Why Is The State Giving Your Health Data to Political Consultants?

In May 2021, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a “Vax for the Win” sweepstakes that would give away $116.5 million, with big cash prizes awarded in random drawings to dozens of lucky winners. Everyone who received a COVID vaccine was automatically entered.

“We have your information in our system,” Newsom said. The Mercury News reported that he was “referring to the millions of vaccination records in the California Public Department of Health’s confidential, digital Immunization Information System.”

The state “maintains a confidential registry of all vaccine recipients,” CalMatters reported, noting the governor’s assurance that the names of the winners would be kept confidential unless the individuals volunteered to have their information released.

But the confidentiality of the information in the state’s vaccine registry has a big loophole in it through which the confidential data is flowing to a political consulting firm called Street Level Strategy, LLC.

“I’m being stalked by the state of California,” one Los Angeles resident told me recently. “I just got a call from a guy who told me he has my file and he sees I got the Pfizer vaccine, but not a booster.” The caller identified himself as being with “Street Level Campaigns” and said they had a contract with “public health” to help people make appointments to get boosters.

Here’s how Street Level Campaigns describes itself on its website: “Street Level Campaigns, LLC (SLC) is a grassroots consulting firm specializing in community organizing, voter contact, and coalition building. Our clients include candidates, ballot measures, issue campaigns, non-profit organizations, and trade associations. SLC is an affiliate of our sister organization Street Level Strategy, LLC a national public affairs consulting firm.”

That description appears on a page listing a job opening for “Directors to lead teams of Community Organizers for political and public affairs campaigns.”

Responding to questions about the contract, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) said this in an email: “MyTurn, the state’s vaccine appointment program launched by CDPH, shares a list of booster eligible California residents with Street Level Strategy, LLC that includes names, age, gender, ethnicity, contact information and vaccination history in order to prioritize equity, with a focus on reaching communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

However, the person who contacted me about the phone call from Street Level Campaigns did not make an appointment through MyTurn, choosing instead to go to a walk-up vaccination site. The next day, the person received a text from the California Department of Public Health. “Hi, congratulations on getting your first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine,” it began, and then listed the type of vaccine, the lot number and the date and time it was received.

MyTurn, in other words, collected data from people who did not visit the MyTurn site and voluntarily provide it. Instead, the staff operating the walk-up vaccination site reported the data to the state. And now the state “shares” that data with Street Level Strategy, LLC.

In its emailed responses to questions, CDPH said the contract “includes terms and conditions that outline information privacy and security requirements,” and “provisions which limit the use and retention of individual’s confidential information,” and “specific information security controls Street Level Strategy must have in place to maintain and protect the security of the data.”

Let’s hope that’s enough, because the state of California has given this political consulting shop $12.7 million in contracts and access to a confidential digital registry of every California resident who has received a COVID vaccine. The contract was awarded without competitive bidding under the authority of the governor’s emergency declaration of March 4, 2020, even though work under this contract did not begin until July 16, 2021.

Who is Street Level Strategy, LLC?

The president and founder of Street Level Strategy is Pat Dennis. His profile on the company website says that before he founded the firm, he “directed grassroots operations for labor and independent expenditure committees in over 50 congressional races throughout the country and worked as an organizer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).”

Others on the team have resumés that include organizing and advocacy work for progressive groups and labor unions. The company markets the service of “building authentic, engaged, and active grassroots coalitions of everyday people” to “shape policy outcomes at the local, state and national levels.”

CDPH said the contract’s “Exhibit F,” titled the “HIPAA Business Associate Addendum,” contains “multiple provisions that limit and restrict retention or use of data provided to Street Level Strategy.” But shouldn’t this contract have gone to a company in the health care industry, one with experience handling confidential medical data?

In a June 2021 story headlined, “California Vaccination Records Raise Data Privacy Concerns,” the Mercury News reported that some experts had “fresh privacy concerns about Californians’ health data” as the state surpassed 50 million vaccine doses delivered.

Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Freedom Foundation, noted that the California Information Practices Act and HIPAA, the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, impose confidentiality obligations on health care providers and on state agencies, such as the California Department of Public Health, but he worried about the data security of local health agencies, where he said those laws don’t apply.

ecca Cramer-Mowder agreed with Dixon that the federal waivers might make it easier for patient information to seep into the hands of data brokers.

“Other legal experts, however, are less concerned,” the Mercury News reported, citing Stanford Law School professor Michelle Mello, who said California “will have no direct involvement in furnishing companies with medical data.”

Click here to read the full article at OC Register

L.A. Urges Return to Mask-Wearing Amid Winter Covid Spike

Los Angeles is urging that residents wear masks again in all indoor public settings amid a Covid-19 spike that’s expected to intensify in the winter months.

The county announced Thursday that it is once again “strongly recommending” people resume masking, although it is not requiring it in most indoor venues. However, masks are still mandated at health care and congregate-care facilities, for those infected in the last ten days, and in establishments that have imposed their own restrictions, county Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis said according to ABC7 News.

Los Angeles and many other progressive cities finally lifted their masks mandates a few months ago amid a decrease in Covid-19 contraction nationwide. Children enrolled in public pre-school and daycare in New York City, who were not vulnerable to the disease and not likely to spread it, were among the last groups to be freed of masks.

Last January, Los Angeles forced students to wear high-grade, non-cloth masks indoors and outdoors in K-12 public schools and be tested as a condition of returning to class.

On Thursday, the local seven-day average of daily new Covid-19 infections in Los Angeles increased to 100 per 100,000 citizens, up from 86 per 100,000 a week ago. The rate the previous week was 65 per 100,000 citizens, the outlet noted.

“Now it is strongly recommended that all individuals wear a high-quality mask that fits well in the following settings: in public indoor spaces; when using public transit, including buses, ride-shares, taxis and medical transport; correctional and detention facilities; and homeless and emergency shelters,” Davis said.

Davis warned that the number of reported cases is probably an undercount as many people test for the virus at home and don’t report a positive diagnosis to health officials. The number of Covid-positive patients being hospitalized is also growing in the county but reportedly only about 40 percent of them have been admitted because of Covid-related complications.

The county health officer told residents to be careful ahead of the holidays and when attending large gatherings.

While there is some evidence to suggest that wearing a well-fitting N95 mask might help curb transmission around the margins, research showsthat cheap cotton surgical masks, the kind the most commonly worn throughout the pandemic, are ineffective at preventing transmission.

Click here to read the full article at the National Review

CDC’s Move Paves Way for California to Require School COVID Vaccines — But Lawmakers Have Given Up for Now

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccination advisors voted last week to recommend all children get the COVID-19 vaccine, a move that does not change California’s list of vaccines required for children to attend school. 

The addition of the COVID-19 vaccine to the CDC’s recommended vaccines for kids is not a mandate for states’ school attendance requirements. Any additions to California’s list must be made by the state Legislature or the state Department of Public Health. In the last 12 months, the Newsom administration and the Legislature separately tried to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for kids to attend school, and both failed.

People involved in those efforts said they do not expect the Legislature to consider a mandate for children again next year, barring a big spike in hospitalizations or deaths.

“Our goal should be getting the immunization rate up,” said Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician Sacramento Democrat, whose bill last session would have mandated the vaccine for children to attend school, with only a medical exemption. “We have work to do on outreach, making sure people have access and educating people about the vaccine.” 

Since the federal government approved vaccines for children on an emergency use basis, children have received the COVID-19 vaccine at much lower rates than adults. So far, 67% of 12-to-17-year-olds have received the first series of the vaccine, 38% of children 5 to 11 have received the first series and of those under 5 years of age, 5% have received the shots, according to state data.

The state Department of Public Health refused to say whether it plans to add the vaccine to the required list. Instead the agency referred to its previous statement from April in an email: “…upon full approval by the FDA, CDPH will consider the recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Family Physicians prior to considering a school vaccine requirement.”

The role of the Centers for Disease Control

It suggests that children ages 6 months and older receive a vaccination for COVID-19 with shots approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or approved for emergency use.

“It’s a step in the right direction for protecting the public’s health but I understand there is a lot of anxiety about vaccines in general and the COVID-19 vaccine,” said Dr. Alice Kuo, professor and chief of the Pediatrics/Preventative Medicine Division at UCLA. “It’s one step at a time.”

Dr. Naomi Bardach, a professor of pediatrics at the UCSF School of Medicine, said the CDC recommendation is a sign that COVID-19 is here to stay. She said the addition of the vaccine to the childhood schedule also normalizes the vaccine because pediatricians’ offices that already use the CDC’s list as guidance will fold the COVID-19 vaccine into patient care.

Under state law, children must receive a series of shots for 10 diseases to attend child care centers, family child care homes, preschool and kindergarten through 12th grade. If children are not vaccinated or are behind based on the state’s schedule, they can be barred from school until they receive their shots. 

Infants are given their first vaccine before they are an hour old and the shots continue through adolescence. Most of the vaccines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control are required by California to attend school. They are: diphtheria, hepatitis B, haemophilus influenza type b, measles, mumps, pertussis (whooping cough), poliomyelitis, rubella, tetanus and varicella (chicken pox).

Prior to 2016 parents were able to opt out of vaccines for their children through a personal belief exemption. Sen. Pan authored the controversial law that eliminated the personal belief exemption for vaccines on the state’s list and left only medical exemptions that must be signed off by a physician. At that time, about 3% of new kindergartners entered school with a personal belief exemption for some or all vaccines. 

The law applied only to the vaccines already on the list for children. Any new vaccines added to the list in the future by the state Department of Public Health would offer personal belief and medical exemption options. If the Legislature votes to add a vaccine to the list legislators would choose which exemptions to offer. 

Vaccine rates for these childhood diseases have slipped during the pandemic. In August, the Department of Public Health said 1 in 8 children were not up to date on their vaccinations, due to skipping routine doctor visits during the last couple of years.

Failed efforts

In October 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom said his administration would require the COVID-19 vaccine for school attendance for students 12 and older as soon as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approved the vaccines for children. At the time, the mandate was to go into effect in July of 2022. Since the Department of Public Health would have implemented the plan, the requirement would have allowed parents to opt out of the vaccine for their children through personal belief or medical exemptions. 

In January 2022, Pan authored a COVID-19 vaccine bill to go further, eliminating the option for a personal belief exemption.

In April, lacking the votes needed to pass the bill, Pan pulled it and said the vaccine needed to be more accessible to families and vaccination rates needed to be higher before a mandate could be successful. The same day, the Department of Public Health postponed to July 2023 its plan to require students get the COVID-19 vaccine.  

On Monday, Pan said he does not expect the Legislature to respond any differently than it did last year to the idea of a mandate. Pan won’t be leading the effort if there is one, as he is termed out in November.

Pan said if the state considers adding the vaccine to the list it has to take into account all the recent developments about the vaccine and boosters, like how many times it’s going to be needed. If it is required multiple times like the flu vaccine, which is not required for school attendance, it could be a burden for schools to track. Pan said the Legislature has focused on vaccines that children receive as a series and then don’t have to take again, like measles and chickenpox. 

“It will depend on how it develops and what the overall burden is,” Pan said. 

Last year, Pan founded a legislative Vaccine Working Group that proposed numerous bills regarding COVID-19 and vaccines. Most of them failed, including proposed mandates for all employees and children to be vaccinated to work or attend school as well as a bill to allow teenagers to get the vaccine without parental consent.

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

“It was a rough year for vaccine legislation in the Legislature,” said Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, who authored the teen vaccination bill and is a member of the working group. “I don’t know if that dynamic will change before next year but it is something to consider because it should be part of the regular schedule for schoolchildren.” 

Another member of the Vaccine Working Group, San Diego Democratic Assemblymember Akilah Weber, said she is not considering legislation that would mandate the vaccine.

“At this time, I’m not involved in any legislation that would mandate vaccinations, but I’m actively involved in education and outreach to encourage and provide community access for more parents to have their children vaccinated,” Weber said in an email.

In the past, proposed vaccine-related legislation has attracted protesters to the capitol en masse. They have disrupted hearings, yelled at legislators and even assaulted them. During one memorable protest, what looked like a menstrual cup full of blood was tossed over the gallery railing onto the Senate floor below.

If the administration, or the Legislature, pursues a vaccine requirement again critics are already planning to push back. They argue that this should be a family decision and that it raises questions about the number of breakthrough cases — when a vaccinated person tests positive for the coronavirus — efficacy and safety for children.    

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters   

Governor to End California Coronavirus Emergency in February

California’s coronavirus emergency will officially end in February, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday, nearly three years after the state’s first confirmed death from the disease prompted a raft of restrictions that upended public life.

The decision will have little practical impact on most people’s lives, as most of the nearly 600 pandemic-related orders Newsom has issued since the start of the pandemic have already been lifted. And it won’t affect public health orders — including a pending statewide vaccine mandate for schoolchildren that could take effect next summer.

But it does signal a symbolic end for some of the most restrictive elements of the pandemic, as it will dissolve Newsom’s authority to alter or change laws to make it easier for the government to quickly respond to the public health crisis.

“The State of Emergency was an effective and necessary tool that we utilized to protect our state, and we wouldn’t have gotten to this point without it,” Newsom said in a news release, adding that the declaration will formally end on Feb. 28.

Newsom declared a state of emergency for the coronavirus on March 4, 2020, shortly after an elderly patient was the first confirmed death from the disease in California. At the time, there were just 53 cases of COVID-19 in California, and state officials were holding a cruise ship off the coast so it could test passengers before allowing them to disembark in the state.

Since then, Newsom used his authority under the emergency declaration to issue 596 pandemic-related orders. Some were small, like giving people more time to file their taxes or renew their driver’s licenses. But others were life changing, including a statewide stay-at-home order that caused millions of people to lose their jobs.

At first, there seemed to be broad support for Newsom’s actions in the face of a mysterious and frightening new disease. But as the virus lingered, anger and frustration over the restrictions began to build. Two Republican state lawmakers challenged Newsom’s authority to issue pandemic orders — only to lose in court.

“It is past time to end the State of Emergency and focus on the enormous hardships Californians are facing in their daily lives: soaring gas and grocery prices, surging crime, and a homelessness problem that gets worse by the day,” said Republican Assemblymember Kevin Kiley, who was one of the two lawmakers to challenge Newsom in court.

Of the 596 pandemic-related orders Newsom has issued, just 27 are still in effect, according to the governor’s office. All of them will be gone once the emergency declaration is lifted — but Newsom said he will ask the state Legislature to make two of them permanent. One would continue to let nurses order and dispense COVID-19 medication and another would let lab workers solely process coronavirus tests.

The Newsom administration is waiting until February to end the emergency declaration, saying it wants to give state and local officials time to prepare. The administration could reverse itself, should a new variant of the disease emerge or hospitals again become overwhelmed with patients.

Click here to read the full article in AP News

California Appeals Court Rejects COVID-19 Fines for Church

A California church that defied safety regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic by holding large religious services won’t have to pay about $200,000 in fines, a state appeals court ruled.

Calvary Chapel San Jose and its pastors were held in contempt of court and fined in 2020 and 2021 for violating state and county limits on indoor public gatherings. The rules were aimed at preventing the spread through close contract of the virus, which has caused more than 10 million confirmed cases and more than 93,500 deaths since the pandemic began in mid-2020, according to state public health figures.

But on Monday, California’s 6th District Court of Appeal reversed those lower court decisions, citing a May 2020 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in February 2021 that a ban by Gov. Gavin Newsom on indoor worship services in counties where COVID-19 was surging violated freedom of religion.

The decision by a newly conservative majority court came less than a year after the high court previously ruled the ban was justified on health and safety grounds.

The appellate court noted that the restrictions on indoor gatherings also applied to secular gatherings but were stricter for worship services than for secular activities such as going to grocery stores.

The ruling “is a great win for the sake of liberty and displays the justification for the courage shown by this church” and its pastors, Robert Tyler, a lawyer for the church, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Despite the ruling, Santa Clara County said it will continue to seek $2.3 million in penalties against the church for violating other COVID-19 rules that weren’t affected by the decision, such as requiring face masks during services in late 2020.

Click here to read the full article at AP News

Don’t bring back COVID mask mandate, business group tells LA County

An alliance of Los Angeles County business groups on Thursday, July 21, called on health officials to abandon plans for a universal COVID-19 indoor mask mandate, saying the move would be “heavy-handed” and a burden on businesses that will be forced to enforce the rule.

“This is not a debate about choosing between lives and livelihoods,” Tracy Hernandez, founding CEO of the Los Angeles County Business Federation, or BizFed, said in a statement.

“This is a discussion about educating and empowering Angelenos to make smart choices about protecting their health, our workers and the region’s collective ability to weather this latest wave of infections. We can do better than a heavy-handed mandate at this stage of pandemic recovery and endemic recalibration.”

The county is on track to re-impose an indoor mask-wearing mandate on July 29, based on the current elevated transmission level of the virus and rising hospitalization numbers. The county last week entered the “high” virus activity level as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dozens of counties across the state have also moved into the “high” transmission category, but Los Angeles is the only county that has announced plans to reinstate a mask mandate. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has repeatedly defended the move, calling it a simple yet effective way of slowing virus transmission and preventing hospitals from becoming overburdened.

Some critics, however, have questioned the need for a mandate, suggesting instead that a voluntary call would raise awareness of virus spread and encourage people to make their own decisions without placing an enforcement burden on small businesses.

In a statement Thursday, BizFed expressed support for a voluntary rule — which is already in effect — but said forcing businesses to enforce a mandate will “stymie economic recovery, confuse COVID-weary residents and further erode public trust in governing bodies.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger last week urged Ferrer to conduct extensive outreach to businesses to discuss plans for the masking rule and the possible impacts of the regulation, particularly since surrounding counties will not be imposing a mandate. Ferrer said such efforts were already underway.

“Our hope is people will go ahead and make every effort to come into compliance,” Ferrer said during a media briefing last week, adding that there will be no exemptions for businesses such as gyms or yoga studios.

“Spread is super high everywhere,” she said. “We have lots and lots of outbreaks, so we are going to ask that everybody go ahead with indoor masking.”

Masks are already still mandated in some indoor spaces — healthcare facilities, transit hubs, on transit vehicles, airports, correctional facilities and shelters. A universal mandate would spread the requirement to all indoor public spaces, including shared office spaces, manufacturing facilities, retail stores, indoor events, indoor restaurants and bars and schools.

Click here to read the full article in the Los Angeles Daily News

L.A. County Hits ‘High’ COVID Level; Countdown to Indoor Mask Mandate

Los Angeles County has reached a “high” level of COVID-19 and has begun a countdown to the re-imposition of indoor mask mandates, according to county health director Barbara Ferrer on Thursday.

As Breitbart News reported earlier in the week, county officials had warned that a mask mandate could be re-imposed by month’s end if the ongoing surge of highly contagious variants of coronavirus continued:

The county’s public health website is registering a dramatic rise in test positivity rate and hospitalization, though deaths remain flat.

According to a briefing Thursday by L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, authorities will reimpose the indoor mask mandate if hospitalizations — currently at 8.4. per 100,000 — reach 10 per 100,000 and stay there for two weeks.

The rise of new and highly contagious variants of COVID-19 is driving the new surge in infections.

On Thursday, Ferrer announced (via KABC-7) that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) standards for community levels of COVID-19, the county had entered the “high” level — driven by data showing 10.5 hospital admissions per 100,000 people — an 88% increase since a month ago.

Ferrer added that if the community level remains high through July 28, the county would immediately begin to reimpose indoor mask mandates on July 29.

Click here to read the full article at Breitbart

How Did California Schools Spend Billions in COVID Aid?

Imagine your boss giving you a check equal to four months salary and telling you to spend it quickly or risk giving it back. That in essence is what leaders in Sacramento and Washington did for California schools after the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly shutdown classrooms.

The result was a series of stimulus measures that allocated $33.5 billion in state and federal funds, a staggering amount of one-time funding for the state’s cash-strapped schools, equal to a third of all the money they got the year before the pandemic.

So how did they spend it? Billions have gone to things like laptops, air filters and mental health counselors – money to help kids. But much of the funding has come with limited oversight and little transparency, according to an investigation by CalMatters, a nonprofit news organization.

Of the $5.9 billion local education agencies have spent so far from the largest of the stimulus funds, more than a quarter went to a category for “other” expenses, according to the state.

“I’m just not sure anyone has a good handle on how this money was spent,” said John Affeldt, managing attorney at Public Advocates who works on educational equity issues.

CalMatters spent three months examining school COVID relief spending across the state, reviewing thousands of pages of records obtained through more than 45 public records requests.

The records offer a unique glimpse at how school leaders grappled with the generational challenge of COVID in dollars and cents. In the East Bay, for example, Castro Valley Unified spent most of its stimulus money on payroll. On the Peninsula, Burlingame schools spent more than $300,000 on Chromebooks. In Southern California, El Centro Elementary School District spent $3.8 million to install shade structures for outdoor eating, school assemblies and teaching space, and Long Beach Unified spent nearly $13,000 on music recorders.

The records also reveal the other pandemic winners – companies that reaped millions as overwhelmed districts, suddenly flush with cash, started writing checks.

Some are established firms well-positioned to fill massive orders for goods. Others are new ventures launched by savvy entrepreneurs to capture some of the windfall, including a limited liability company headquartered out of a UPS drop box that got a $52 million no-bid COVID testing contract in San Diego.

One chain of virtual charter schools gave $11 million – nearly two-thirds of its stimulus spending last year – to the publicly traded, for-profit company affiliated with the schools. And a Southern California public school district spent $440,000 to hire an evangelical group for a program to help at-risk kids.

Other records reveal clear mistakes or misspending. The state told West Contra Costa Unified School District to shift nearly $800,000 in unrestricted funds to reimburse its stimulus money because the district failed to prove certain payroll costs were tied to the pandemic. Oakland Unified had to reimburse nearly $1 million in stimulus money it apparently misspent on things like commercial trucks and a communication system, records show.

Some districts refused to provide CalMatters records showing where their money is going. That includes San Francisco Unified, which got more than $186 million in federal stimulus funds.

And local educational agencies still have billions of dollars of COVID relief left to spend. If they don’t spend it by various deadlines, they may have to return it.

In a written statement to CalMatters, the state Department of Education said it is “encouraged by the impact that stimulus funding is having on the students and schools of California,” and that overseeing the funds is a top priority.

“The department has a robust monitoring system to ensure that (agencies’) expenditures are in accordance with all applicable federal and state requirements,” according to the statement.

Still, it might not be enough. The state auditor’s office criticized oversight in an October report, saying the state is not using the limited data it receives to identify abnormal spending patterns and scrutinize local educational agencies.

“The state Department of Education has not taken a very active role in managing how the money is being spent,” said Kris Patel, supervising auditor who led the team behind the October report.

Money, money, money

Ultimately, California public schools and charters got almost $29 billion in federal stimulus money. Billions more came from state programs lawmakers in Sacramento created.

To get a cross-section of the stimulus spending, CalMatters asked more than 30 school districts for their accounting ledgers. Those districts included the 20 biggest and 10 random agencies across a geographically and demographically diverse swath of the state.

Castro Valley Unified spent $263,000 in stimulus funds on Freedom Soul Media Education Initiatives, an equity consultant, and $93,000 on restorative justice consultants, records show. Santa Ana Unified gave $393,000 to Angels Baseball LP to rent out the major league baseball stadium for last year’s high school graduation festivities.

“There’s a district in the Central Coast area that bought an ice cream truck with their money” to give away ice cream to kids stuck at home during the early days of the pandemic, said Michael Fine, chief executive officer of the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, a state-created organization that helps fiscally troubled school districts get their finances in order. “When I was told that I kind of went off.”

One common area of spending was technology. Some districts spent heavily on laptops, hot spots and other hardware, as well as computer programs and support in order to make the switch to virtual schooling when buildings shut down.

Some educators and advocates question the amount of high-tech spending.

“Consulting companies and education service providers have been really aggressive in reaching out to districts to use these funds for new programs that they’re now creating to serve students,” said Amir Whitaker, senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Pandemic winners

It wasn’t just technology companies that reaped massive paydays from districts flush with stimulus cash. Personal protective equipment vendors and businesses selling indoor air quality products got lots of deals. Firms touting COVID testing-related services also were in high demand.

In September 2021, San Diego Unified’s board ratified a no-bid contract with a firm called Responsive Partners LLC – which formed during the pandemic in April 2020 and lists a UPS drop box in Orange County as its address – to run a COVID testing program. The district amended the contract a few months later and the agreement – which runs through July 30 – is now worth up to $52 million.

The board ratified the initial agreement at a September board meeting with no discussion, a video of the meeting shows. The board approved the amended agreement in January, again, with no public discussion.

School officials say the contract was worth it for a district that’s had a particularly aggressive testing strategy to keep schools open – offering far more tests and testing sites than many other districts.

Curious spending but little oversight

The California Virtual Academies, a chain of nine charter schools across the state, were probably better positioned than most to weather the pandemic. They didn’t need to worry about social distancing or need to suddenly figure out how to teach remotely. That’s because they were already teaching students exclusively online.

So how did the virtual academies use the $18 million in COVID relief money they spent last year? Nearly two-thirds of it – $11 million – went to K12 Management Inc., a subsidiary of the publicly traded corporation that helps run the schools, according to records the schools provided to CalMatters in response to a records request. And while some of that money is listed as going to pay for computers and peripheral equipment for students, $8.6 million went to “student course materials” or “online curriculum” straight from the corporation, the records show.

The charters and their relationship to the parent corporation – Stride Inc., which was formerly known as K12 Inc. – have been the source of past legal problems. In 2016, following an investigation by the Bay Area News Group, the state attorney general’s office announced a $168.5 million settlement with K12 Inc. over allegations the company and schools misled parents to boost enrollment and inflated attendance numbers.

CalMatters spoke to several current or former staff at the virtual academies who worked during the pandemic. They said teachers and counselors were overwhelmed as enrollment grew and questioned why so much money went to the corporation.

In an email, the company told CalMatters that the state didn’t provide additional funding to cover the increased enrollment and that the corporation provides online curriculum, education materials, a learning management system and “a wealth of other items” for students and teachers.

Most districts and schools are facing little scrutiny for their pandemic spending decisions, outside local administrative offices and boardrooms. Last fiscal year, the state Education Department reviewed stimulus spending at 15 local educational agencies – less than a percent of the roughly 1,700 agencies that got stimulus funds. This year the department is reviewing 50.

Those reviews turned up numerous red flags, ranging from poor recordkeeping to outdated conflict-of-interest policies to outright misspending.

Hayward Unified, dinged by state monitors over stimulus spending in a review last year – has been able to resolve most of its findings without losing money. State reviewers identified six issues at the school in fiscal year 2020-21.

Still, it’s taken a long time for the district to prove to the state it didn’t mishandle money. Districts are supposed to resolve findings within 45 days. As of this month, it’s been more than a year, and one finding remains outstanding.

Hayward’s assistant superintendent of Business Services, Allan Garde, wrote in an email to CalMatters that the district has been busy trying to keep schools open and running, and expected to resolve the last of the outstanding issues by the end of this month.

The slow pace of resolution hints at the limits of state authority.

Click here to read the full article in the Mercury News

Could Rising COVID-19 Case Rates Prompt Mask Mandate? 

Local coronavirus-related hospitalizations have continued to rise in San Diego County, though not quite quickly enough to push the region into the federal government’s highest tier of COVID-19 activity.

Such a move would have been a significant development because the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal indoor masking if the number of recent hospital admissions reaches 10 or more per 100,000 residents. As of Thursday evening, San Diego’s County’s rate stood at 8.9 per 100,000.

While San Francisco and Sacramento counties have already arrived at the highest level — color coded orange — with rates of 10.2 and 15.4 respectively, Southern California’s most populous areas are all still floating just below the threshold. Los Angeles and Orange counties are listed at 9.7 per 100,000, and Riverside County sits slightly below San Diego at 7.2.

Thus far, the California Department of Public Health has not moved to take the CDC’s recommendation and re-institute indoor masking statewide, but local health departments seemed to be keenly interested in seeing what might happen if those currently teetering on the edge were to turn from yellow to the most severe orange level on the federal agency’s color-coded threat map.

According to the county health department’s weekly update, total confirmed and suspected hospitalizations reported in all of San Diego County’s non-military hospitals hit 361 Wednesday, 26 more than were collectively hospitalized one week ago. New cases reported, however, appeared to be falling a bit, decreasing 281 in a week’s time to 1,767 Wednesday.

Those numbers, experts caution, are not the whole picture. They include only “PCR” results performed by health care providers and testing centers but generally exclude positives from home testing kits, which are not reported to county health departments.

Wastewater sampling, which can detect tiny fragments of coronavirus genetic code, has recently been seen as a better way of gauging the true prevalence of coronavirus in the community.

The most recent wastewater data posted by SEARCH, a collaborative analysis group led by scientists at UC San Diego and Scripps Research, show that the virus’s presence declined in late June, falling from about 7 million copies of the coronavirus on June 12 to 6 million on June 29. Levels have remained far below the all-time peak of 46.5 million on January 10.

Despite producing significantly more infections than previous waves, Omicron proved to be far less likely to cause hospitalization and death than its predecessors. Currently, BA.4 and BA.5, the original Omicron’s descendants, make up a significant proportion of new cases, mirroring trends seen nationwide.

There is evidence, noted Dr. Seema Shah, medical director of the county health department’s epidemiology and immunization branch, that 4 and 5 have a more significant ability to put infected people in hospitals. That has seemed to be the case, she noted, in Portugal, a country with a similarly vaccinated population that saw these two subvariants arrive earlier than they have in the United States. Given that 4 and 5 really began to hold sway in mid-to-late January, she said, there is no reason to expect hospitalizations to slow soon. It often takes weeks, after all, for infected people to get sick enough to need significant medical attention.

“The forecasting is telling us that there is a very good chance that this is going to continue, and that we haven’t seen a peak in hospitalizations yet,” she said.

While the state has not yet broached the possibility of re-instituting its previous indoor masking requirements, some are unequivocal about face coverings’ abilities to slow the spread of even the highly infectious 4 and 5 subvariants that have spread so quickly.

Click here to read the full article in the San Diego Union Tribune

What Will It Take For S.F. Public Schools To Drop The Mask Mandate? Officials Won’t Say

San Francisco private schools and many Bay Area districts expect to abandon mask mandates later this month, but the city’s public school district has decided against the change and declined to provide details or dates for when their 49,000 students will be able to drop face coverings.

District officials say they will continue to require masks indoors, noting that county and state health officials “strongly recommend” students and staff continue to use them.

But require and recommend are not the same, and many families and health experts are asking for clarity on what criteria the district is using to decide when it will lift the mandate.

The district said masking is part of the current discussions with the union.

The San Francisco Unified’s stance will leave its public school students following a different set of rules than many if not most private school students in the city, as well thousands of other students across the Bay Area, where officials in most counties have already announced they will lift the mask requirement as of March 12.

While some families felt relief that masks would stay on in San Francisco public schools, others expressed frustration at the lack of clarity and metrics.

Districts in Contra Costa, San Mateo, Solano, Marin, Santa Clara counties as well as many others across the state announced this week they would follow the state’s lead and leave mask use up to individuals, including Santa Clara Unified, San Ramon Unified, Mill Valley Elementary and Mt. Diablo Unified.

Alameda County and Berkeley health officials announced Thursday they would also lift the mandate, which would likely mean some districts there would also make masks optional, although Oakland and other districts had not yet said what they will do.

In San Francisco, at least a handful of private schools have also said they will stop requiring masks, including Sacred Heart Cathedral, Adda Clevenger School and all of the city’s Archdiocese schools, which serve 23,000 students.

In addition, city health officials announced public buildings will no longer require masks either, except during public meetings.

That means public school students can go into city libraries, City Hall, boba shops, malls, restaurants and virtually any other venue or retail establishment without a mask. Classrooms will be virtually the only place they will have to wear one.

Bay Area infectious disease experts say that while SFUSD’s decision to maintain the mask mandate is not in lockstep with many other districts, it has both positives and negatives — and overall, is a complicated issue.

“I see both sides,” said UCSF infectious disease Peter Chin-Hong, saying the current “gray zone” of the pandemic has led to a lot of confusion and frustration, especially as it relates to schools.

Click here to read the full article at the San Francisco Chronicle