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Roundtable: San Diego schools struggle with COVID-19 surge

Speaker 1: (00:01)

These are busy, confusing nerve-wracking times for parents, San Diego schools are welcoming back kids with a patchwork of vaccine testing and mask rules. As COVID cases, spike from pre-K through college, we try to make sense of it and reflecting on the attack that try to destabilize America's transfer of power. What's the status of our democracy. One year later, I'm Claire Traeger and this is KPBS round table.

Speaker 2: (00:43)

It worries me a lot, standing in lying, going around all these people. It worries me a lot.

Speaker 3: (00:49)

North Park's Janet Robinson just wants to make sure she and her grandchildren are safe.

Speaker 2: (00:55)

No, I, I had my head, my hood up my glasses on I'm scared. I had some chills. This is scary.

Speaker 4: (01:03)

It's moving faster than the usual carpool pickup line, because this is an express lane where parents in the LA Mesa spring valley school district have scored a valuable box of two at home test kits for COVID 19. That's great. Now angel Hardman usually subs in the district as an administration today, she's a distribution coordinator, happy to give parents what they've desperately been seeking for their children.

Speaker 5: (01:29)

I think the parents, you know, may be ready to send them back to school, but overall, um, I think that they're just thankful that they have a test to, to get and to they're just thankful to

Speaker 1: (01:40)

Get one. And that's just a sampling of, of the busy week for K PBS reporters covering the record setting surge in local COVID cases. It's 20, 22, but in many ways, the past few days have felt a bit like the onset of the pandemic in 2020, the spike in cases forced the state to extend its mask mandate for another month. And some big events like the gray Ammy awards are being canceled. Let's dive into it with one of the voices. You just heard. KPBS education, reporter mg Perez. He's here to focus, which can be a hard thing to do right now on all the issues at our schools and hello mg. Hello, glad to be here. So let's start with San Diego unified, which is our largest public school district students returned this week after the winter break, how would you say things are going? Students

Speaker 4: (02:32)

Are still in school. That's a plus, but also it continues, uh, with, uh, staffing shortages and other issues that were with us in the winter continue. So real the school district is doing its best to make 20, 22, a little bit more encouraging for families and for students and hopefully more safe as well.

Speaker 1: (02:55)

And now over the break, families were told to test their kids for COVID so that they would have results in time for the return to campus and kids were provided for each student. So how does the district track those test results and know if families are complying? So first

Speaker 4: (03:12)

It's important to note that these tests were distributed, but they were not mandatory. So the district was hoping and encouraging that as many families as possible would take advantage of the test before their children return to, uh, the class, basically the California department of public health has a portal, uh, online that, uh, parents report their results too. And that's really the gauge that the district uses to find out where they stand. But it's really just the sampling since it isn't mandatory and is voluntary. Uh, as of, uh, earlier this week, uh, the portal reported about 34,000, uh, students with negative tests and about 2000 students who reported a positive test for COVID.

Speaker 1: (03:58)

I see. Okay. And so then you're also following this process in other parts of San Diego county. Is there anything that stands out to you in the way those districts are handling things? Well,

Speaker 4: (04:09)

What is surprising is how many districts did not receive at home tests? Uh, governor Newsom in late December promised that 6 million tests would go out statewide. And, uh, as of this week, there were so many districts in San Diego county in particular that hadn't received those at home test kits. So it's really kind of like the golden ticket, you know, how can you get your hands on, on a test kit? And interestingly, there are a couple of districts, like the one that you played in the intro LA MEA spring valley that actually had gotten in on the request early. And they had a stockpile of 10,000 tests, which they gave out this week to staff and students and families of their district. That was also the case in Coronado, which ended up with a stockpile of 15,000 tests. And they only have a school strict population of about 11,000 students. So it's luck of the draw in some cases. And still a challenge since testing is the most probably important weapon in that we have at the moment for trying to prevent

Speaker 1: (05:14)

COVID. And now we've seen universities like U C S D and S D SSU go back to remote online instruction, at least temporarily are K through 12 schools at risk of doing the same. There

Speaker 4: (05:26)

Is always a risk, uh, depending on what the surge looks like in the moment, but it's also important to note that most school districts continue to offer at least a virtual, uh, option in San Diego unified it's the virtual academy. So that is still an option available to families. But right now the district is committed to keeping classes in person and following safety protocols to keep kids

Speaker 1: (05:53)

Safe. Now, I'm talking with KPBS education, reporter mg Perez, and you checked in with San Diego unified school board, president Richard Burrera this week. And he says, the district might consider a vaccine mandate for anyone who participates in extracurricular activities. Why is that popping up as an idea? Now

Speaker 4: (06:13)

There are court rulings and challenge that are still out there against the district for its masking mandate and also its uh, suggestions for getting vaccinated. And so the reason this was proposed is those rulings, which were still waiting for only affect students that are in a classroom extracurricular activities, generally speaking happen outside and away from the classroom setting. So the thought behind it is that if you can vaccinate those kids, that'll just help in the prevention of the spread. But again, it's just an idea that's floating around right now. And in talking to, uh, Mr. Barre, he said there is a good chance. It will appear on the school board's, uh, agenda next Tuesday.

Speaker 1: (07:00)

And now as we're saying, vaccines are available for those age five and up, but parents with younger kids are still waiting with no clear sign of when vaccines might be available for, for their children. And most of those kids still need to go to daycare or preschool. So what people know about what those families are dealing with,

Speaker 4: (07:21)

They're dealing with a lot and it's really a challenge because many of those families that have those young children also have older children. So they're getting helped and supported and vaccinated and so forth. And so for the moment, there's really nothing more to be done than continuing to have those children masked and continue to wait in hopes that there will be a vaccination option soon for that age group. Yeah.

Speaker 1: (07:45)

And now you're our education reporter and there's a lot to keep track of there's vaccines testing availability of those tests mandates that seem to vary from one district to another. And of course the human to as teachers and students and parents get burned out. So as a reporter, how challenging is it to stay on top of all of

Speaker 4: (08:07)

This? It is absolutely challenging. Uh, education, the education beat is a daily beat now, uh, because of what's going on with COVID and cancellations and court cases and all of that. Uh, my, uh, resume includes being a special ed teacher for San Diego unified for seven years. So this is near and dear to my heart. So as challenging as it is, uh, I love what I'm doing. And the other thing I'm gonna mention is it's important not to lose the people in these stories. There's lots of statistics and you know, what are the numbers today and, and all of that, but there are people attached to all of that. And that is what I encounter every day. People, uh, excited because they got vaccinated people frustrated because they can't find test kits. It's about the people. And those are the stories that we tell. And I love doing that.

Speaker 1: (09:01)

Are there any of those particular stories that you've done that really sticks out with you or people that you'd like to go back to and talk to again?

Speaker 4: (09:10)

Well, there are other things happening besides COVID and uh, this week I did a story on the promise fund, which is a program in the, uh, community college system that offers two years free tuition to students, uh, who are eligible and in need along with grant money for books and so forth. And to me, there's hope in the midst of all of this COVID chaos and crisis. Let's not forget that there are people who are fighting for their education and working hard for their education. And that story in particular, I met two great students, one a single mom, the other whose family or immigrants from Mexico. And he's basically, uh, in charge of the household and doing his best to get educated. And this program is benefiting him

Speaker 1: (09:59)

Greatly. And I've been speaking with KPBS education reporter mg Perez back with us this week on round table. And thank you mg for all of your really hard work, continuing to cover these important stories. Thank

Speaker 4: (10:12)

You

Speaker 6: (10:13)

To our SDSU community. As 22, 21 comes to a close. This is an important moment of reflection and an opportunity to look ahead. I appreciate the many significant achievements of our students, faculty and staff this year. This fall was the first time so many of us had been together in person since March, 2020.

Speaker 1: (10:33)

And that was SDSU president ELA de a tore just a few weeks ago, sounding optimistic for the year ahead and celebrating the university's resilience during the pandemic. But what a difference a couple of weeks makes Wednesday brought a big setback as SDSU became the latest local university to announce a return to distance learning, at least for the start of the new semester. Welcome back, Caitlin Wyn who is the editor in chief for the daily Aztec? Hello Caly.

Speaker 7: (11:07)

Hey Claire. Thanks for having

Speaker 1: (11:08)

Me. Sure. So we just talked with mg Perez about K through 12 schools, and let's get your take on the set for higher educat explain to us what SDSU plans to do when classes resume this month.

Speaker 7: (11:22)

Yeah. So as I'm sure you've heard SDSU recently announced that we're going to be online for the first two weeks of the spring semester. So we won't be back until February 7th. And once we are back, the booster is required for all SDSU students, faculty and employees and booster records are still required to be uploaded to health eConnect by January 18th, even with the switch online for the students who choose not to get the booster, though, they will no longer be considered fully vaccinated and will be required to have a negative COVID 19 test on file with the university, at least every five

Speaker 1: (11:53)

Days. All right. So a lot, a lot going on a lot of rules to keep track of. And now earlier during the holidays, U C S D announced that it would go virtual when classes were resume this week, were you thinking at that point that SDSU would make a similar move?

Speaker 7: (12:10)

Oh, for sure. For sure. I feel like once the UCS were announcing it and USC was thinking about it, it was announced that they were pondering that idea. I, I knew for sure that SDSU and all other CSU would shortly

Speaker 1: (12:22)

Follow and now we're hoping it's just a two week disruption, but we know that can change. So how does this weigh on students, especially when it comes to mental health?

Speaker 7: (12:33)

You know, that's a really great question. I mean, honestly, college students, mental health, hasn't been the same since the pandemic started. I can't tell you how many people I know from friends to work colleagues to others that have landed themselves in therapy after last semester, myself included. So I guess to put it in a nutshell, um, mental health is, is a hot topic that we should still be following closely, especially as the pandemic severity seems to E and flow. Like we, we don't know when it's gonna end or if it'll ever end. I just, I don't know. It's not easy on students to put it lightly. It's it's really, hasn't been easy.

Speaker 1: (13:12)

Yeah. I mean, I was gonna say, we're talking now about half of a four year college experience that has been scrambled by this pandemic. And you know, now we're entering into another semester where, where things are also upended. So I'm talking with Caly Wyn and she's the editor inchi for the daily Aztec and leads the student run newspaper. And we heard at the top from president de LA to about the pride she had in the return to on campus learning last fall. So generally when we talked about this a little bit, but what was that experience like for you and your staff?

Speaker 7: (13:48)

Yeah, I mean, being back in person, it was invaluable and surreal. I, I was so grateful to, we get to be in person last semester. The sense of community and cohesion of our team was on another level. Getting back to our newsroom again, working face to face. Those are things that could never be replicated through zoom. It was scary though, cuz you know, we had COVID cases in our classes. We had COVID cases within our staff. The biggest thing that I'm was so grateful for or four last semester was bringing back the live broadcast, which we live stream on our YouTube. I think that was the biggest difference from when we were operating fully online because this was truly live. And I know my multimedias team, you know, Jane UIG and McKenzie staffer are editors are ready and able to pivot in any way to maintain the live

Speaker 1: (14:33)

Show. Yeah, I was gonna say so now, you know, you're suddenly returning to distance learning and so what does that mean for you and your staff and how you get your, your jobs done? And we plan

Speaker 7: (14:45)

To hopefully continue releasing our weekly issues on February 9th. But again, that's something that is up in the air. I'm gonna have to be flexible with. Our live is also scheduled to hopefully still be February 9th, the first live of the semester. Like I was saying earlier, this isn't anything our staff hasn't faced or had to deal with or have experienced since 2020. And like we're very familiar with pivoting and adapting to make sure we create content in every medium possible for the daily. The, the more Frank answer is, I don't know, I don't know how we're gonna be getting our jobs done for sure. Not yet. At least

Speaker 1: (15:20)

Right now the county of San Diego tracks all the latest case numbers and demographics on its online dashboard. And it shows most new cases are among those age 20 to 29, which is largely the college demographic. So do you feel like younger adults are still keeping their guard up when it comes to minimizing their risk or exposure? Or is it just a situation where it's hard to avoid something that's so contagious, we're

Speaker 7: (15:48)

Entering year three of the pandemic, which is serving, able to say, and I feel like so many of us are confused about how seriously we should be training with honestly. And I don't know, ACON is extremely contagious, however, and it does feel like half of San Diegos or I caught it. So I'm very, I'm personally very concerned and worried for that and trying to be cautious. But I don't know if I can speak to the rest of the same people in my age group cuz you know, it doesn't affect them as seriously. Their symptoms aren't as serious, but we've heard a lot of stories, especially about long term COVID patients though come up since the pandemic has started and we know that it isn't just the cold, so it really can be detrimental to more people than we know. I'm I, I guess I hope that they're gonna start taking it more seriously.

Speaker 1: (16:44)

Let's take a moment to remind our listeners that K ps.org is a good place to start for all things. COVID 19 in San Diego, we have the latest on testing sites, food assistance, and of course all of our COVID 19 reporting all in one place, just go to our homepage and click the tracking. COVID 19 link under the news section.

Speaker 1: (17:15)

If you felt a need to take a break from the news this week, it's understandable aside from COVID another heavy story filled countless newscasts and reporter columns Thursday marked one year since the attack on the us capital in Washington led by some of the most vocal and extreme followers, former president Donald Trump among those was a woman from ocean beach, Ashley bait who was shot and killed by capital police. When she tried to break into the house of representatives lobby, joining us for some reflection is San Diego union Tribune columnist Michael Smolins. So you have a column for UT subscribers this week that catches up with local Congresswoman Sarah Jacobs. This is her first term and she was sworn in just days before the attack. So why did you want to talk with her ahead of the anniversary? Well,

Speaker 8: (18:08)

I think all five members of the San Diego delegation would've made for an interesting column, even Republican Dar Elisa, but um, representative Jacobs, as you, you mentioned she's uh, the, the was just sworn in, I think it was on a Sunday and the assault on the capital happened on a Wednesday. She was the newly elected member. She's the youngest member of the California delegation. So I just thought her perspective would be, uh, pretty interesting and I think it turned out to

Speaker 1: (18:33)

Be yeah. And, and one of the things she says is it's not just Trump, who should be punished for his actions, but those in Congress who enabled him and supported the rioters. So what stands out to you from her comments on accountability?

Speaker 8: (18:48)

Well, that gets sort of back to your initial question. So, you know, why did I think of her? I don't know if you recall, but back on January 6th of last year, the union Tribune, editorial board did an interesting thing. They contacted our five members of Congress on January 6th and asked them to basically give a hot take as you know, their thoughts of what happened. Things were still sort of unfolding. It had the assault had died down in Congress reorganizing to actually certify the election, which as you recall was delayed. And I was just struck by, uh, Sarah Jacobs, uh, take because she was the most adamant among the, the four Democrats that, uh, people be held accountable. She wanted Trump to be, uh, removed from office immediately impeached or otherwise. And other members, Congress who may have aided the assault on the capital should be punished with expulsion. So that was her take.

Speaker 1: (19:36)

And then as you mentioned, we have one local Republican member of Congress, east counties, Darrell ISA. So where does he stand on all of this?

Speaker 8: (19:44)

Well, he stands in a far different place than the four, uh, San Diego Democrats, as you can imagine, uh, ISA on that day in his column, uh, to the union Tribune, he, you know, said this was a bad thing that was happening, but then he quickly pivoted to saying we should condemn all violence. And he talked about, you know, the black lives matter protests and things like that. So he really kind of devolved into a little bit of what about is as some other Republican members did on that day. Interestingly, I think to day it was, he put out a big long statement, barely mentioning the January 6th event at the capital, but using it as a platform to criticize president, uh, Biden and all the policies that he disagree with disagrees with and the problems he thinks that have happened under the, um, the Biden administration.

Speaker 1: (20:29)

And now president Joe Biden gave a point of it in forceful speech Thursday in one of the same spots that was taken over by riders last year. And some describe it as angry in its tone. Here he is commenting on the former president who he blames for that dark day. The

Speaker 9: (20:47)

Former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election he's done. So because he values power over principle because he sees his own interest as more important than his country's interest than America, his interest. And because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our constitution, he can accept he lost.

Speaker 1: (21:18)

And, and what is your reaction to, to hearing that? Well,

Speaker 8: (21:22)

Uh, I think that as suggested it was one of the more forceful speeches by president Biden, I on anything, it was the first time that he really took direct, uh, criticism at, uh, president former president Trump of what happened on January 6th in terms of in inciting and motivating people to act as they did. I think a lot of Democrats have been urging him to do that for some time. A

Speaker 1: (21:43)

Moment of silence was held in the house chamber and that moment showed a striking visual. The only Republican to take part was Liz Cheney, the Congresswoman from Wyoming, who is leading the January 6th investigation and she was joined by her father, former vice president, Dick Cheney. What do you make of the lack of participation even in something ceremonial like this from rank and file Republicans?

Speaker 8: (22:08)

Well, it just goes to the division and certainly on Capitol hill, uh, it was an odd scene, uh, as I, you know, had read about, I didn't see it, but other than Liz Chaney, that, that Dick Channey was there. The only other Republican Democrats, one by one were coming up apparently and introducing themselves shaking his hand. And as you mentioned, there was no other Republican on the floor. Now let's remember it wasn't very long ago that the Chaney family was really Republican royalty. So that's how much things have changed in this country. And particularly with the Republican party over time, clearly they're sticking it out and saying with the party to hope that they can turn it around and it's gonna be a long haul, but we'll see what happens through the, the committee and with, uh, Liz Chaney's participate.

Speaker 1: (22:51)

The January 6th riders came from all over the country and San Diego is no exception. We know the story of Ashley bait. A few days later, we had violence breakout during demonstrations here in Pacific beach. So how strong do you think the thread of extremism is here locally?

Speaker 8: (23:09)

Uh, I think it's very strong even before this, before Trump, um, you know, we've had a history of extremism. I hate to point the finger in east county, but there's been a lot of, uh, you know, sort of white supremacist groups and, and organizations and people of that elk, uh, doing things. And that has picked up one of my colleagues and a friend, Andrew Dyer at the union Tribune has followed a lot of the local extremism and extremism throughout the country. And he posted on Twitter just really sort of depressing how much the, the sort of hate and extremist views were being, uh, spewed out on social media at a, even a higher level today because it was January 6th. So we've got a real serious, uh, you know, situation here in San Diego. And it's like the rest of the country it's been building for many, many years, predates Trump. Uh, and it's gonna take a long time, I think before we really, if not come to terms where they can kind of get a handle on resolve.

Speaker 1: (24:05)

Now, your interview with Congresswoman Jacobs touched on moments of bipartisanship, where Democrats and Republicans work together to pass bills in Congress. But the big stuff seen as part of president Biden's agenda almost always falls along party lines. So what stands in the way of actual governing versus the is current model of one party or another pushing their own projects through?

Speaker 8: (24:29)

There are rare occasions where common interest and even more so self interest will bring people together. And frankly, my call upcoming column is about this instance in 2018, when the Trump white house and Republican leaders and act Republican actress, conservatives push for, uh, criminal justice reform, it was very polarized then, but they managed to push it through. You just don't see things like that much anymore, especially a big sweeping bill like that. But I still think, and this is the optimist in me. There are things like lowering drug prices, giving legal status to the dreamers that seem to have broad support across a political spectrum that you would think, and you would hope both parties could get together on, but it's an election year. And sometimes self-interest means denying the opposition, any kind of victory at all. So we'll just see if anything can get through this coming year in a bipartisan way. Well,

Speaker 1: (25:20)

Here's hoping for your, uh, optimism winning out on that. I've been speaking with Michael Mullins and you can read his columns in the San Diego union Tribune. Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you for tuning to this week's addition of KPBS Roundtable, and thank you to my guests. Mg Perez from KPBS news Caly. Wyn from the daily AEC and Michael Smolins from the San Diego union. Newin if you missed any part of our show, you can listen any time on the KPBS round table podcast. I'm Claire trier. Join us next week on round.

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M.G. Perez / KPBS
Adrian Ruvalcaba, SDCOE maintenance operations worker, packages COVID-19 rapid tests for pick up by local school districts, Jan. 5, 2022

KPBS investigative reporter Claire Trageser hosts this week's program. Guests include KPBS education reporter M.G. Perez on the busy week for local schools as kids return from winter break amid a spike in COVID-19 cases. Catlan Nguyen, the Editor-in-Chief for The Daily Aztec, tells us about SDSU's plan to return to distance learning to start the spring semester. And, San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Michael Smolens discusses his column with Representative Sara Jacobs marking one year since the violent attack by Donald Trump supporters on the United States Capitol.