Like so much else, high school class restart hinges on vaccinations

Jack Durham
Mad River Union

McKINLEYVILLE/ARCATA – A plan to bring students back to classrooms hinges on getting faculty and school employees vaccinated for COVID-19.

Students and staff will also need to follow strict protocols, including masking, hand washing and social distancing in order to resume in-person learning in the Northern Humboldt Union High School District, which includes McKinleyville, Arcata, Pacific Coast, Six Rivers Charter and Mad River high schools.

A plan for returning to school was unanimously approved by the NHUHSD Board of Trustees at its Jan. 12 meeting. 

Parents will soon be surveyed about whether they want their children to return to in-person learning. Distance learning will still remain an option for those with safety concerns.

NHUHSD Superintendent Roger Macdonald told the trustees that there is no target date for bringing students back because the plan depends upon the availability of the vaccine.

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“Once the vaccine is available and there are clinics for faculty... that triggers, then, the timeline.” Macdonald said.

Macdonald said he hopes the vaccine is available in late January or February. 

The vaccine requires two shots, about three weeks apart, plus roughly two weeks for it to become effective. 

So in-class learning can take place roughly five to six weeks after the vaccinations begin, Macdonald said.

“We’re not picking an arbitrary date,” Macdonald said. “The date is based on the effectiveness of the vaccine.”

Macdonald expressed optimism about the vaccine and said “This is very exciting news. It’s good.”

However, the vaccine alone will not ensure that the schools are safe from COVID-19, which has claimed an estimated 389,000 lives in the United States since the pandemic began.

“The vaccine is not a panacea. It’s not perfect,” Macdonald said.

Although faculty who choose to take the vaccine will have some protection when they return to the classroom, the students will not. Young people are likely to be the last to receive the vaccine as it’s rolled out. Also, the vaccine is only recommended for people who are 16 years of age or older, so most freshmen and some sophomores will not be vaccinated.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, it’s unknown whether people who are vaccinated can still spread the virus to other people.

“We’re still talking about a situation where we need to be careful,” Macdonald said.

In preparation for a return to classrooms, the district has  made improvements to its heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

The coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, is spread by people being in the same room and breathing. Airborne transmission can be reduced with increased air ventilation and air cleaning.

Johnny Kell, the NHUHSD school nurse, said that all air filters have been replaced and HVAC systems have been altered to keep fans running.

“We have invested in extremely high quality air purifiers,” Kell said.

Despite all these precautions, it’s still possible that the virus will spread when students return to school, Kell said.

“We need to remember that transmission will occur in the classroom and it will go home,” Kell said.

During the time for public comments, a person identified as Kim Keasey during the Zoom meeting lambasted the district for not having students already in classrooms. The district shifted to distance learning in March of 2020.

“I’m feeling frustrated that you don’t have a plan,” Keasey said. “We’re spinning our wheels here.”

Students are suffering, Keasey said. 

“These kids are missing out on days they can never get back,” Keasey said. “I think you guys have made a huge mistake and you need to fix it.”

Most people who spoke, however, were supportive of the district’s actions and urged caution.

“I don’t think it’s worth risking the health of each other to go back to school,” said Mack High senior Olivia Alexander.

When it came time for the trustees to consider the plan, they emphasized the importance of letting parents and students know what exactly what in-class learning will look like and the protocols that will need to be followed.

These details will be included in a survey sent out to parents asking them whether they want their children to return to the classroom. The district will develop more detailed plans based on the survey results.

Macdonald said the district is also planning for a more robust-than-usual summer school.

“I really want to go nuts with summer school,” Macdonald said. Federal grant funds may allow the district to offer all sorts of interesting programs.

Trustees said that the key to the district’s success will be everyone taking the right precautions to stop the spread of the virus.

“If we really want to open up school, then we as a community need to come together and do the things that are needed to happen, and that’s going to be hard,” said Trustee Brian Lovell.

“I think we can do this No-Hum!” said Trustee Cedric Aaron. 



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