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A little background: I started the Daily Digest when the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic hit full force (on March 13, to be exact). The goal was for it to be sent each weekday, offering up vetted, reliable links to news about the pandemic. The response was overwhelmingly positive (and I thank you for that).

In late May, following the death of George Floyd, the Daily Digest also started including links relevant to the Black Lives Matter protests. Today, the digest is primarily focused on COVID-19, with occasional links to other matters of importance to you, our readers.

Several weeks ago, we cut the frequency of the Daily Digest to three days per week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday). We did so for two reasons. First: The open rate for these Daily Digests had decreased ever so slightly, and I feared y’all were suffering from news fatigue. Second: Frankly, I needed a break. Each of Daily Digest takes, on average, about two hours of my time, meaning the digest had added 10 hours to my work week. By going down to three days a week, I was able to reclaim four hours of my time per week for either personal matters or other work.

So … as we head into August, it’s time to re-evaluate things. The Daily Digest isn’t going anywhere; we’re just trying to figure out what to include in it, and how often you want it to appear in your inbox (and at CVIndependent.com).

That survey, again, can be found here. Thanks for your time, and for helping us figure out how best we can serve you, our amazing and talented readers.

Today’s links:

• From our partners at CalMatters, via the Independent: The vast majority of California’s schools will not be reopening this fall—at least to start. As a result, parents are scrambling. Key quote: “Millions of working parents … need to wade through constantly evolving scenarios about the school year ahead, weighing the twin stressors of how prolonged campus closures will affect their childrens’ learning and mental well-being, as well as their own livelihoods.”

This just in from the city of Palm Springs: “In an effort to flatten the spread of COVID-19 and minimize large gatherings, the city of Palm Springs today issued a new supplementary order that requires restaurants, bars, wineries, distilleries and breweries to close from 11 p.m. until 5 a.m. The temporary order goes into effect at noon on Friday, July 31, and will remain until the COVID-19 emergency is abated. Guests already in the facilities at 10 p.m. may be allowed by the operator to remain until 11 p.m. Only staff needed to close, open or clean can be in such facilities between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.” Interesting.

• A sliver of good news: The COVID-19 hotspot messes that are Arizona, Texas and Florida are indeed sill messes—but there are signs of improvement.

• And a sliver of hope: The final-stage, large-scale study of a promising SARS-CoV-2 vaccine is officially under way

Alas, globally, the coronavirus news is not good, as nations in Asia, Europe and elsewhere are issuing new restrictions and closures because of outbreaks. (However, it should be noted that these outbreaks would be mere nits here in the U.S.). Sigh.

• Google says its employees will be working from home for another year. Yes. Another whole year.

• Sinclair Media—a conservative-owned company that has 294 stations nationwide—was going to run a segment over the weekend featuring whackadoo “Plandemic” conspiracy theorist Judy Mikovits claiming Dr. Anthony Fauci himself created SARS-CoV-2. However, thank goodness, the company had a change of heart.

• In my post-print-deadline haze, I forgot to mention last week that I was again a guest on the I Love Gay Palm Springs podcast, along with hosts Shann Carr, John Taylor and Brad Fuhr, and expert Dr. Laura Rush. Check it out! 

The New York Times takes a look at current state of antibody testing, and more or less concludes that we’re doing it wrong.

• Related-ish: Riverside County today released the results of an antibody study—and almost 6 percent of the people tested had the antibodies. That means less that less than a third of the COVID-19 cases in the county have been reported, if true.

The Washington Post takes a heartbreaking look at some of the chaos that’s unfolded in California’s prisons as a result of the coronavirus. Key quote: “Before the pandemic, women at (the California Institution for Women) were allowed out of their cells for 23 hours a day. They worked and participated in professional training or personal development programs. That ended in mid-March, along with family visits. Women say they now often spend 23 hours locked in their cells, with little information on how long the latest lockdown measures will last or when they’ll be able to exercise outside, call their families or even be allowed to shower.”

The Major League Baseball season could be in jeopardy, as the Miami Marlins team is in the midst of an outbreak, affecting 11 players and two coaches. As of now, only three games, total, have been postponed—but needless to say, this is not good.

• It turns out FEMA has been sending expired and faulty personal protective equipment to nursing homes across the country. What in the heck? 

The Save Our Stages bill has been introduced in Congress; it would offer a lifeline to independent performance venues across the country. Rolling Stone recently spoke to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, one of the sponsors of the bill.

• Our friends at The Conversation examine the various lawsuits filed against the Trump administration because he’s sending mysterious federal law enforcement into various cities, foremost Portland.

A study of Microsoft employees newly working from home revealed some fascinating things. Key quote: “One overarching result of being stuck at home—at work—is that the working day has become longer. ‘People were 'on' four more hours a week, on average,’ say the researchers.”

• Finally, let’s conclude with this humorous call to change our vocabulary because of the pandemic, including the introduction of terms like “Zoom Tourism” into our vernacular.

That’s the news for the day. Please, if you’re able, please consider becoming a Supporter of the Independent, to help us continue providing quality local journalism, for free, to all. Stay safe; wear a mask; and, as always, thanks for reading.

Published in Daily Digest

They worry about who will care for the children and how far their education will slide.

They anxiously await details on what distance learning will actually look like this fall—hopeful but skeptical that there will be more structure and support than there was during the spring crisis.

They’re furiously networking on Facebook and Nextdoor in the tens of thousands to form learning pods or arrange child care. They’ve placed a huge number of calls to local tutoring services in search of help. Some wonder who will watch their child—let alone supervise online classes—while they work essential jobs.

Parents of more than 5.9 million California K-12 children are scrambling to adapt to a new reality without schools where they can send their children. Ninety six percent of the state’s total enrollment is in one of the 37 counties—including Riverside County—currently on the state’s watch list. Many students still do not have computers and or reliable internet access, and research has increasingly shown the inequitable toll distance learning took on disadvantaged students who lacked opportunities to meaningfully engage.

Many teachers and parents remain worried that physically reopening schools while coronavirus cases surge in most of the state will endanger educators and students and further spread the virus. Schools, which spent weeks devising plans for socially distant classrooms, still lack financial support from the federal government they say they need to safely reopen. Last week, as coronavirus cases continued to rise in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled new requirements that effectively shut the door for most schools to begin school with in-person instruction until their respective counties stabilize infections and hospitalizations.

Now, millions of working parents, like Rebecca Hill in Chico, need to wade through constantly evolving scenarios about the school year ahead, weighing the twin stressors of how prolonged campus closures will affect their childrens’ learning and mental well-being, as well as their own livelihoods.

Hill’s son and daughter will start second-grade and kindergarten in less than a month under distance learning after Butte County landed this week on the state’s COVID-19 watch list, which now governs whether local public and private schools can physically reopen for in-person instruction.

But Hill, 38, is also back at work as a code inspector in neighboring Yuba County, where she spends her days scoping out buildings, nuisance calls and illegal marijuana grows in the rural northern county.

A few weeks ago, Hill and her husband debated whether to opt for morning or afternoon in-person classes under proposed hybrid scheduling—an anxiety-inducing prospect since her husband is immuno-compromised and receives dialysis three days a week. After their district said last week that it would start the year online, the question became whether to enroll full-time in an online school offered by the district, which Hill is leaning toward to minimize chances that her husband will get sick if and when schools do re-open in person. Homeschooling might be an option if they had the time.

One thing is for sure.

“We definitely don’t have the ability for me to not work,” said Hill, the family breadwinner.


Unanswered Questions

In Los Angeles, Tunette Powell’s three sons will begin the new year under distance learning, but details so far remain sparse, three weeks before schools begin instruction, adding stress to how she and her husband, an essential worker, will balance work and co-teaching their kids.

As it did when it initially closed schools in mid-March, Los Angeles Unified, a massive district of 600,000 students, created a ripple effect across the state when it said July 13 that it would begin the year with full-time distance learning, citing surging cases in the county.

Superintendent Austin Beutner and school leaders across California have told families that distance-learning programs will be more rigorous and robust than what schools offered this spring. New statewide standards for distance learning will attempt to hold schools accountable, and students will be graded for their work.

A recent survey by Speak Up, a Los Angeles-based parent advocacy group, found wide disparities in the amount of live instruction Black and Latino students received this spring compared with their white peers. Many were dissatisfied with how little live, or synchronous, instruction their students received, and the group has called on the district to gather input from parents over how to improve distance learning.

Several critical questions remain unanswered for Powell and other parents as the first day of school draws closer.

What will the school day look like? Will there be a consistent start time every day to plan her workday around? How much face time will her kids get with their teachers, and will her 11-year-old receive more live interaction than the weekly, one-hour check-ins the student received spring? Will the district distribute newer devices to replace the outdated ones that resulted in several technical headaches last spring? Will there be support for Powell’s kindergartner and other young students not yet adept at using technology to learn?

“I don’t know any of that. I know none of that. It worries me,” said Powell, interim director of UCLA’s Parent Project, a think tank aiming to improve parent engagement in schools.

Powell’s oldest son, the 11-year-old entering sixth-grade, is not enthusiastic about continuing distance learning. She’s especially worried about her youngest son, a 5-year-old who will start kindergarten at Baldwin Hills Elementary. Many academics believe younger students should be among the most prioritized groups for getting into physical classrooms once it’s reasonably safe to do so, arguing that elementary students stand the most to lose from being away from classrooms.

“He knows he’s going to a new school,” Powell said, “but I don’t think he’s fully grasped that going to a new school is going to happen in his room, so that’s been difficult.”


DIY Education

With schools across the country planning for distance learning starts, parent interest in arranging “learning pods,” in which small groups of students are taught by a tutor or teacher, has grown.

Shannon Mulligan, owner of Marin Tutors, has seen that spontaneous interest firsthand.

“As soon as Gov. Newsom announced schools weren’t going to open, my phone rang every day, all day, for four days in a row,” Mulligan said, with parents inquiring about teachers or tutors willing to participate in a learning pod.

The pod concept has attracted everyone from working-class moms holding down full-time jobs looking for tutors to help guide their students during distance learning, to a dad looking to secure a teacher for more than 60 hours a month to teach curriculum supplementing what his kids learn online.

Mulligan’s tutoring company, which also works with the county to offer services for foster youth, charges hourly rates that vary depending on educators’ experience. Individual rates for parents go down as students are added to the pod, with a cap of five kids. Once inside a pod, everyone wears masks outside, socially distanced.

Traffic on Mulligan’s website has increased by 75 percent since Newsom’s July 17 announcement. She said many calls come from parents with incoming kindergartners wary of how the tots will fare learning remotely.

“So many (parents) said to me when they called, ‘I didn’t want to have this happen, but I’m forced to homeschool now,’” Mulligan said.


Insufficient Support

Comprehensive current data on how working parents are adapting to school closures remains elusive. It’s unclear how many parents statewide have been laid off, had work hours reduced or quit their jobs and filed for unemployment, since neither the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics or the California Employment Development Department include parental status in monthly job reports. That’s especially true for essential workers, who in California are disproportionately Black and Latino and have experienced higher infection rates, since policy analysts usually rely on longer-term Census surveys to gauge economic status.

“I don’t know if we do know a lot about those families, to be honest,” said Kristin Schumacher, a senior policy analyst at the California Budget and Policy Center, who is also juggling her 6-year-old’s Zoom classes while she works remotely. “The reality is a lot of families are really scrambling under impossible situations to make this work.”

In Santa Cruz County, Erendira Guerrero and her team at Encompass Community Services are trying to help fill the gaps for parents who work at farms, grocery stores, cleaning services and medical offices with remote versions of their Head Start and Papás program for fathers. Wellness check-ins are now done by phone or video chat, and more than 600 care packages have been distributed with diapers, toys and learning aids like puppets, bubbles and songs in English and Spanish.

Still, the pandemic has exposed major holes in systems like unemployment, rent assistance and health care, especially for undocumented families.

“A big part of our program’s work is focused on connecting parents with resources in the community to support their needs,” Guerrero said. “Some of our families are just not as comfortable sharing their needs over the phone or video.”

Existing regulations offer limited protection for working parents considering requesting time off or other alternatives to juggle school and jobs. For companies with 25 or more employees, California workers are guaranteed five days of job protection for emergencies under the Family School Partnership Act. The California Family Rights Act allows workers at companies with 50 or more employees to take 12 weeks off for a new child or family illness. In March, the federal government enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to extend 12 weeks off for school conflicts, but it only applies to companies with 500 or fewer employees and excludes industries including health-care providers.

For many families, that leaves “no great options,” said Katherine Wutchiett, senior staff attorney for San Francisco advocacy group Legal Aid at Work.

“We always recommend talking with your employer, seeing if there’s something that you can work out with them,” Wutchiett said. But outside those limited exceptions, “At the end of the day, if the employer says you have to be at work and they cannot be at work … there isn’t any legal obligation on their employer’s part to continue holding their job.”

Education policy advocate and former teacher Elliot Haspel floated the idea of a “Parent Protection Program,” modeled off forgivable loans made to businesses under the federal Paycheck Protection Program, but the prospect of major reform is uncertain. A bill from Santa Barbara Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson, SB 1383, would expand state requirements for employers to provide 12 weeks of unpaid family leave and was approved by the state Senate, but still requires sign off in the Assembly. Presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden’s plan for universal child care, introduced this week, could help, but is months away at best.

In the meantime, remote schools offer a prime example of the state’s increasingly polarized economy.

Some employees of deep-pocketed companies, especially in the tech industry, are offered company-funded online tools, additional paid time off or flexible schedules. Many essential workers have no recourse. The toll on women’s employment and the gender-wage gap, kids’ educational attainment and costs for businesses seeing employees leave the workforce are just the beginning.

“What economists don’t consider often enough is the economic cost of duress,” said Tracey Grose, founding principal of Bay Area business consultancy Next Curve Strategy, who herself helped supervise Zoom classes for the children of two working neighbors in the fall. “When a family is stressed out trying to keep a roof over their heads, they cannot be the best parents they can be.”

Felecia Przybyla, a Sacramento County mom, is trying to answer long-term questions on short deadlines before classes resume. She works remotely for a company out of state while her husband reports to his job with the county, leaving her to juggle her own work calls and her three elementary-age childrens’ need for instruction and technology help. While she doesn’t want to rely on the state, Przybyla has considered leaving her job to focus on school and file for unemployment, with expanded aid available to contractors like her.

So far, she’s held off.

“We’re hoping to buy a house in the next six months, and I need to have a job,” Przybyla said. “I don’t want to give that up, either, and I don’t think I should have to be put in a position to decide between a job that provides for our family and my kids’ schooling.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

Happy Friday! Here’s the latest:

• First, a little good news: Local hospitalizations are beginning to finally move downward, after consistently rising for weeks. You can see Eisenhower Medical Center’s stats here. Now, whether this is a blip or a trend remains to be seen. A key quote from a Facebook post from Eisenhower yesterday: “Today we have only 56 COVID inpatients; a couple of weeks ago we had a high of 85, so a promising sign. We also have 1,533 positive patients that are at home in isolation because they did not need to be in the hospital. We are very worried that they might be spreading the virus to family and friends.”

• After rumblings that some counties where cases are spiking could try to send kids back to school in fall, Gov. Newsom stepped in today and said that, no, that’s not going to happen in counties on the state’s watch list. The Los Angeles Times explains. Key quote: “We all prefer in-classroom instructions for all the obvious reasons—social, and emotional foundationally. But only, only if it can be done safely,” Newsom said.

• From the Independent: The shutdown forced the McCallum Theatre this year to cancel its annual Open Call shows, which showcase amazing local talent. Well, the show must go on—so the theater is showing off these talents in a half-hour show, recorded near The Living Desert, airing tomorrow night on KESQ. Matt King has the details.

• Related and maddening: The White House is blocking officials from the CDC from testifying in front of a House committee next week regarding school reopenings. Why?!

• Similarly horrifying: Federal agents, without agency IDs, have started tear-gassing, shooting (non-lethal ammunition) and detaining protesters in Portland, Ore.—even though city and state officials do not want the federal agents there. According to The New York Times: “The aggressive federal posture has complicated the mission of the Department of Homeland Security, an agency that has spent much of its history focused on foreign terrorism threats and is supposed to build collaborative relationships with local law enforcement partners. And it raises questions of whether it is appropriate for federal authorities to take up the policing of an American city against the wishes of local leaders.” (Spoiler alert: It’s not appropriate.) 

• This weird story broke yesterday: A group associated with Russian intelligence has tried to hack into vaccine-research efforts in the United States, Great Britain and Canada. Needless to say, intelligence agencies in those countries aren’t happy.

Some alarming news out of the Desert AIDS Project: They’re seeing a spike in HIV infections, as well as sexually transmitted infections. “Steadily rising rates of HIV, syphilis, and chlamydia in the Coachella Valley are showing that the last five months of living in the “new normal” has interfered with people taking care of their sexual health,” the organization says.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg announced today that she’s getting chemotherapy after a recurrence of cancer. Keep the Supreme Court justice in your thoughts, please.

• If you have type-A blood like yours truly, you can breathe a sigh of relief: Further research into whether one’s blood type affects susceptibility to COVID-19 shows a weak link, at best, according to The New York Times.

• I returned this week to the I Love Gay Palm Springs podcast/videocast, with hosts John Taylor, Shann Carr and Brad Fuhr, to talk with Dr. Laura Rush about the fustercluck that is the state of the coronavirus in the Coachella Valley.

• Several days ago, we mentioned that the results from Moderna’s small vaccine trial were encouraging. But how encouraging are they, when put in the proper context? An infectious-disease expert from Vanderbilt University, writing for The Conversation, breaks it down. Key quote: “So they are good results; they are promising results; but they are pretty early in the game, so to speak.

• Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said today that he’s in favor of forgiving up to ALL Paycheck Protection Program loans—and that businesses may not even need to verify how the money was spent. Flexibility is good … but this may go a bit too far.

Is fighting the coronavirus as simple as shutting down indoor bars and getting people to wearing masks? That’s what Adm. Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for health, said yesterday. Per CNBC: “Being indoors, in close quarters, over long periods of time, is just a recipe for spread,” he said, adding that outdoor seating for restaurants and bars is “probably really safe.”

• Related: Dr. Anthony Fauci has a message for local and state governments: “Be as forceful as possible in getting your citizenry to wear masks.

• Related and good news: The nation’s top nine retailers all now require masks, according to The Washington Post.

The Trump administration appears to be ignoring a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling by rejecting new applicants for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

• Major League Baseball appears to be ready to start its delayed, no-fans-in-stands, 60-game season next week, after its latest round of testing revealed few players had the virus. Meanwhile, NFL players want financial guarantees and all preseason games to be cancelled before their season is scheduled to start in September.

That’s enough news for what’s been a crazy week. Wear a mask! Be safe. Check in with a loved one and see how they’re doing. Please consider becoming a Supporter of the Independent, so we can keep doing what we do—offering quality local journalism, free to all. The digest will return Monday; have a great weekend, everybody.

Published in Daily Digest

If we’re going to beat this pandemic, we need to do a better job at testing.

A friend decided over the weekend to get a COVID-19 test. He’s developed sinus issues, as well as an annoying cough. He’s confident he doesn’t have COVID-19—he is fairly susceptible to these types of coughs, especially during allergy season—but he wants to be safe, seeing as he is in a high-risk category, and he lives with his elderly father.

He called the county on Saturday to get an appointment at the Cathedral City testing site, and got an appointment for Thursday. However, five days to get a test—plus another five days or so to get results—is a long time, so he called CVS to see about getting an appointment there. They said they could get him tested on Wednesday—with results in another 5-7 days.

I realize my friend’s story is merely one anecdote, and does not make a trend—but I’ve heard plenty of other stories, and seen plenty of news coverage about testing delays, like the Los Angeles Times reporting today that L.A. County appointments are being booked as quickly as they’re made available.

The county and the state—in the absence of federal leadership (and don’t get me started on that)—need to do everything they can to make COVID-19 testing more available, with results returned faster. The quicker someone can learn whether they’re positive, the faster they can take precautions—and the faster contact tracers can get to work.

We need to do better—and we can’t just wait for the technology to get better. Someone with pre-existing health conditions and an elderly father living with him shouldn’t be facing a 10-day wait to find out whether or not he has this god-awful virus.

Today’s news:

The Washington Post looks at the grim state of the pandemic in the nation as we emerge from the Fourth of July weekend. Key quote: “The country’s rolling seven-day average of daily new cases hit a record high Monday—the 28th record-setting day in a row.” 

• While Harvard University will be allowing some students back on campus for the fall, all courses will be taught online, the school announced today

• Related: Instead of focusing on testing or evictions or anything helpful, the federal government announced today that foreign students will need to leave the U.S.—or face deportation—if their colleges move to online-only courses. Sigh. 

• Up in Sacramento, the Capitol building has been closed for a week after a Marina del Ray assemblyperson and four others who work there tested positive for the virus

Here’s another piece on the impending national eviction crisis. Key quote: “Of the 110 million Americans living in rental households, 20 percent are at risk of eviction by Sept. 30, according to an analysis by the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, a Colorado-based community group. African American and Hispanic renters are expected to be hardest hit.”

• The World Health Organization continues to say that the coronavirus is spread by large respiratory droplets that don’t linger in the air. Well, a large number of experts are now calling on the WHO to change its guidance—because they’re sure it’s transmitted by smaller droplets that remain airborne for longer.

• The Washington Post asked five infectious-disease experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, what risks they’re willing to take in their day to day lives, in terms of going out, letting people into their homes, etc. Some of their answers are a little surprising.

• Speaking of Dr. Fauci: He announced today that the average age of coronavirus patients nationwide has dropped by 15 years in recent weeks. Key quote: “It’s a serious situation that we have to address immediately.”

• Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms—rumored to be on Joe Biden’s VP short list—announced today she’s tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. Fortunately, she has no symptoms as of now.

Hate incidents against Asian Americans are skyrocketing due to stupidity and this damn virus (mostly stupidity)—and activists want Gov. Gavin Newsom to do more about it.

• Good news: The feds today released information on the companies that received PPP loans totaling more than $150,000. Key quote: “The Ayn Rand Institute, named for the objectivist writer cited as an influence on libertarian thought, was approved for $350,000 to $1 million.” Wait what?

• And because nothing makes sense anymore, announced-presidential-candidate-but-not-really Kanye West’s Yeezy was one of those companies, receiving more than $2 million in PPP money.

And so was … Burning Man?! Yes, really. Our partners at CalMatters look at some of the California-based takeaways from the long-overdue PPP data release.

• San Diego County today joined Riverside County (and much of the rest of the state) in being forced to close indoor dining at restaurants, because the county has now spent more than three days on the state’s watchlist.

• Let’s end with a couple of positive pieces: The San Francisco Chronicle talked to Bay Area doctors about how much they’ve learned since the pandemic began about treating COVID-19and the new treatments that are saving lives.

NBC News takes a look at the relationship between Dalila Reynoso and Smith County, Texas, Sheriff Larry Smith. She started calling for the sheriff to do more to slow COVID-19 in his system’s jails—and he listened.

That’s enough for today. Wear a mask. Please support local journalism, without fees or paywalls, by becoming a Supporter of the Independent.

Published in Daily Digest

Yadira Rayo-Peñaloza, an incoming senior at UC Berkeley, nearly sat out the fall term.

She didn’t want to spend another semester taking just online courses, which is what she expects all of her classes to be when school starts up again late August.

Rayo-Peñaloza, along with her girlfriend and a few of her other friends, weighed her options, considering the likelihood of finding work during a pandemic and what a pause would mean to her financial aid. Ultimately, she decided she’d remain a student.

“It was a hard decision to just say that we’re definitely going to go back in the fall.”

She also thought about returning to campus in the fall, but will remain at home in Orange County, where she attended community college before transferring. That decision, too, was tough.

“It’s really difficult to concentrate back home,” she said. “‘Are we hurting our GPAs?’ That was our biggest concern,” she said of the conversations she and her girlfriend had. But going back to campus meant taking out a loan, “and I really don’t want to do that.”

Distance learning

So far, eight of the nine undergraduate campuses of the University of California system have published their plans for the fall term, with most estimating that only a fraction of classes will be conducted in person.

UCLA, for instance, predicts that just 15 to 20 percent of courses will take place fully in-class or in a hybrid format, and the rest will be taught remotely, while UC Merced expects 20 to 30 percent of classes to be in-person in the fall. Several campuses, including UC Merced and UC Berkeley, plan to end any in-person instruction by Thanksgiving and shift all learning online through the end of the fall term.

The campus guidelines contrast with what UC President Janet Napolitano said in May, suggesting more classes will be conducted in-person with a hybrid model. Instead, the UC plans look more like what the larger California State University has been signaling since the spring: mostly online.

A largely virtual setting has some students concerned about how professors will react.

Louis Susunaga, a 21-year-old student at UCLA, said he’s returning in the fall but taking three courses rather than four, because he’s worried professors again will overwhelm him with assignments. He said one of his professors last quarter assigned per week more than 100 pages of reading, multiple reading responses, a Zoom meeting with a group project, and a pre-recorded lecture. “That’s way more than a normal load, when we were in person.

“It’s almost ridiculous,” he said. “Just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s easier.”

Safety practices

UC students living on campus should also expect to wear masks in most areas, practice regular social distancing, and track any symptoms to help spot early signs of novel coronavirus infection. Several campuses outlined reductions in how many students can live on campus, citing the risk of disease spread as one reason to limit rooms to one or two occupants.

At UC Merced, students living on campus and others on the university grounds will have to report symptoms through an app—currently in development—and undergo viral testing. They’ll have to wear masks, remain six feet apart from others, sneeze or cough into an elbow or tissue, and self-isolate if they’re showing coronavirus symptoms. The university will set aside “isolation rooms” for individuals who test positive or are showing COVID-19 symptoms.

Students at UC Riverside will have to clean chairs and tables they occupy with wipes that will be available in actively used classrooms. Beyond standards like social distancing and wearing masks, in-person classes will have assigned seats, and instructors will take attendance to minimize the virus spread and help with tracking if someone in the class has a positive coronavirus test result. But the university’s guidelines also state that instructors should avoid attendance-based grading “to reduce pressure on students to attend class when they are not feeling well or should be isolating.”

Most universities have said they plan on prioritizing giving housing to students with the greatest need, the criteria for which varies by campus (like students who get financial aid, veterans and former foster youth).

Even students who do get on-campus housing will need to show proof of a negative coronavirus test, per systemwide guidelines. UC Santa Barbara may—leadership there hasn’t made up its mind yet—also ask students not to travel away from campus during the fall term.

Fiscal hardship

The caps on students in dormitories, extra cleaning and risk of seeing fewer students in the fall all add to the university’s fiscal anxieties. Through May, the system has absorbed a $1.54 billion hit in added costs and lower revenues, and about $1 billion of that is the result of losses and new expenses in the system’s medical enterprises.

“This is a daunting number,” said Paul Jenny, interim CFO of the UC system, during a UC Regents meeting on health June 17.

Adding to the hardship of planning for a possible spike in COVID-19 cases is the prospect of large budget cuts due to declining revenues from housing and food services, and cuts in state support during a grueling state fiscal period. The system faces a cut of $300 million from state money meant for student instruction in a budget deal between lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom—unless the federal government comes through with another stimulus package.

Some schools have been hit financially harder than others. UCLA lost $151 million in revenue through May 31 due to cancelled housing and dining contracts and lost enrollments, according to a COVID-19 cost impact report the system sent to the state’s Department of Finance. The school also spent $18 million to make distance learning feasible. That’s more than twice as much as the $70 million UC San Diego incurred in pandemic-related expenses and lost revenue, the next-highest amount among the campuses. Those figures exclude the schools of medicine, clinical operations and medical centers. 

“This is the most complex planning exercise we have ever done,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said during a campus video chat last week. “We simply don’t know what is going to happen.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

When the state closed down schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, an oft-ignored inequity in the everyday lives of Californians became glaringly obvious: A significant portion of the state’s population still lacks reliable broadband access.

When families without reliable internet have children who can no longer go to a physical school, those students’ chances of educational success decrease dramatically.

“In the Coachella Valley, we met with the superintendents of all three school districts early on in this pandemic, and the distance-learning issue was one of their top challenges,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, who represents much of the eastern Coachella Valley, and serves on State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond’s newly formed Closing the Digital Divide Task Force. “It wasn’t from the standpoint of the teacher not being with the students; it was that they couldn’t even connect with some of the families, because they don’t have the services. They can’t afford it, or the technology and infrastructure just isn’t available.

“These are the families and the students who can least afford for their children not to be engaged, (which could) ultimately widen the achievement gap. Someone called this a civil rights issue—because without (broadband), you are severely disadvantaged.”

Steve Blum is the president of Tellus Venture Associates, a California management and business-development consulting company for the digital media and telecommunications industries; he specializes in developing new community-broadband systems.

“You’ve got two kinds of problems: long term and short term,” Blum said. “The long-term problem is lack of infrastructure, and that’s not something you can fix this week or this month, probably not even this year. As soon as the schools closed, and the students were told that they’ve got to start doing their work online, this problem just blossomed: It went from just being an annoyance to being a total lack of ability to participate in the 21st century—and now, it’s an immediate problem.”

This problem is not being experienced equally across the Coachella Valley’s three school districts. Scott Bailey, superintendent of the Desert Sands Unified School District—which includes schools in Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Bermuda Dunes and parts of Rancho Mirage and Coachella—points proudly to the district’s ability to guarantee reliable broadband connectivity to every student household, often via the district’s own broadband network. Built at the cost of $590,000 for infrastructure development and hotspot devices, with an ongoing cost of $1,300 per month, this project became a U.S. Government General Accountability Office model example of a school “district that defied the odds,” as Bailey put it. To make reliable broadband a given for the district’s 28,000 students, spread over 752 square miles, the district found a way to acquire broadband spectrum-usage permission from the Federal Communications Commission.

“My assistant superintendent, Dr. Kelly May-Vollmar, deserves a lot of credit for what’s happened,” Bailey said. “We were talking one day about how we’d never be able to get broadband, and there was no way we could get access to spectrum. How do you even start there? Do you call Sprint and ask for some? That’s not going to happen. So, she said, ‘Why not just call the FCC?’ Long story short, that’s exactly what happened. She was brave and called the FCC to determine how you could acquire it. … Now, we can honestly say that every student in our district should have adequate broadband connectivity, whether on their own or through (our network). We have devices coupled with connectivity to provide an equitable learning and teaching model.”

The reality is less optimistic for the Coachella Valley Unified School District, which includes the schools in much of Coachella, a portion of Indio, Thermal, Mecca and Salton City. Despite the recent distribution by the district of mobile-hotspot devices to roughly 3,000 student households, there are still several thousand more that have no reliable broadband connectivity. Those 3,000 hotspots were made possible because of an alliance formed by the city of Coachella and the school district.

“The city of Coachella did not donate any hotspots,” said CVUSD Superintendent Dr. Maria Gandera. “CVUSD bought them, but the city got a better deal (from Verizon Wireless) than we did, and they were kind enough to let us purchase at their price—and I can tell you that they are being used. The hotspots are being loaned out to the families, and the district is picking up the cost of the service charges through Verizon Wireless.

“Did they prove useful, and will they continue to prove useful? Absolutely. We’re continuing with summer school, and even students who are not doing summer school are still getting access to some district grade-level challenges and contests, (along with) other fun activities for the students to do that will make them think that they’re not doing (school) work—but they are,” Gandera said with a laugh. “I can tell you that over 1.1 million websites were visited by those students, (and) over 24,700 educational apps were downloaded. They’ve accessed more than 35 terabytes of data using our hotspots as of the first week of June.”

But Gandera has not forgotten about the thousands of students remaining, in her overall student body of more than 18,000, who don’t have one of those hotspots—or any other reliable internet access.

“We are trying to find ways to get more hotspots and more devices (for) our students,” she said. “We estimate that about 40 percent of the households in our district did not have connectivity. We could probably use double the amount (of hotspots)—and we still might have some issues with connecting. I can tell you that we’re continuing to have conversations with different providers, not only about (additional) hotspots, but also looking for a long-term solution for our valley.”

At the north and western end of the valley, the Palm Springs Unified School District—which includes schools in Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Thousand Palms and Sky Valley—is also struggling to cope with the needs of at least 2,000 student households that are currently without reliable connectivity or personal digital devices.

“I think that we’ve been fortunate in that, some four years ago, before I started (in this position with PSUSD), the district and the Board of Education took on the mission of having a 1-to-1 program,” said PSUSD Superintendent Dr. Sandra Lyon. “They had been very diligently ensuring that students in grades 3-12 had access to devices. Also, they were making sure that our students who didn’t have internet had an ability to get a hotspot from us that we pay for.

“We give them a Chromebook and a hotspot. Normally, students would bring them to and from school on a daily basis, and our younger students wouldn’t have access. But throughout this coronavirus time, we’ve tried to get devices into the homes of our families with young children who don’t have an older child (as well). So we’ve been running these ‘tech depots’ regularly, and giving out new hotspots if hotspots aren’t working, and taking back nonworking Chromebooks and issuing new ones. Right now, we have over 20,000 devices out there.

“There are still a handful of our students for whom the hotspots aren’t helpful, because they’re in a place that doesn’t have a tower or other internet access. So, again, it’s been a challenge—but overall, we’re in a good position.”

Online summer-school sessions are under way in all three valley school districts, as local educators make sure graduating students have their necessary course requirements completed, and support students who may have fallen behind during the school shutdowns. According to Dr. Lyon, in PSUSD schools, “We are providing access for all students online using some of our LCAP dollars and COVID-19-related funding.”

According to the California Department of Education website, the LCAP is a tool the state developed in 2013 “for local educational agencies to set goals, plan actions, and leverage resources to meet those goals to improve student outcomes.”

“This is not something that we typically would do, but we really (wanted) to try to address some of the learning gaps happening for some of our students right now,” Lyon said. “If you go to our website, it will tell you exactly how to access math and English for our elementary and middle school students. It’s (lessons and activities) that they haven’t done before, because we wanted to make sure that we were giving new opportunities. Also, there are live teacher hours that accompany them as well. The teachers are there to tutor kids through the activities and to help if they’re struggling with any of the concepts. As for high school students, we’re primarily working with kids who need the summer credits to graduate, and credit retrieval to keep students on track for graduation.”

However, that still leaves out the 5 percent of PSUSD students who have questionable ability to access the distance-learning strategies and programs.

“We’ve also been giving out paper (lesson) packets and other materials to the parents of students who come in and pick them up,” Lyon said. “I do think that one of the things we’re finding is that some of our students who aren’t necessarily able to get online with us, they’re doing other things to stay in communication. Once the COVID-19 (impact) is better understood, we’ll know better how we’re going to bring kids back (to schools in the fall). Any of the students that we determine are further behind, we’ll work to get them back on campus.”

A recent survey of 4,300 parents running households of PSUSD students shows that 28 percent plan on their children taking part in a 100 percent distance-learning strategy when fall classes return.

“I think a lot of people who have multiple generations living at home,” Lyon said, “are still unsure and fear the older family members becoming ill.”

But for those student households across our valley that remain without reliable broadband access, the problem won’t be solved before the ’20-’21 school year starts.

“We need people to get these rural areas wired,” Lyon said. “The reality is that this is the world we’re living in, and the more that our homes and our neighborhood businesses are wired and have strong (broadband) access, then the better off our kids will be as far as being competitive in the work world. It’s so important.”

Expensive infrastructure investments will be needed to truly solve the problem.

“The federal government has to step up first—and California supplements the federal money,” said Blum, of Tellus Venture Associates. “There are bills in the U.S. Congress to change these funding requirements, but none of them seem to be going anywhere, so I’m not getting my hopes up.”

Assemblymember Garcia said the state has been distributing about $300 million in funding to locales in desperate need of reliable broadband service through the California Advanced Services Fund, which was established by the Internet for All Now Act of 2017.

“My understanding is that we’ve already seen about $533 million worth of (funding being) requested,” Garcia said. “So, there’s definitely the need for this money to get pushed out. … What I’m discouraged about the most is that very few applications came from our District 56 area—even after making a really assertive effort to get folks in our cities and school districts looking at the program. So we’ve got to do a better job. We held workshops; we had the Public Utilities Commission come down to meet with folks about the challenges in our region. But I don’t believe that we had more than one application from our area or the Imperial Valley.”

Blum said school districts need to do a better job of long-term planning.

“Even if they came up with a COVID-19 vaccine tomorrow, and got everybody vaccinated by the weekend, this broadband problem is not going to go away,” he said. “It’s only going to become more and more important to have broadband access. … The alternative is to sit and wait and hope that somebody like Charter or AT&T or Comcast is going to show up eventually and fix your problems. That could be a long, long wait.”

Garcia said the pandemic has emphasized the seriousness of the broadband-access problem.

“We’re not only talking about the student needs, but we’re talking about mom and dad having to work from home, or the small-business owner who has to change their model of how they deliver a service or a product,” Garcia said. “Internet connectivity is no longer a luxury or an amenity. It’s a necessity for achieving not just economic opportunities, but we’re clearly seeing uses now in telehealth services, public-safety communications and smart agricultural technologies. So our challenge as this Closing the Digital Divide Task Force moves forward is not just to address the needs of our students, but the overall need to expand our infrastructure. This crisis is presenting an opportunity.”

Published in Local Issues

Education is a big deal in my family. My grandmother was a teacher; my mom is a teacher; my aunt is a teacher; and my brother is on his way to becoming a teacher.

Of course, modern teachers have never had to deal with anything like this before. California school buildings are closed through at least the end of this school year—and instead, teachers are doing their best to educate students online. Because of these unusual circumstances, I decided to talk to some teachers in my life—my mom, an old high school teacher and a couple of my college professors—via email or online chat (except for my mom) about what it’s like to be a teacher during a pandemic.

“Theoretically, the quality of the learning should not be changed, but I can’t help but assume it has been diminished drastically,” said Corbyn Voyu, an assistant professor of English at College of the Desert. I am currently enrolled in her English 2 class, and Prof. Voyu has been putting a ton of effort into re-creating the same fun learning environment from her classroom in our Zoom video conferences.

“I worry about the students who specifically chose to take courses in-person rather than online,” Voyu said. “I cannot imagine their quality of learning is remaining the same. Usually at this point in the semester, there is an effort slump, which impacts the quality of reading and writing I see from students. That perpetual phenomenon, coinciding with the stay-at-home order, is making my assessment of student work more ambiguous than usual. I am constantly wondering: Is this the normal midterm decline, or the new medium of learning that’s causing students to not participate? I am not sure I will ever find a concrete answer.”

Prof. Voyu explained how she is working extra hard to keep her teaching interesting.

“I am resorting to more educational gimmicks like Kahoot! (an online quiz game), to varying degrees of success,” Voyu said. “I am culling work down to the most-essential pieces, because I know an interminable Zoom session is no fun for anyone. I am lessening the rigor of my standards by recording lectures, carrying the brunt of discussion, and extending deadlines. Mostly, I find I am trying to operate on ideals of compassion. … My students deserve to learn and, I believe, need to learn about literature, so I want to provide them the space to do that. I am really trying to follow where my students lead; I want this time to work for them rather than for me. Basically, if my students have an idea that might make their learning better, I’d do it if I can. In a regular class setting, I cannot say I am that flexible.”

I am also in adjunct teacher Steven Fuchs’ Intro to Government class. Compared to Prof. Voyu’s more free-flowing class, Prof. Fuchs’ class is primarily lecture-based. He said he appreciated the technology of the Zoom application and online discussion boards.

“I find them extremely useful, especially since I can now associate a name with a face,” Fuchs said. “This is always an issue when instructors teach large survey courses. So, in some respects, it adds a level of intimacy to the class. I will absolutely encourage students to interact via Zoom and discussions in future classes. … Except for some startup issues, I'm very pleased with the transition. I’ve been using online quizzes and papers for over five years, and taught a fully online class during winter intersession, so I think my students are lucky to have a relatively easy transition.

“Also, students are often shy about speaking up in public, so the text-only discussions I have been implementing have given them a chance to more fully express themselves and their academic abilities.”

To see how things were going at the high school level, I reached out to my old film teacher, Monica Perez, the head of the Digital Design and Production Academy at Coachella Valley High School in Thermal. She has always been tech-forward with her teachings.

“Most students are only familiar with online classes as a form of credit recovery; there has always been a brick-and-mortar classroom where kids are given multiple scaffolds and retaught if they don’t understand,” Ms. Perez said. “In this online-only setting, it is harder to gauge who needs help, because a student has to be more proactive in their learning. The quality of learning is there, because the curriculum stays the same; it is the way a student chooses to digest that learning that comes into play. There are many videos and guides that can be used to facilitate learning; kids know how to Google answers, so that concept isn’t new. (Education success) is more of a motivational factor now more than anything.”

Ms. Perez said she’s needed to allocate more time to check in with her students.

“One of the biggest differences in my teachings is my form of communication with my students,” Ms. Perez said. “I get a lot more phone calls and text messages now. Students just need to know that you care and miss them. I miss them dearly, so hearing them on the phone is a big positive difference.

“Kids don’t need to know about existentialism if they’re living it, so we (teachers) can approach these topics a little differently. I have ditched some bell/busy-work activities for more online conversation and debate. I am going to limit the craze of Zoom for only necessary times. I prefer pre-recorded material anyway; live Zoom could be used for quick Q&A sessions.”

While Ms. Perez said video conferences are useful, they can’t and shouldn’t fully replace the physical classroom.

“Video conferences are a double-edged sword, because not all students have access to connectivity,” Ms. Perez said. “They are a strong tool for students who need the ‘live’ interaction with their peers and teachers, as online classes by themselves require a lot of discipline and individual effort. I see it as any other tool. It is a fad right now because of our pandemic circumstances, but there are multiple modes of teaching and learning. … In the future, yes, I do see many riding the video-conference train, but I also see many students and teachers alike missing the organized chaos of the brick-and-mortar classroom. A perfect storm, in the end, would be an equal balance of the two mediums.”

Ms. Perez said she’s heartbroken that the class of 2020 won’t be able to fully experience their senior years.

“Many of us are very saddened that we don’t get to be with our kids for the end of the 2019-2020 school year,” Ms. Perez said. “I miss all my children, from those who make me want to pull my hair out, to those who make me a proud ‘cat mom’ everyday, to those crazy combination students who flip a coin and keep me guessing.

“If anything, this pandemic has shown the importance of education and the need to reinvent the ‘old traditional’ ways of learning to a fusion of old and new. In order for kids to thrive, we can’t teach like we taught 50 or even 10 years, ago. We have to evolve.”

Finally, I spoke to my mom about how teaching is continuing at the elementary-school level. Maureen King is a teacher at Palm Academy in Indio, and she is doing her best to make sure the learning never ceases in her third-, fourth- and fifth-grade combo class.

“We do a mandatory check-in every day with our students via video conference or email,” King said. “Every student went home with their school-issued Chromebook and a paper packet encompassing three weeks’ worth of school work. However, that was back in mid-March, so our daily check-ins have been utilizing our system of online video lessons in order to further their education. Many programs that we used in regular class are being used for distance learning, and I am able to assign specific lessons for student reinforcement when needed. Once a week, the entire class meets virtually to see one another, play some games and check on their social and emotional well-being. I also have office hours if students need one-on-one tutoring.”

King is proud of the measures being taken to continue connecting to her students, but she admitted there are some obstacles between younger students and technology.

“I find that younger students are needing more help at home to login and share assignments with their teacher,” King said. “Internet connectivity is not a given in our school population, so I am working on providing additional written packets for students who have been unable to join virtually.

“Per my school guidelines, teachers should be providing four hours of work per day, focusing on reading and writing, math and personalized passion projects. We are also stressing the importance of physical activity and the well-being of the students.”

No matter the education level, local teachers are working hard to do the best they can under the stressful circumstances.

Prof. Voyu summed up her motivations in this way: “These are unprecedented times, but I have too much respect for my students and for my subject to just allow the semester to be considered a wash.”

Published in Local Issues