower costs for phone calls. Um, there's been a lot of organizing around this issue. I think COVID really drove home. Um, how problematic this, this can be. So in, um, New York actually in 2018 was the first city to make phone calls or yeah, first city to make phone calls free and it's jails. So that was pre COVID. Um, but no one else really moved on it until San Francisco in 2020. So just this past August, they made phone calls free, and San Diego is doing this, and I've heard that other jurisdictions are talking about it. Um, at the least, you know, many have, have cut the cost of phone calls during COVID or set aside a day when, when all phone calls are free. So there's, there's been this real focus on how to keep, uh, communication with the outside world. Um, you know, for folks who are in jails and prisons. Speaker 1: 24:59 Now, lastly, what's the timeline, when will inmates start to be able to make phone calls for free? Speaker 5: 25:04 So, um, they're hoping to have a plan in place by may, and that will involve finding a new provider for communication services. And they're also gonna identify other sources of revenue for the inmate welfare fund to kind of, um, you know, supplant the money that's, that's lost from the phone fees. Speaker 1: 25:26 Well, I've been speaking with Kelly Davis, I contributing reporter for the San Diego union Tribune. Kelly, thanks for joining us. Yeah. Thank you. That wraps up this week's edition of the KPBS round table. I'd like to thank my guests. Ricardo Cano from Cal matters, Joe Castillano for my new source and Kelly Davis from the San Diego union Tribune. If you missed any part of our show, you can listen anytime on the KPBS round table podcast. I'm Andrew Bowen. Thanks for listening and join us next week on the round table.

A new law provides financial incentives for school districts that accelerate school reopenings, an investigation into the waiver system that increased nurse workloads during the recent COVID-19 surge, and San Diego County moves to eliminate phone call costs for jail inmates.