Lake Tahoe Unified School District hosts Community Conversation; Discusses student health, attendance

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – During the Community Conversation at the Lake Tahoe Unified School District Office on Tuesday, Sept. 26, a group of 20 men and women, many of them parents of present and/or former students gathered to discuss all encompassing health and wellness.

“Our goal as a district is to engage our community in two-way communications, such as the Community Conversation, so that we are not only putting out information but getting feedback to improve the system to truly discover and truly foster unique talents and potential of all students,” said Dr. Todd Cutler, LTUSD Superintendent.

Cutler reflected on the vision and mission statements of the District in his opening remarks.

Cutler added “The goals established are steps to make a difference for every learner so they will truly be what they are supposed to be in their future.”

Dr. Cutler said the community conversations will occur three times each year, and will include topics such as nutrition and diet, social and educational aspects that work together to make it possible for students to be socially, emotionally mentally and physically present in schools 

Average daily school attendance numbers have drastically fallen since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Students are missing dramatic amounts of time to have consistency of learning happen and it’s really concerning to us,” said Cutler. 

About 20 parents joined the school district for a Community Conversation.
Ashleigh Goodwin / Tahoe Daily Tribune

He told the group of twenty that low attendance numbers doesn’t just mean lower student to teacher ratios, it also means less funding.

Tabletop discussions led by a LTUSD staff member turned out collaborative responses to very direct questions: what challenges do the students face in getting to school, what is the district doing well and what could be done better?

After five minutes of deep conversation amongst peers and parents several issues were brought to light. One person from each group stepped forward to share the results to the group. 

Alejandra Giron, a UC CalFresh Nutrition Educator told the Tribune she works with elementary age kids to introduce fruits, vegetables and a healthy relationship with food from a young age.

The speaker for her table, Giron said in some cases families that previously had older children pick up younger siblings, but no longer can due to the school start time change.

Another table leader and grandfather of a LTUSD student, Larry Reilly, noted even when dropping off on time, gridlock traffic causes tardiness or in an extreme case, for a surrender resulting in another absent student. 

“Half the time it’s the parents,” said attendee Theresa Papandrea, a mother of two grade school children and member of the Tahoe Alliance for Safe Kids.

Situations out of childrens’ control were at the top of the list for the reasons cited for chronic absenteeism, such as, custody challenges and lack of communication between separated parents, winter two-hour delay, lack of childcare facilities and illness to name a few. 

“Work is not going to wait two hours,” Giron said.

Barton Health was represented during the Tuesday evening discussion group and introduced as an “instrumental partnership” for LTUSD. 

Chris Proctor, Barton’s Director of Community Benefit and Business Development gave a quick anecdotal history of his own experience and how healthcare, with regards to students, evolved through his time from 1997 as a hospital staff physical therapist and off-campus basketball coach. 

“A lot of the students in the population weren’t getting basic needs,” Dr. Proctor said “over a ten year transition, athletic coverage and pre participation physicals went from being the only interaction with doctors these students had to then managing athletes’ health to now the entire student body.” 

“Over 50% of LTUSD students live in poverty,” Dr. Cutler said.

When deciding to call a snow day, another cause of missed days, Cutler shared he worries about students who will not be fed or have warmth on snow days.

Some parents are struggling with the cold and flu season in light of the “if you’re sick stay home” rule during COVID.

Proctor says medical professionals are trying to swing the pendulum back the other way.

Mary Rhonda Sneeringer, pediatrician and parent of four said “If you feel well enough to participate in class, you should go. A cough or runny nose should not exclude you.” 

“We’re trying to avoid serious, spreading things like tuberculosis, COVID isn’t going anywhere but it’s now joining the list of upper respiratory illnesses that can be handled [by medical professionals]. We have to learn to live with it. There’s things you can do to be responsible like wearing a mask is that’s your thing,” said Dr. Sneeringer. 

“Chronic absenteeism ends up as a risk factor for future health problems,” added Dr. Sneeringer

Among the top discussion items of the evening was the mental health impacts of quarantine and masking policies, though there was agreement that the decisions were made out of necessity. 

“Decision making was done based on science,” past board president Reilly said “during the COVID times I am very proud of the [staff] and everyone in the community.”

Reilly added, “Wellness is going to be a long process, it is not going to be something we can take a magic pill and make it all better.”

In the spirit of moving toward the finish line and finding solutions for the students, Cutler took a moment of gratitude for the successes shared by the groups.

Cutler said, “I’m really proud of our district for the effort they’ve put forward to make things better. We’ve added elementary counselors, wellness centers in three of the schools, including nutrition as part of the health.”

Other things the community members felt LTUSD is doing well currently include free breakfast and lunch to all, partnership with South Lake Tahoe Family Resource Center to help fill wellness/basic needs, provide access to free therapy, adult nutrition group, free legal services, and parent groups.

“Success is a journey not a destination,” said Proctor echoing Reilly’s sentiments. 

Correction: This article originally stated that Chris Proctor was a doctor.

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