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Mount Shasta parents fight for elementary students to return to classrooms

Skye Kinkade
Mount Shasta Herald
Mount Shasta Elementary School

Mount Shasta parent of two Alisa Johnson opened her three minutes of public comment at Tuesday evening’s Mount Shasta Union School District meeting with a quote from “The Wizard of Oz.”

“The Good Witch Glinda said ‘You’ve had the power all along my dear.’ ... This board has had the power all along since August to send our children to school,” Johnson admonished trustees during their three and a half hour meeting, held online via Zoom.

Johnson is one of several frustrated parents who have been loudly advocating for in-person education for students in MSUSD’s kindergarten through eighth grade.

After much discussion, Tuesday’s meeting was continued until Jan. 19, when trustees Kay Scovill, Bob Winston, Nancy Swift, Mona Gutierrez and John Duncan will consider two things, said superintendent Barry Barnhart. He is recommending the board modify the district’s current COVID-19 plan to allow hybrid learning while Siskiyou County is still in the purple or red COVID-19 reopening tiers, and secondly, to establish a timeline specifying when the district will move to a hybrid plan, which brings half of the school’s students on campus at a time, supplemented by online classes.

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In October, the district spent just one week in the hybrid plan before a positive COVID-19 case in the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Shasta – which shares Sisson’s campus –  sent kids back online.

Parents say they’re concerned their children are disengaged and depressed. They’re worried about learning loss and question why other Siskiyou County elementary school districts have made in-person classes a priority: seven miles north at Weed Elementary School, students have been in classrooms, full time, with only a few hiccups since August. 

Trustees say they’re working to keep teachers, staff members, students and the community safe. All of them agreed that reopening is their wish but as the weeks draw out without a concrete plan to return to classrooms in sight, some parents are applying for interdistrict transfers to send their kids to Weed, Golden Eagle Charter School, and others with a less conservative policy on COVID-19.

Some parents are staging a “log out,” having their students stop attending online classes for one week, starting today.

“The time for action is here,” parents said in a post on the Facebook group "Mt. Shasta M4-Access." “Let’s stand together to send a loud and clear message to our board. Distance learning is not working for our kids. Distance learning is not acceptable for our kids.”

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Joleene Fintz, an essential worker at Mercy Medical Center Mt. Shasta, said both she and her husband work weekdays, meaning her 10-year-old son has to help his little sister log in to her first grade class while they’re home alone. 

“It’s been a rough, rough year,” Fintz told board members on Tuesday. She said when she gets home at the end of the day, she has to help teach her children – a job she’s not qualified for.

Enrollment is down

Enrollment at MSE and Sisson is slipping. Last year at this time, the district had 541 students; this week, it’s down to 475, Barnhart said.

California school districts are being funded this year based on 2019-2020 enrollment, not Average Daily Attendance, and next year, funding will be based on this year’s numbers or the current year, whichever is higher. So at this point, teacher staffing levels can stay where they are, and Barnhart hopes the school’s excellent programs will help rebuild enrollment – and related funding – once the world returns to normal.

Barnhart said at the very latest, he hopes students are back on campus no later than six weeks after teachers are able to receive their first COVID-19 vaccine. 

According to the Siskiyou County Public Health Department’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan, local teachers are eligible to get vaccines starting Jan. 25 although it’s still unclear how the rollout will happen. Public health officials announced today that teachers are eligible to get a vaccine at a drive-through clinic in Yreka next Friday, Jan. 22.

A survey of MSUSD staff indicates that 80% would like the vaccine, Barnhart said, which is higher than other Siskiyou County schools. 

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“We realize there is a vaccine and not everybody will take it  ... But our kids deserve to return to school,” said Johnson during her public comment. “I hope you are listening to our parents and to your constituents who elected you. We want to return to school.”

Johnson added that if her sons aren’t back in classrooms soon, she will be enrolling them elsewhere.

Signs in the windows of classrooms at Mount Shasta Elementary School.

Barnhart acknowledged that interdistrict transfer requests have been trickling in, and they are being processed. Such requests start at the student’s district of residence, are approved there first, and then move on to the requested district.

Weed Union Elementary School District superintendent and principal Jon Ray said his district is growing and they have been accepting transfers as often as possible. However, they’re getting to the point where he may need to cap some interdistrict transfers in order to keep class sizes at or below 16.

In August, Ray said his focus, and the focus of the Weed Union Elementary School Board, was ensuring kids were in classrooms. Although there have been a couple of potential exposures in the school community, school has, for the most part, proceeded as normal.

Upcoming meeting

The MSUSD board will hold a special meeting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 19 to further discuss returning to a hybrid plan. The agenda and a link to attend the meeting will be posted at the district’s website: www.mountshastausd.com.