SALINAS — The Monterey County civil grand jury completed its investigation into the county’s educational response to COVID-19, praising educators and the Monterey County Office of Education for their efforts during the pandemic.
“I’m thrilled to see the report and the fact that the grand jury did recognize how hard everyone in the educational community has worked to really meet the needs of the students and families we serve,” said Deneen Guss, the superintendent of schools for the Monterey County Office of Education.
The Monterey County civil grand jury is an investigatory watchdog body made up of volunteers from the community created to ensure the best interests of all citizens of the county are being served by the local government.
The report stated that “The Monterey County civil grand jury felt compelled to investigate Monterey County’s educational response to Coronavirus Disease of 2019 due to the persuasive concerns expressed by members of the public about the impacts of COVID-19 on students’ mental health and academic learning loss.”
Between March and October 2020, the number of mental-health-related visits to the emergency room increased nationally by 24% for ages 5-11 and by 31% for ages 12-17 over 2019 numbers.
During the investigation, the civil grand jury reviewed documents and conducted extensive interviews with staff members of the office of education, educators in the county, district superintendents and members of the Board of Supervisors.
The civil grand jury found that the county Office of Education “was proactive and instrumental in providing support and services to the school districts and other educational facilities in Monterey County,” the report said. “MCOE played a leading role in the success of students and teachers.”
The county Office of Education started planning for the pandemic in Dec. 2019 and by Jan. 2020 was actively preparing for it.
The civil grand jury’s findings praised the Monterey County Office of Education for distributing over 714,000 masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and other personal protective equipment to schools; providing professional development to teachers and staff to address issues caused by the pandemic; and providing school districts with resources and support, mental health services and increased collaboration among community agencies.
The report stated that “one of MCOE’s biggest contributions to education during the pandemic was the creation of the Digital Equity Task Force.” After discovering in March 2020 that 9,839 students did not have electronic devices and 11,291 students did not have internet access, the office of education sought out funding for technology, raising $2,659,960. By the start of the 2020-2021 school year, the number of students that didn’t have electronic devices or internet access was reduced to zero.
The civil grand jury also praised the county’s school districts, superintendents and educators for their response to the pandemic.
“School districts, teachers, classified staff, educational support personnel and the MCOE met these challenges with initiative and flexibility,” the report said. “Educators, at all levels, went beyond their job descriptions to provide support and services to students and their families.”
The investigation found that schools in the county were used as food distribution centers and COVID-19 testing and vaccination clinics. School districts invested in behavioral health support systems and “holistic student support,” which included food, health care, academics and mental health services. School districts also focused on creating new professional development for teachers to learn how to transition from in-person to distance learning quickly.
Two schools within the Salinas City Elementary School District were recently recognized with the California Pivotal Practice Award for the 2020-2021 school year for their innovative practices during the COVID-19 pandemic.
El Gabilan Elementary School in Salinas received the award for focusing on professional development during the pandemic, utilizing technology in the classroom to transition teachers to online instruction and keep students engaged in what they were learning.
Monterey Park Elementary School received the award for emphasizing student engagement once schools were closed, transitioning to drive-thru events and virtual activities to keep morale high.
And even though schools have returned to in-person learning, districts in the county have continued to prioritize the safety of students, teachers and staff.
Pacific Grove Unified School District announced Monday that masks will once again be required in schools until further notice. This follows a new policy approved by the district’s school board in April which requires all students and staff to wear masks indoors if cases and test positivity reach a “moderate threshold” – a seven-day average test positivity greater than 5% and a seven-day average case rate of more than 10 cases per 100,000 individuals.
The civil grand jury’s report praised school staff as well, noting that while teachers worked from home, essential school staff continued to work from the school, exposing them to greater risk.
Foodservice workers distributed hundreds of thousands of free meals to students, while bus drivers moved supplies and made deliveries of food and lessons to student homes and even served as Wi-Fi hot spots.
The report noted some concerns about two financial issues: the end of the federal funding and the drop in average daily attendance. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which included funding for schools, requires that funds are spent by the end of the 2024-2025 school year. And county-wide average daily attendance has dropped 10% over last year, with some schools dropping as high as 18%.
The report concluded with some recommendations for the Monterey County Office of Education and school districts. They recommended that school districts maintain extended learning opportunities and at least one behavioral support staff member at each school site until the end of the 2025-2026 school year; the Monterey County Office of Education continues to closely monitor drops in average daily attendance and the end of funding, and continues to be forward-thinking about its emergency plans.
“When you’re in emergency situations, it’s really tough and there are always people who step up and people who don’t, but I’m really thankful and proud that the educational community did step up and did what needed to be done for our students and families,” Guss said. “It wasn’t easy, but we did what we needed to do and we will continue to work hard each and every day to make sure we are supporting our students and families.”
The entire report can be read at https://www.monterey.courts.ca.gov/grand-jury/reports