Some school districts in rural San Diego County can’t catch a break with COVID

PINE VALLEY — In rural school districts like Mountain Empire in San Diego County, COVID hits especially hard.

A triple whammy of pandemic-related problems — not enough staff, frequently absent students, a lack of reliable internet — has hurt virtually all schools, but its impact is compounded in rural schools by the distance and isolation that are unique to them.

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Just ask Mountain Empire Superintendent Patrick Keeley. For two months this winter he subbed as principal and vice principal of his district’s only high school. That’s because the principal and vice principal were recruited away to bigger-city schools.

It’s hard for him to find any new staff, he says, not just because of COVID, but because he has to convince job candidates that it’s worth driving 30 or more miles a day into the hills to work at his schools.

Dr. Pat Keely, Superintendent Mountain Empire Unified School District,  drives to one of the elementary schools.

Dr. Pat Keely, Superintendent Mountain Empire Unified School District drove to one of the elementary schools in his district on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022 in San Diego County, CA.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“When you talk about the inequities of rural education, we don’t have the resources,” Keeley said. “I definitely think that rural education has been impacted, and it’s routinely been impacted, by larger events, whether it be COVID, whether it be recessions, any of those things.”

The state recently reported that 35 percent of Mountain Empire’s students were chronically absent last school year — that means they missed at least 10 percent of the school year. That is worse than the 22 percent who were chronically absent two years before. It’s an increase largely linked to COVID.

Many schools had higher than usual absences last school year, when school sometimes meant logging onto a computer at home, rather than coming to a campus. But even when school doors reopened, some rural schools still struggled.

“Let’s be real; it’s been hard for every single school in California, but … these rural schools have very complex issues of transportation and connectivity and staffing. It’s very, very difficult,” said Tim Taylor, executive director of California’s Small School Districts’ Association.

A students in an honors math class, work on the days assignment at Mountain Empire High School.

A students in an honors math class, work on the days assignment at Mountain Empire High School.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Mountain Empire already had attendance challenges before COVID. It is a sprawling district of 660 square miles, with seven schools serving 1,700 students. The district’s east side borders the deserts of Imperial County and its south side borders Mexico.

It has eight bus drivers — two fewer than the district needs — and 10 van drivers who transport the 90 percent of students who depend on buses to get to school.

Mountain Empire students are diverse — they live on farms, in trailer parks, in housing developments, and on three Indian reservations that the district serves. Some families moved out here for the wide open spaces and quiet; others moved here because they can’t afford to live in the city or the suburbs down the hill.

Many Mountain Empire students have high needs. Three out of five come from low-income families, and about one out of three are English language learners.

But many of the reasons for their absences were out of students’ and the schools’ control.

Children line up by assigned classroom for the start of the school day at Campo Elementary School.

Children line up by assigned classroom for the start of the school day at Campo Elementary School.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Chief among them last school year was a lack of reliable internet. Students were supposed to learn online, but there are gaps in data coverage across the district, and some areas are only served by small data providers.

County school officials offered Verizon internet hotspots for school districts to give to students who lacked internet access.

But in Mountain Empire, because of the topography, Verizon only works along the main roads, so the district bought its own AT&T hotspots, costing the district about four times more per student, Keeley said. But even AT&T doesn’t cover all parts of the district.

In October 2020, Mountain Empire reopened its school campuses for part-time, in-person instruction, but it struggled to stay open consistently.

The following month, the district shut down for two weeks because it had to quarantine essentially all of its transportation department due to COVID cases. That was a problem because the vast majority of students rely on buses to get to school.

Posted signage at all the schools entrances at the Mountain Empire Unified School District.

Posted signage at all the schools entrances at the Mountain Empire Unified School District that everyone entering the building must wear a mask, as required by California Department of Public Health.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The district went back to distance learning and had planned to reopen after the Thanksgiving break. But four days of high winds and power outages forced the district to stay closed, Keeley said.

Mountain Empire reverted to distance learning whenever it had to shut down unexpectedly, Keeley said. Each time it did, though, it risked having absent students because of the connectivity problems, he said.

Not only has it been a challenge getting kids to school, it’s been hard finding enough adults.

Job applicants have turned down interviews the district tried to set up once candidates realized how far away Mountain Empire’s schools are.

Keeley can’t offer to pay employees as well as big school districts can. That’s partly because a 7 percent chunk of the district’s budget, about $2 million, automatically goes to bus transportation.

Students work on their graphic arts assignments at Mountain Empire High School.

Students work on their graphic arts assignments at Mountain Empire High School.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Most school districts make parents pay for busing, but Mountain Empire doesn’t because many of its students are from low-income families, Keeley said.

That means Keeley has less money to pay his staff. Mountain Empire’s starting teacher salary is $47,377, which is $3,400 less than what San Diego Unified offers. Mountain Empire pays substitute teachers just $150 a day, compared to San Diego Unified’s $250.

Mountain Empire has about nine substitute teachers for the entire district of 110 educators. Keeley ideally wants at least 20 to 25.

“It’s always kind of been a challenge here with the subs, but this, this is unreal,” he said of the pandemic.

It’s not just new employees; the district has lost out on other opportunities to bigger districts, Keeley said.

Mountain Empire Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Pat Keely visited.

Mountain Empire Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Pat Keely visited and spoke with staff at Campo Elementary School while observing school children arriving to school.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Earlier this year, Keeley was hoping to make a deal with an organization that would provide after-school and summer-school programs. But the organization said it wouldn’t be able to work with Mountain Empire because it had sealed a bigger deal with a larger school district.

Amid the disruptions, Mountain Empire’s student performance on standardized tests dropped last school year.

About 71 percent of its students did not meet state standards in English language arts and 85 percent did not do so in math. That’s worse than in the 2018-19 school year, when 63 percent fell short of the English standards and 76 percent missed the mark in math.

To improve academics, Keeley said the district is homing in on reading in the early grades by staffing each elementary school with a literacy specialist.

“I wouldn’t call it learning loss. It’s just, we need to create some interventions to close the gaps to catch the students up,” said Mona Noren, principal at Mountain Empire’s Campo Elementary.

Despite the challenges, Keeley says, his students are resilient. After all, many get up early and walk out in the cold to make the bus at 6 a.m. and take the hour-long ride to school.

School children arrive at Campo Elementary School on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022 in San Diego County, CA.

School children arrive at Campo Elementary School on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022 in San Diego County, CA.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

And every weekday morning Keeley drives more than 30 miles from his home in Santee to Mountain Empire. He grew up here and went to school here and speaks fondly of the district.

He describes how in the fall families gather to watch Friday night football at the high school stadium, which is framed by a wide backdrop of mountains and the open sky. Here, families trust principals and teachers, he said, because they have been in the community for decades.

“This school meant a lot to me as a kid, this district did,” Keeley said. “So to try to get back, to try to be part of it, to help drive improvement and help improve kids’ lives out here in any way I could, is kind of important.”

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