CharterFolk Contributors Ricardo Mireles and Jose Salas – The Proyecto Ya! Collective Got Some Los Angeles Schools Through COVID-19, But How Will Schools Get Through the Next Pandemic?

Good day, CharterFolk.

Today I’m delighted to share with you a co-authored Contributor Column from Ricardo Mireles, the Executive Director of Academia Avance in Los Angeles and Jose Salas, the Executive Director of Montague Academy for the Arts and Sciences in Pacoima.

Ricardo Mireles and Jose Salas

I provide brief bios for Ricardo and Jose below.

Ricardo Mireles is the founder of Academia Avance, a college preparatory charter public school serving families in LA’s Highland Park since 2005. Academia Avance now serves nearly 300 students in grades 6-12. The charter was renewed by the Los Angeles County Board of Education in 2010, and by the State Board of Education in 2015 and 2020. Ricardo has taught at the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research, and at the Don Bosco Technical Institute. Ricardo is a founding board chair for CPICS (Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools), and a founding steering committee member for the FCCS (Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools)

Jose Salas brings to his leadership role at Montague Charter Academy for the Arts and Sciences twenty-four years of improving educational opportunities for predominately Latino communities. From South Los Angeles, to North Hills and Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley, all the way to Arvin in the San Joaquin Valley, underprivileged youth have benefited and flourished in schools where Jose has directed and taught. He fostered the development of a strong, vibrant, prideful college going culture at Vaughn Middle School, Grimmway Academy, Olin Virtual Academy, Prepa Tec Los Angeles High School, and now Montague. 

I thank Ricardo and Jose for putting a lot of work into a post that is sure to stimulate all sorts of new thinking and response. Let’s get straight to it.

The Proyecto Ya! Collective Got Some Los Angeles Schools Through COVID-19, But How Will Schools Get Through the Next Pandemic?

Late last year, there was widely felt optimism for the start of the Spring 2022 semester. Students would finally be back in the classroom en-masse getting on with their schooling… the worst of COVID behind us. But then Omicron. 

We are seeing a quick retreat to not-quite full on pandemic mode operations. Deja vu all over again. 

We will get past this wave. In addition to analysis that finds Omicron to be far less lethal, three macro factors makes this surge far less dangerous than the previous two: 

  1. The power of medicine: We have many if not most or even all staff and students vaccinated, thus most persons are protected from severe symptoms.
  2. Proven adaptation: We now have effective widely implementable protection measures. We know what works and what doesn’t work.
  3. A better sense of time: The past waves have shown us that the virus surges along a path that can be somewhat generally projected. We can anticipate a peak, and a subsequent fall of new cases.

We do, however, have a cautionary message in this column. In that way, we pile on to the “rough birth” message of recent posts here at CharterFolk.

Executive Summary

If you only read up to this point, here is the crux of our warning:

We are heading fast to a time when school leaders will NOT have the legal standing to implement critical and effective health focused procedures. A school superintendent/principal would/will get fired for putting a mask and or vaccine mandate in place. So, how will schools fight against the NEXT pandemic… that WILL come? 

We, this week’s bloggers, are school leaders at two small charter public schools in Los Angeles. Montague Charter Academy for the Arts and Sciences serves 850 K-5 students in the community of Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley. Academia Avance serves 275 students in grades 6-12 in the Northeast Los Angeles community of Highland Park. Our schools have very similar demographics: almost all students qualify for FRPM; over 60% live in a household with mixed immigration status; almost all live in housing that does not allow for everyone to maintain safe distancing. Almost all are LatinX. Our schools were founding members of the Proyecto Ya! Coalition that early in the pandemic came together to find ways to build trust with our stakeholders. We will share the Proyecto Ya! story, but first want to pose what we see as a bigger than Coronavirus danger.

The Danger of No More Effective Public Health Orders

The impact of the loss of swift public health orders is what we will discuss in this CharterFolk piece, based on the experience of our two small independent community based (read non-CMO) charter schools in Los Angeles. We will describe how we benefited from the emergence of a local charter school advocacy network, like those CharterFolk called for last year. We will also give you some positive stuff to read about. But the take-away we are trying for is more of the CharterFolk “Monstrous Change” stuff. Sorry. We hope we are wrong. But in many places it’s already happened.

Nine states passed laws in 2021 that ban mask mandates in schools.

In five of these states the laws have been blocked, suspended, or are not being enforced (AZ, AR, IA, SC, TN), but the laws are still in effect in Florida, Oklahoma, Utah and Texas at this time.

Back at the start of the pandemic in March/April of 2020 only seven Governors (AR, NE, ND, SD, IA, UT, WY) did not issue  stay-at-home executive orders.

Nationally, the daily new case rate average was around 30,000 in April, 2020, with the “first wave” peaking at 65,000 new cases in June. This week the Omicron wave is cresting having exceeded more than 800,000 new cases daily, a 1,200% increase. But governors/mayors will not issue “stay-at-home” orders this time. There are some medical/science arguments for why not to take such measures. But there are much stronger political reasons why this won’t happen, and there are state laws that strip such sweeping executive action from governors, and several court rulings that would significantly limit any new orders.  

Here is the biggest sign of “Monstrous Change”: the Supreme Court of the United States striking down this month the OSHA regulations of the Biden administration for vaccine rules (not even mandates) for 100+ size employers.

Evidence of the twisted SCOTUS logic is that the same ruling actually upholds the allowance for vaccine mandates, even over religious exemption claims, for the healthcare sector. 

An alarmist alarm: It won’t be long before the COVID anti-vaxxers go whole hog and just reject all vaccines. Parents will now be like: Ixnay with the measles vaccine. Chale con tu TDAP. Recall the political pressure put on the Tennessee Department of Health to halt adolescent vaccine outreach – not just for coronavirus, but all diseases.

A Hunger Games like reality is coming fast.

Just What is Proyecto Ya!? 

To understand what is being lost going forward, let’s review what some schools in Los Angeles were able to do during the pandemic, with the hypothesis that schools may not be able to do so now or in the near future.

Proyecto Ya! started in April 2020 with the goal of increasing trust among our student families and staff. In the first weeks of the pandemic there was not enough known by the health experts and even less by our elected officials about the virus to devise effective countermeasures, ergo the draconian stay-at-home orders. But support was urgently needed for the families of our schools. We could not wait for official guidance to be issued, hence the name Proyecto Ya! (“Project Now!”). We needed to provide some information to our students, parents and staff, especially to counter the sudden and massive flood of misinformation. To do this, over a dozen leaders (growing to five dozen) from two dozen charter school organizations in Los Angeles coalesced to share our independent individual understanding and experiences at our respective schools. “What works for you?” “This worked for us.” 

Proyecto Ya!  from the start set a simple three part framework for our initiatives:

  1. TEST everyone
  2. CLEAN everywhere
  3. SOCIAL DISTANCE all day

We pushed for these goals even before the general understanding that COVID was primarily an airborne phenomenon. In June of 2020, we were organizing “group buy” bulk orders on room air purifiers before the rush on these devices, and had them installed in our classrooms in advance of the start of the Fall 2020 semester. Likewise, we devised a disinfecting-application strategy that used state-of-the-art components and equipment. We later learned it exceeded the strategy that was to be used by a large local school district several times our collective size with a multi-million dollar budgeted maintenance department. (Our strategy used a product that did NOT exacerbate conditions for asthmatic persons, and used equipment less subject to the dire supply chain delays… and had a lower cost.)

The  Proyecto Ya! coalition grew quickly so that by the fall of 2020, the participating leaders represented schools collectively serving over 19,000 students, with almost equal thirds for primary grades K-5, middle school 6-8, and secondary 9-12. 

The dialog of the Proyecto Ya! sessions week after week provided excellent resources and solutions to the new challenges that kept emerging. We were able to share understanding that individual school leaders had learned since the previous Thursday. Conditions and our understanding were changing SO fast that the weekly calls fit the bill. Too much was changing for a slower frequency.  The collaborative allowed our school leaders to make decisions far in advance of the authorizers of our charters, and of many other schools, be they traditional, charter, or private. The trust and knowledge that was built among the Proyecto Ya! leaders, and in turn with their respective stakeholders extended to our families. This is how the Proyecto Ya! schools were able to have wide participation in a COVID testing initiative that started in September of 2020, and for vaccine clinics over the summer of 2021. Many families at our schools shared that, had it not been for their schools efforts, they would not have had access to COVID testing and vaccines. Avance reached a vaccination rate of 100% of staff by September of 2021, and 100% of all eligible students on-campus the next month. (Vaccines for Grade 6 students under 12 and boosters for household members are our next priorities.) 

School Leaders As “Frontline” Public Health Policy Implementer For The Hardest Hit Families

So, just a weekly virtual video conference made the difference? Proyecto Ya! has now convened 90 times to-date. So, yes. It seems sooo much! … but then COVID-19 time is definitely warped. Think of making this statement before the pandemic: 

We will convene at least a dozen charter school leaders from two dozen schools EVERY Thursday over the next 22 months. 

Yeah, right.  But we did. The power of people circles… even virtual circles

School leaders were key “frontline” implementers of public health policy to mitigate the spread of the Coronavirus. School-implemented practices, public health experts assert

… make our schools safe places to be, often safer than the homes of many of our students.

“Household transmission really is the main place where most people are getting COVID…” concludes the University of North Carolina August 2021 study, going on to find that “… minority households were more likely to experience a higher living density, and therefore had a higher risk of secondary infection than white households… It’s very difficult to follow public health guidelines in some living situations…If you have multiple people and generations sharing common areas or bedrooms, or if you are a single parent, it becomes nearly impossible to isolate or even physically distance.”

These conditions apply to the vast majority of the households that our students live in.

Our Protecto Ya! families are among the hardest hit populations in our city, our state and comparatively across the US. The parents of our schools are the “essential workers” that make it possible for so many to remain safe at home. Our blue collar families work in the food service and retail sectors. They prepare and deliver the food and parcels to all those that can work remotely, but thus are at the very centers of risk. Staying at home with their children to support “distance learning” was not always possible, and would become a financial nightmare. Many Montague and Avance families did not have internet access or a bandwidth level that could support all their kids being logged on at the same time. Home visits by staff of the Montague Charter Academy revealed that many lived in illegally converted garages where an internet connection wasn’t possible because the cable company didn’t recognize the address as a legitimate dwelling.  It is this level of attention that factors into why the Montague Academy enrollment has increased by over 20% over the past 3 years, while enrollment has dropped sharply at most Los Angeles schools.

Ours are the families where the eldest teenager went to work at the fast food joint to generate some rent money because mom was laid off during the first wave of the pandemic… only to bring COVID home, exposing grandma and everyone else. And sadly, our families went to that Christmas/New Year’s posada last month and are now infected.

What do we know works to keep a school safe? Comprehensive disinfectant procedures, installing air purifying systems, entrance screening protocols, safe pedestrian pathways and distancing rules, strict mask adherence, wide-scale and frequent (i.e. weekly) COVID testing regimens, and yes, quasi-vaccine mandates for staff and students. When properly and consistently and collectively implemented, schools are safe. It has to be all or most of these measures. It can’t be just some.

It is easy to accept this collection of measures as the norm, but recognize that these measures were not provided to schools until August of 2020, six month from the start of the pandemic. That was the case for Los Angeles County, which was far ahead of most other counties in the state and country. 

Building trust with our parents and staff early in the pandemic was our goal. Without said trust we would not be able to implement measures later, which can be said is what happened with the MAGA-fication of COVID. Schools needed to find ways to stay connected to students and their families early on, in April, May and June of 2020, given the dearth of directives coming from the Trump Administration’s federal agencies. “Official” statements were confusing, lacking in details needed for actual implementation, and often even conflicting in some cases. Consider the CDC guidance of August 24, 2020 that recommended against testing of asymptomatic persons and wide-scale COVID testing at schools.

Specifically, think back to how much of the “guidance” issued by federal, state and county governments actually ended with a version of: “this/that/the other is left to the discretion of the local school districts.” … In other words: here are the rules, but we leave it to the school leaders to make the final call, because we, the electeds/appointeds, don’t want to hold the liability when the lawsuits come. Yes, it has been the healthcare workers and emergency personnel who have – and continue – to bear the brunt of the failing public health response to COVID-19. It is very clear that had so many not been led astray, many more would have been vaccinated, and thus so many infected persons would not have died from the post Delta, i.e. Omicron surge (and future variants). It is this blatant disregard for the science that is leading  many doctors, nurses, etc. to not raise up one more time past their burnout… and are quitting in droves.

Why am I killing myself, literally exposing myself to a pathogen, to provide services to people whose choices are so clearly leading to their death?  

As the Delta variant began to surge in the Winter of 2021, the discussion about mandatory vaccines began to heat up. Some Proyecto Ya! schools were able to move quickly to protect students and staff by putting policies in place to make the vaccines mandatory. Montague had additional hurdles, though, being a unionized independent charter school. At first Montague teaching staff was divided over a vaccine mandate. However, tracking the outcomes of other Proyecto Ya! schools, ultimately helped Montague leaders negotiate with the teacher’s union (UTLA). The process wasn’t easy but seeing what and why other Ya! schools were accomplishing led to a mutually agreed compromise. All staff are now vaccinated, and the Montague campus is much safer. This also facilitated the transition in April of 2021 to having students back on campus. 

The COVID pandemic is a health emergency where the “public health” response is almost more acute than the medical scientific one. The science is responding to how this crisis is evolving, while public officials must anticipate dangers, and take pre-emptive precautions BEFORE it’s too late. Understood this way, the public health actions are thus, first and foremost, about conveying accurate and comprehensive information to the public with guidance for how to act appropriately. Viewed this way, the public responses to a pandemic are in large part an educational challenge. How fast can we as a society learn to adapt before we are overwhelmed by the fast changing situation (virus in the example of the Coronavirus). Who better, then, to implement prevention protocols, than schools?

Schools are on the front line of this pandemic response. Ergo, so many of the actual details and decisions that implement COVID policy is left to school leaders… and why the politicization of COVID has left schools with less support during this spring of 2022 semester than we had in spring of 2021, one year into the pandemic, and in spring of 2020 at the very start of COVID.  The impacts of the politicization of public health will have/is having immense negative consequences… beyond the 5.5 million globally that have died so far… over 800,000 in the US. Compare this STILL rising death toll for the United States over less than two years, to 630,278 U.S. military deaths over the past 120 years. The COVID pandemic deaths far surpass that of ALL the U.S. wars since 1900…WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Viet Nam War, the Gulf War, War in Afghanistan, Iraq War. ( We need a far greater commitment to ending this pandemic.

What about the role of COVID Mis-information?

One cannot argue against false information, because a new false counter argument is generated at every step. This is a Sisyphean task. Like shoveling sand in a sand storm. But we must acknowledge the massive damage it has caused, making it almost impossible for parents to determine how to best protect their families.

This makes just remaining sheltered/isolated at home so simple. Strict isolation did work – works still – for the sectors of society that have the luxury to work remotely and can afford to have everything delivered. The scourge of COVID has mostly spared these families. But there is no need to repeat what is now clear about how much harder COVID hits the marginalized.

For now, let’s start with recognizing that the search for “normal” is akin to the search for “closure”. Many of us know the last stage of the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief: acceptance. But we need to know that this search is WRONG … acceptance is NOT the logical last step of grief. That widely accepted five stage model is actually NOT based in science

… and is now considered debunked.

Let us debunk ourselves of the notion that there is a way back to “normal”, especially if we realize that as a country, and schools in particular, we are less prepared for the next COVID wave, or next pandemic if there are no effective public health mandates for schools to use. 

Proyecto Ya! Will keep meeting to find solutions for our schools. Join us, or find – or create – your circle to help you with the looming “Monstrous Change.”