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In summary

A CalMatters investigation finds that environmentally stringent California sends nearly half its toxic waste across its borders, often to states with weaker rules. One of the biggest out-of-state dumpers: the state’s own hazardous waste watchdog.

California ToxicsOut of state, out of mind

By Robert Lewis

January 25, 2023

Drone footage of the South Yuma County Landfill in Arizona on Nov. 29, 2022. Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters.

In summary

A CalMatters investigation finds that environmentally stringent California sends nearly half its toxic waste across its borders, often to states with weaker rules. One of the biggest out-of-state dumpers: the state’s own hazardous waste watchdog.

In September 2020, workers in Brawley near the Mexico border began loading dump trucks with soil from the site of an old pesticide company. As an excavator carefully placed the Imperial County waste into the vehicles, a worker sprayed the pile with a hose, state records show. Another was on hand to watch for any sign of dust. The trucks then drove through a wash station that showered dirt off the wheels and collected the runoff water.

There was a reason for such caution. Shipping documents indicate the soil was contaminated with DDT, an insecticide the federal Environmental Protection Agency banned decades ago and that research has linked to premature births, cancer and environmental harms. The Brawley dirt was so toxic to California, state regulation labeled it a hazardous waste. That meant it would need to go to a disposal facility specially designed to handle dangerous material – a site with more precautions than a regular landfill to make sure the contaminants couldn’t leach into groundwater or pollute the air.

At least, that would have been the requirement if the waste stayed in California. But it didn’t.

Instead, the trucks – carrying nearly 1,500 tons of California hazardous waste – rumbled just over the Arizona border to the La Paz County Landfill, a municipal solid waste dump several miles from the Colorado River Indian Tribes’ reservation.

The journey is a familiar one for California’s toxics. Since 2010, nearly half of California’s hazardous waste has left the Golden State, according to figures the state released last summer.

Some of this estimated 10 million tons has gone to specialized facilities, but California government agencies and businesses have also transported much of it over the border to states with weaker environmental regulations and dumped it at regular municipal waste landfills, a CalMatters investigation has found. These are cheaper alternatives with more limited protections and oversight than sites permitted to handle hazardous waste. A CalMatters analysis of state shipping records shows that two of the most heavily used by California are near Native American reservations – including a landfill with a spotty environmental record.

While there is nothing illegal about the practice, critics contend it raises troubling questions for a state that loves to pat itself on the back as an environmental leader and a shining example of how to protect the planet.

“California shouldn’t have stringent laws and then send this waste out of state. How is that fair?” said Cynthia Babich, an environmental advocate who was on a state advisory committee several years ago looking at hazardous waste. “You’re just shifting the burden. It’s really not addressing the problem.”

CalMatters spent four months examining how California handles its hazardous waste – analyzing state and federal databases with millions of shipping records, reviewing regulatory filings and archival documents, obtaining hundreds of pages of environmental inspection reports for waste disposal facilities in Arizona and Utah, and interviewing regulators, environmental advocates, engineers and waste industry sources.

CalMatters found no reports directly linking California waste to public health issues or pollution in surrounding communities. But environmental analyses at and around these out-of-state landfills are, at best, limited – largely relying on self-reported data from the waste companies. One Arizona landfill doesn’t conduct groundwater monitoring.

The waste leaving California includes asbestos, treated wood and auto shredder detritus. But the biggest source is contaminated soil – the product of California’s massive efforts to right decades of environmental harm and restore the land at the site of old factories, refineries and military installations. This is soil contaminated with heavy metals such as lead and nickel, petroleum hydrocarbons, and chemicals including DDT. The soil largely comes from cleanups that government agencies either oversee or directly manage.

In the past five years, California has disposed of more than 660,000 tons of contaminated soil in Arizona landfills and nearly a million tons at a Utah landfill, according to data in a state tracking system. That includes hazardous waste from the Mission Bay redevelopment in San Francisco, military base cleanups in San Diego and transportation authority projects in San Bernardino County.

At least one business hopes there will be more. A company in Utah is currently trying to get a permit in that state to open a landfill right on the edge of the Great Salt Lake and planning to take – among other waste streams – contaminated soil. An economic analysis the company filed with Utah regulators says there’s a “unique market opportunity created by California law.”

And while California officials have discussed the issue for years, including a state initiative that looked at ways to treat more contaminated soil on-site, they’ve done little to address it. In fact, the state’s own hazardous waste watchdog – the Department of Toxic Substances Control – is one of the biggest out-of-state dumpers. That’s despite a 1991 pledge signed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson to keep California waste in California.

Since 2018, the department has removed more than 105,000 tons of contaminated soil from the site of the state’s biggest cleanup effort – the area around the old Exide battery recycling plant in Los Angeles County – and disposed of it in western Arizona. Regulatory filings show most wound up at the South Yuma County Landfill, which sits just a few miles from the Cocopah Indian Tribe’s reservation and abuts the lush, green orchards of a company that grows organic dates. It’s a landfill that the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality labeled as posing an “imminent and substantial threat” in 2021 after an inspection noted windblown litter, large amounts of “disease vectors” (flies and birds), and groundwater with elevated levels of chromium – a metal that can harm people and the environment.

Officials with the Department of Toxic Substances Control said the decision to ship the waste out-of-state was driven by cost. Director Meredith Williams acknowledged her agency doesn’t monitor landfill conditions in other states. But she said the department is crafting a new hazardous waste management plan for the state – due in 2025 – that could “reflect the kinds of concerns that you’re hearing about.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Some waste industry experts contend there’s little risk to people or the environment from the contaminated dirt. They say California regulations are too strict – labeling some waste as hazardous under state law even though it falls below the federal threshold to be considered hazardous. They say modern landfills here and out-of-state are more than equipped to handle the cleanup waste, particularly because contaminants such as heavy metals don’t migrate well through soil. They contend the regulations are therefore driving up disposal costs for businesses and the government, and also carry an unintended environmental cost – creating needless emissions from the thousands of trucks and train cars transporting the waste out of state each year.

That’s little comfort to people like David Harper, a member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes whose reservation is near the La Paz County Landfill. That’s a landfill where California agencies and businesses sent more than 160,000 tons of contaminated soil since 2018, including the DDT contaminated waste from Brawley, the state’s waste tracking system shows.

“If it was not a problem, why didn’t they keep it themselves? Why does it have to come here?” Harper said. “Why isn’t it in California?”

California’s magical border

Drive an hour east of Joshua Tree National Park and you’ll hit the Colorado River Indian Tribes’ reservation — nearly 300,000 acres of land straddling the Colorado River, the natural border between California and Arizona.

A funny thing happens at that border. Soil contaminated with enough heavy metals like lead, or chemicals like DDT, that it would be regulated as a hazardous waste in California suddenly turns into little more than a pile of regular, old dirt. This alchemy (and no, nothing actually changes in the soil as it crosses the border) has to do with patchwork regulations and interstate commerce.

Congress enacted the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1976. This federal law defines what counts as a hazardous waste nationwide and lays out how such waste needs to be handled. A separate law enacted around the same time governs disposal of chemicals such as PCBs. If a lab determines that a waste is hazardous under federal law, then it needs to be treated, stored or disposed of at a facility specially permitted to handle hazardous waste.

But the federal law acts as a baseline. Some states, including California, have enacted their own more stringent environmental laws and regulations. California’s Hazardous Waste Control Act was enacted in 1972 under then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, defining hazardous waste under state law. Subsequent laws and rulemaking expanded the state’s reach.

California has also adopted its own testing requirements. Both federal- and state-required lab tests essentially try to mimic landfill conditions to see how much of a contaminant might leach into groundwater. The tests vary in terms of how long they last, the amount of dilution and the acid used.

So even if a waste doesn’t meet the threshold to be considered a hazardous waste under federal law, it can be considered hazardous under California’s different testing system and requirements. Such waste is sometimes called “California hazardous waste.”

From 2010 through mid-last year, California generated about 17 million tons of waste considered hazardous only under state law compared to about 3.8 million tons of waste that met the federal definition of hazardous, according to figures from the state. More than a third of the California-only hazardous waste was contaminated soil.

California hazardous waste generally needs to be treated as toxic in the state and disposed of at facilities authorized to handle such materials.

Such sites are subject to increased state and federal oversight and design requirements. For example, a hazardous waste disposal facility needs to have a double liner system, essentially making it harder for toxic material to seep out of the landfill and into the surrounding area. A regular landfill isn’t required to have two of those protective barriers, experts told CalMatters.

California has only two hazardous waste landfills: the Kettleman Hills Facility in Kings County and the Buttonwillow landfill facility in Kern County.

Officials in the Department of Toxic Substances Control initially told CalMatters that capacity could be a barrier to disposal at these two California sites. But they could not provide any examples where space considerations had driven a decision to export waste instead. 

Jennifer Andrews, a spokeswoman for WM (formerly known as Waste Management Inc.), which operates the Kettleman Hills facility, said the site “has enough capacity to meet the State of California’s hazardous waste disposal needs.”

“We also have plenty of space to meet the needs of DTSC waste for years to come, providing the agency permits new disposal units at our site.”

Buttonwillow, whose representatives didn’t respond to an interview request, also appears to have enough room to take contaminated soil – with about 5.5 million cubic yards of remaining space, according to corporate filings.

But the two sites have faced their own scrutiny over regulatory lapses and environmental concerns, including a chemical spill at Buttonwillow years ago and the mishandling of some toxic waste at Kettleman Hills that resulted in government fines for each. State regulators have cited both for numerous violations over the years, Department of Toxic Substances Control records show.  And while environmental activists have said they don’t want waste going to out-of-state landfills, some also don’t want California’s hazardous waste going to those two in-state facilities near low-income communities of color.

Cost appears to be a major factor in determining where California-only hazardous waste ends up. The Department of Toxic Substances Control provided figures to CalMatters showing the cost to dispose of California-only hazardous waste in-state can be about 40% to 60% higher than out-of-state disposal. Reasons include fees, taxes and “time at landfill for disposal (i.e., long wait times), and scheduling difficulty due to large volumes of hazardous waste for disposals,” according to the department. Other estimates put the cost at about 20% more, depending on where in the state the waste is generated.

Last year, state parks officials needed to dispose of 2,300 tons of soil workers excavated from the site of the Los Angeles State Historic Park in California – an old railyard. Ultimately, the soil – listed in shipping records as “Impacted with metals” – was transported just over the river to the La Paz County Landfill outside of Parker, Arizona, shipping records show.

Young children play and fly their kites as the sun begins to set at the Los Angeles State Historic Park in Los Angeles on Jan. 6, 2023. Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters
Children play at the Los Angeles State Historic Park, an old railyard, where workers last year removed 2,300 tons of contaminated soil. The hazardous waste was taken to the La Paz County Landfill in Arizona. Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

“The environmental consultant hired by State Parks selected the La Paz facility as it was the most economical, at roughly half the cost, and most reliable choice, while also meeting all required environmental standards,” according to a written statement from the parks department.

The parks department also said California’s two hazardous waste landfills “do not always accept certain hazardous wastes due to various factors such as capacity or technical issues. They also typically require a more lengthy and burdensome approval process.”

The decision was certainly not unique. Since 2010, about 43% of California-only hazardous waste has been transported out of the state – much of it to Arizona and Utah landfills, government records show

California regulations may stop at the border, but its waste does not.

Sacred ground

On a clear morning shortly after Thanksgiving, David Harper took a CalMatters reporter and photographer on a tour of the area around the La Paz County, Arizona, landfill. Harper is a member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes and a former chairman of the Mohave Elders Committee. He is also a founding board member of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, an environmental advocacy organization that has long opposed California’s out-of-state dumping.

Parker, Arizona on Nov. 28, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
Parker, a small city in Arizona, is home to the La Paz County Landfill, one of the main destinations for California’s toxic soil. The landfill is about five miles from the Colorado River Indian Tribes’ Reservation at its nearest point. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

The reservation sits inside a valley about five miles from the landfill at its closest point. It’s a dusty landscape two-and-a-half hours west of Phoenix that smells of creosote bushes and is dotted with saguaro, the tall cactus symbolic of the American West. 

Mountains border the area, each a part of the Mohave creation story. Redtail Hawk Mountain, Moon Mountain, Fishtail Mountain. Harper calls one range Old Woman and says his people believe the creator turned a revered member of the tribe into a mountain so she could forever oversee the land – her nose, chin and bosom silhouetted against the blue expanse of sky.

“It’s a living, breathing environment. But to you, it’s a desert wasteland. But it’s not to us,” Harper said. “These areas are sacred.”

David Harper on the banks of the Colorado River near Parker, Arizona on Nov. 28, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
David Harper, a member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, stands near the banks of the Colorado River. For years, California government agencies and businesses have been dumping their hazardous waste at a nearby landfill. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Some liken the area to the land along the River Nile, said Valerie Welsh-Tahbo, director of the Colorado River Indian Tribes Museum and a former tribal council member. The river cutting through the desert landscape creates rich soil for farming melons, cotton and alfalfa, she said.

Like some other tribal members interviewed for this story, she worried about the California hazardous waste transported to the landfill just outside the reservation.

“I don’t think enough people are aware that that’s happening, for one thing, and what kind of toxic materials are being dumped out there,” Welsh-Tahbo said. “I think the general thinking is, ‘Well, it’s far enough away from the municipalities that it should be okay.’ So, I guess out of sight, out of mind seems to be the attitude.”

Landfills like the one in La Paz are subject to limited oversight. The federal EPA doesn’t routinely monitor conditions there. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality does inspect municipal solid waste landfills though there is no requirement as to how often. The goal is annually, a department official told CalMatters. The department inspected the La Paz facility in October 2021 and identified no deficiencies, according to a copy of the inspection report the department provided CalMatters.

Such reviews, however, are not necessarily comprehensive. For example, the department typically doesn’t do its own water testing, a state spokeswoman confirmed, instead relying on landfills to test for contamination and to report the results accurately. But even then, there are gaps.

The La Paz facility obtained an exemption allowing smaller landfills to avoid certain requirements like groundwater monitoring. That was in 1996. As a result, the landfill hasn’t had to report such water quality test results for more than 25 years and, according to the most recent annual inspection report, doesn’t monitor groundwater at the site.

The operator of the site, Republic Services, said in an email to CalMatters that the landfill has “a state-of-the-art engineered composite liner system,” and that “the depth of the uppermost groundwater aquifer is 460 feet or more below the bottom-most liner.”

Republic Services is “committed to safety, environmental responsibility, sustainable solutions, and ensuring that all our facilities comply with federal, state and local laws and regulations,” according to the company’s statement to CalMatters.

Caroline Oppleman, a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, said in an email to CalMatters that “landfills are very closely regulated” under federal and state law. She said this includes oversight on “where they can be built, how they are built, waste they can accept, and finally, how they are closed and monitored for a minimum period of 30 years after closure.”

Parker, Arizona on Nov. 28, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
A mural in Parker, Arizona, honors the Colorado River Indian Tribes. Some members of the tribes are concerned about hazardous waste California has been disposing at a nearby landfill. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Indeed, some engineering experts say regular landfills are more than equipped to safely dispose of California’s contaminated soil, with or without the extra safety features of a permitted hazardous waste facility. Modern landfills are well designed, and composite liners have a remarkable record when it comes to containing waste, said Craig H. Benson, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin and national expert on waste facility design. It’s not like the 1980s when a landfill could be little more than a hole in the ground, he said.

And, even something as scary sounding as DDT doesn’t tend to migrate too far through the ground, he added.

“Those types of compounds are pretty immobile,” Benson said. “You wouldn’t want to be eating them.”

As a result, engineers CalMatters spoke with said California’s current regulatory system can be overkill – creating an unintended environmental impact from the greenhouse gas emissions of all the trucks and trains carrying the waste out of state when California could safely dispose of the contaminated soil in regular landfills in its own state.

“Does that make any sense at all with all the diesel emissions, safety issues, the risks from actually hauling it there?” Benson said. “I’d much rather put it in a safe and secure landfill that’s maybe 10 miles away.”

Decades of dumping

California hazardous waste has been going to out-of-state facilities for decades. In the late 1980s, the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco was sending its shredded money – considered hazardous in California because of the lead content – to a landfill in Jackson County, Oregon, according to memos from Oregon environmental officials at the time. 

Oregon regulators in 1988 proposed a rule to effectively stop California from such disposal practices. A company wanted to build an infectious waste incinerator in Klamath County – three miles from the border with California.

“Hazardous waste is more strictly regulated, and therefore, more costly to manage … As a result, some generators of hazardous waste will pursue ways to ship the waste to a neighboring state,” according to a 1988 memo from an Oregon environmental regulator to the state’s Environmental Quality Commission.

 “A receiving state is, therefore, at risk of becoming a ‘dumping ground.’”  

Oregon ultimately adopted a rule in 1989 that says if another state considers waste to be hazardous, then Oregon will also consider the material to be hazardous even if the waste wouldn’t qualify for such a designation under Oregon’s laws. In other words, if California says contaminated soil is toxic then Oregon treats it as toxic. Nevada has a similar rule.

As a result, those states’ solid waste landfills don’t appear to be “dumping grounds” for California hazardous waste, shipping records indicate. But some of California’s neighbors – notably Utah and Arizona – don’t have such rules.

Environmental activists in the 1990s protested in Arizona about the waste coming from the Golden State.

“This stuff is toxic waste. It is material that can kill you,” said Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction, an environmental advocacy organization. “It is material that can cause cancer. That is why it’s called toxic waste.”

“The most vulnerable of our society continue to get dumped on.”

But the areas around the out-of-state landfills are sparsely populated, and some local officials there have welcomed the waste as a vital part of their economy.

Local officials in Utah sent letters in 2017 to their state environmental regulators saying the ECDC landfill in East Carbon was an important source of tax revenue and had “enabled quality jobs to be maintained in rural Utah.” ECDC is a major destination for California’s contaminated soil – much of it transported via rail from cleanup sites and development projects in San Francisco, according to hazardous waste shipping records filed with regulators.

A food delivery driver drops off an order at 600 Minnesota Street in San Francisco on Jan. 6, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
A food delivery driver drops off an order at 600 Minnesota St. in San Francisco. When developing this site, the University of California, San Francisco, excavated soil contaminated with metals and asbestos, hazardous waste shipping records show. According to those records, the waste was disposed of at a Utah landfill that’s a major destination for hazardous waste from the Bay Area. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

The facility drew regulatory scrutiny years ago, Utah environmental records show. In 2004, Utah regulators learned some waste from a refinery in Wilmington, California – considered hazardous under federal standards – was disposed of at the landfill. In late 2005, workers started excavating that material from the landfill, according to archival documents. 

In recent years Utah regulators haven’t identified any issues during inspections.

David Ariotti helped oversee the landfill for years as an engineer in Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality. Now retired, he said the landfill was “better managed than most.” He said regulators knew the types of waste the facility would take, including California-only hazardous waste.

“As with any industry, if there’s money to be made, they’re looking to make it,” Ariotti said. “They met everything they were supposed to. I inspected it and I was satisfied with the construction. They didn’t take any shortcuts.”

He was, however, always concerned about the landfill’s proximity to an aquifer. “I was not in favor of the landfill because of where they put it,” he said, adding that any risk to groundwater is a concern.

In a statement, Republic Services said, “The environmental services industry is one of the most heavily regulated in the United States and in most cases, our Landfills exceed safety standards set by the EPA and state regulatory agencies. This is the case at ECDC,” according to the company, which touted the site’s advanced leak barrier and detection system.

The Utah landfill conducts its own groundwater monitoring and submits the results to the state for review. Those reports in recent years have shown no problems, state regulators said.

Old promises

There was a time when California promised not to discard its toxic waste in other states, regardless of whether those states and communities would allow it.

In 1991, then-Gov. Pete Wilson signed the Western States Regional Waste Management Protocol. He was one of 21 governors to sign the document, which came out of the Western Governors’ Association, according to a copy of the protocol CalMatters obtained from the Colorado State Archives. The agreement was a pledge to “do everything economically and environmentally practical to ensure that wastes generated in our states are treated and disposed of in our own state before resorting to export.”

“Wastesheds, like watersheds, do not follow the political boundaries on a map,” the protocol stated.

California’s Department of Transportation – Caltrans – still adheres to the agreement even though it has long since expired. A Caltrans spokesman told CalMatters such regional protocols typically last for three years and expire unless renewed. The waste agreement was readopted in 1995. The Western Governors Association adopted a related policy resolution in 2003, according to a copy CalTrans provided CalMatters. That resolution didn’t ban waste shipments between states, citing “many examples of safe, effective and efficient cross-border waste management arrangements.”

The resolution did say “each state should do everything it possibly can to deal with its own solid waste in-state, including making those hard siting decisions when no one wants it ‘in their backyard.’”

In an email to CalMatters, Caltrans media relations manager Will Arnold said his department’s “policy is, and has been since 1995, to dispose of hazardous waste generated by highway construction within the state, unless there are exceptional circumstances.” 

But the state agency in charge of overseeing hazardous waste in California apparently has no such self-imposed limitation.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control oversees or manages numerous environmental remediation projects around the state. The biggest cleanup is at the site of an old battery recycling facility called Exide in the Los Angeles County community of Vernon. For years, the department has been cleaning up toxic waste on site and in the surrounding neighborhoods, digging up soil littered with lead.

Much of that waste is going to Arizona. The state’s hazardous waste tracking system shows that since 2018, more than 105,000 tons of contaminated soil from the Exide residential cleanup have gone to that state. Some wound up at the La Paz County Landfill. Most, however, went to the South Yuma County Landfill, just outside of Somerton and near the Mexico border, according to the state’s data.

Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
A shipping document — called a hazardous waste manifest — from the Exide residential cleanup shows contaminated soil the Department of Toxic Substances Control disposed of at the South Yuma County Landfill in Arizona. Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

“A cost-analysis determined that savings associated with out-of-state disposal allowed DTSC to cleanup more contaminated residential properties,” according to a statement from the Department of Toxic Substances Control.

The landfill is about three miles from the Cocopah Reservation, federal records show. The site is bordered by lush agricultural fields – a chain link fence and narrow dirt path separate the landfill from a neighboring organic date orchard. (The head of the date farm did not respond to an interview request.)

The South Yuma County Landfill is visible from a neighboring organic date farm in Yuma on Nov. 29, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
The South Yuma County Landfill, where California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control takes much of the lead-contaminated soil from the Exide cleanup, sits next to an organic date orchard and just a few miles from a Native American reservation. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

CalMatters obtained landfill inspection reports for 2020 through 2022 from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. During that period, Arizona inspectors flagged issues in a number of the South Yuma landfill inspections. Some were relatively minor and easily corrected –  for instance, not enough fire extinguishers near the area where the landfill stored waste tires.

Others were potentially more concerning. An April 2021 inspection report identified issues with windblown litter, disease vectors like birds and insects, and the system to collect and control stormwater runoff. The inspection also noted elevated chromium levels in one of the monitoring wells on site. In a question on the inspection report asking, “Has any condition or activity resulted in an imminent and substantial threat to public health or the environment?” the box for yes is checked.

As a result, the landfill operator in October 2021 entered into a consent order with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. In signing the order, the company didn’t admit to wrongdoing but agreed to a number of fixes.  The landfill made changes and the department terminated the order in February 2022, regulatory filings show.

Just a few months later, however, Arizona inspectors again identified “potential deficiencies” at the site. Among the issues, inspectors in June again saw windblown litter, flagged the company for not submitting certain reports and noted some groundwater tests exceeded water quality standards, according to a June inspection report.

The landfill “corrected all conditions listed” in the findings, according to an email from Arizona’s Department of Environmental Quality. The department is also “working with them to develop a revised groundwater monitoring plan,” the department said.

The company declined to give CalMatters a tour of its facility. (“Sorry. But no,” a company official texted in response to a reporter’s request.) A company representative did provide written responses to questions indicating the company, which bought the landfill more than 12 years ago, “hired the best engineers we knew in Southern CA to review the permits and substantiate the operations.”

According to the response, the elevated chromium noted in the April 2021 inspection “has not been repeated in subsequent groundwater monitoring events.”

The company “maintains a 100-foot setback from all adjacent properties and public right of ways for all waste disposal activities. California waste traffic approaches the landfill from a public road and enters from a point of access as far as possible from neighboring farms and after checking in and initial screening, directed to the landfill working face where it is landfilled and daily covered with earthen material,” according to the company. 

The response also indicated windblown litter is a common problem at municipal solid waste landfills and that the company has filed all required notices and reports with state regulators.

The recent regulatory issues don’t appear to have impacted the flow of waste from California to the South Yuma landfill. Since the April 2021 inspection, the landfill has gotten more than 1,800 shipments of contaminated soil from the Exide cleanup, the state’s waste tracking system shows.

The South Yuma County Landfill in Yuma, Arizona on Nov. 29, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
California has disposed of about 400,000 tons of contaminated soil at the South Yuma County Landfill in Arizona since 2018, according to California’s hazardous waste tracking system. The waste is considered hazardous in California, but Arizona’s less stringent environmental requirements allow businesses and government agencies in the Golden State to take the waste to regular landfills like this one. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Asked if it’s safe to dump California-only hazardous waste at a municipal solid waste landfill like South Yuma, the director of California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control, Meredith Williams, said she couldn’t “make a blanket statement about the safety of that because everything’s so situational.”

“What is the hazard? Why is it classified as hazardous, non-hazardous waste? What are the conditions that are relevant and how well is …that out-of-state landfill managed?” she said.

Her department doesn’t appear to know how such landfills are managed or their safety track records. The department doesn’t routinely get inspection records nor does the agency monitor out-of-state facilities, Williams said.

“We have our hands full enough,” Williams said. “I think we’re not in a position to go out of state and assess an out-of-state landfill for its operations. It’s more than we can take on.”

Lots of talk

In 2015, the Department of Toxic Substances Control got money from the state for an initiative to reduce the amount of hazardous waste generated in California. The state had recently approved the expansion of one of California’s two hazardous waste landfills but officials were concerned the communities around those landfills bore a “disproportionate burden” for disposal of toxic waste in the state, agency records show.

That led to the creation of a special advisory committee made up of members representing a diverse cross section of interests including the waste industry, environmental advocates and academic researchers.

One of the main areas the panel looked at was contaminated soil. That’s because in 2015, soil from cleanup sites was the single biggest type of hazardous waste generated in California, according to a report of the group’s findings.

The committee talked about the fact the soil was often going to landfills in other states, members told CalMatters.

“We didn’t want to be shipping California’s risk factors to other people’s backyards,” said Oladele Ogunseitan, a microbiologist and presidential chair at the University of California, Irvine, who was on the committee. The panel didn’t explore what happens to the waste out of state, he added.

“We hope they know what they’re doing,” Ogunseitan said. “These things don’t know state boundaries.”

Ogunseitan said he understood the engineering of landfills has changed over the years and that modern designs are more protective. But little risk is not the same as no risk, he said, and contaminants can be a danger generations from now.

“If I lived in Arizona I’d be out protesting,” he said.

Cynthia Babich was also on the committee. Babich is director of the Del Amo Action Committee, an environmental justice organization that formed in response to community concern over Superfund sites in Los Angeles County. She said the advisory panel looked at various alternatives to excavating soil and dumping it at landfills. These were technologies to treat contaminated soil on site.

Among the technologies discussed was something called “soil washing,” in which dirt contaminated with metals was scrubbed to remove the toxic material, the committee’s report shows. Another involved the use of heat to destroy certain contaminants.

At the time there were questions about the cost and effectiveness of such technologies. The Department of Toxic Substances Control ultimately released a 2017 report based on the committee’s findings. That report, among other things, recommended more research into technologies for treating contaminated soil.

But the state didn’t follow through, citing a lack of money.

“Now we have a report and nothing happened,” Babich said.

The La Paz County Regional Landfill, with the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation land in the background, in Arizona on Nov. 29, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
Several years ago, a California state advisory committee looked at ways to limit the amount of contaminated soil California excavates every year and dumps at places like the La Paz County Landfill in Arizona. This municipal solid waste landfill is about five miles from the Colorado River Indian Tribes’ reservation. The state didn’t follow through on committee recommendations. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Babich said her group wants the state to clean up contamination that has long burdened lower-income communities of color. But simply dumping the waste on another marginalized community is not the answer.

Williams, the department’s director, acknowledged the original vision was for pilot projects to study alternatives to excavation.

“However, there was no appropriation that was given to support those pilots. And so there was no place to take the recommendations and continue to act,” she said.

Officials are once again taking a close look at how the state handles its toxic materials and could make changes. The review is part of a 2021 law that, among other things, is requiring the state to prepare a hazardous waste management plan.

As part of the planning process, the department is scheduled to release a detailed public report with data on hazardous waste California is generating and where it’s going by March 1. The actual management plan, however, isn’t due until March 2025. 

Next up: The Great Salt Lake

One company appears to be banking on the continued flow of California hazardous waste. A company called Promontory Point Resources is currently trying to get a permit from Utah regulators to operate a landfill that could take out-of-state waste, including contaminated soil from California. 

The company behind the Promontory Point project had a needs assessment prepared as part of its permit application. That analysis calls excavated soil a “unique market opportunity” and suggests many Northern California hazardous waste generators would send their contaminated soil to the landfill because of the low cost. The analysis estimates the cost to send contaminated soil from northern California to the Promontory Point facility would be $100 per ton as compared to $145 per ton at the Kettleman Hills hazardous waste disposal facility.

The owner of a landfill in Utah is currently seeking a permit to take out-of-state waste, including California’s contaminated soil. The landfill is on the tip of Promontory Point, a peninsula jutting down into the Great Salt Lake. Critics worry California’s hazardous waste could pollute the lake. Drone footage of the site on Dec. 1, 2022. Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters.

The proposed landfill sits on the tip of Promontory Point, a peninsula jutting down into the Great Salt Lake. The facility is roughly half a mile from the edge of the lake and accessible from Ogden via a bumpy railroad causeway. The drive yields expansive views of the surrounding mountains and, on a recent visit, the sight of an eagle perched atop a wooden utility pole.

“It’s very problematic,” said Lynn de Freitas, executive director of FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake, one of the groups opposing the landfill. She said the area is important for “migratory bird habitat, brine shrimp” and the overall health of the saline system.

Executive Director of Friends of Great Salt Lake Lynn de Freitas at the site of the proposed hazardous waste landfill at Promontory Point on Nov. 30, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
Lynn de Freitas, executive director of FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake, stands outside the site of a landfill whose owner is trying to get a permit allowing it to take California’s contaminated soil. The landfill is roughly half a mile from the banks of the lake on the tip of the Promontory Point peninsula. Her environmental advocacy organization is opposing the project and highlighting pollution concerns. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Compass Minerals, a company with facilities near the landfill, has also raised concerns. The company uses brine from the lake to produce minerals for fertilizers used in fruit, tree nut and vegetable crops.

Early soil borings in the area found fractured bedrock, said Joe Havasi, Compass Minerals’ vice president of natural resources. Such fractures could be a path for contaminants from the landfill to “flow quickly and efficiently to the lake,” Havasi said. The scale and extent of such fractures hasn’t been fully assessed and there should at the very least be more testing before any permit approval, he added.

In a written response to questions from CalMatters, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality wrote that “there are no concerns with the bedrock beneath the landfill.” 

As to whether the department has any concerns about the type of waste that could be dumped on the lake’s edge, the agency responded that the “landfill permit application is currently under review.”

Landfill representatives did not respond to multiple interview requests.

If Utah does approve the permit, Lynn de Freitas, the environmental advocate, has a plea to California.

“You could hold on to your own waste,” she said. “That would be ideal.” 

For the record: Due to an error on the Department of Toxic Substances Control website, the story incorrectly identified the administration under which California’s Hazardous Waste Control Act was enacted. It was enacted in 1972 under Gov. Ronald Reagan.

In summary

New Title IX rules barring gender discrimination could put more responsibility on colleges to protect transgender and nonbinary students. But those students say creating welcoming campuses will require more than just policy.

Lea este artículo en español.

It took Xander nearly a decade to try community college again. 

The incoming American River College student first attempted higher education in North Carolina in 2013. But navigating campus as a man who is transgender was a nightmare, said Xander, who’s now 30 and asked to use his first name only because he did not want to publicly reveal that he is trans.

In the classroom, he said, people refused to call him Xander. Classmates misgendered him, deadnamed him — using his former name from before he transitioned —  and told him he was in the wrong bathroom. He never knew when a confrontation might escalate to violence. Eventually, he said, he began living a double life, taking on different personas inside and outside the school walls.

“I was out to my friends, but at school I gave up with letting people deadname me and misgender me, like it wasn’t worth the fight anymore,” Xander said. “And it wasn’t worth the risk.”

Xander’s experiences mirror those of other transgender students in the U.S.; according to an April survey by The Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law, more than a third of transgender people report experiencing bullying or harassment in college.

President Joe Biden’s administration aims to protect students who identify as transgender and nonbinary from discrimination under new rules proposed in June and now making their way through the Education Department’s lengthy rulemaking process. If finalized, the changes to Title IX, the 50-year-old civil rights law, would clarify that its ban on discrimination on the basis of sex extends to sexual orientation and gender identity. 

So what impact will the expanded protections have on college campuses in California, a state that has already passed laws barring discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression? 

Legally, not so much, say civil rights lawyers. But the proposed guidelines will remove ambiguity about what Title IX covers and put more responsibility on schools to address discrimination, they say. Students and college employees who advocate for LGBTQ rights told the CalMatters College Journalism Network that while they applaud the change in federal policy, campuses must go beyond the letter of the law to ensure that they are safe and welcoming places for transgender and nonbinary people to learn. 

“What we see is that queer and trans students generally feel less welcome on their college campuses and more concerned about their physical safety, but also their emotional safety,” said Emilie Mitchell, dean of social and behavioral sciences at Cosumnes River College and  co-organizer of an annual LGBTQ+ summit for the state’s community colleges. “Are they going to be mistreated in a classroom? Is their identity going to be a class topic for debate?” The new rules are reassuring, she said, because they give “a lot less wiggle room to people who might want to behave in really destructive ways towards the queer and trans community.” 

Among other changes, the guidelines require colleges to monitor their campuses for gender discrimination and “take prompt and effective action” to fix it — stronger language than the previous requirement to be “not deliberately indifferent.” And by explicitly writing in protections, they ensure that anti-LGBTQ discrimination can be handled under Title IX instead of being rerouted to other disciplinary processes, said Kel O’Hara, a staff attorney at Equal Rights Advocates, a legal and advocacy organization specializing in gender issues.

The new rules also could lead the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to investigate more gender discrimination complaints against schools, said Carly Mee, a civil rights attorney at Trister, Ross, Schadler & Gold, PLLC. 

“It’s important to have an external mechanism where you can go and file that complaint and say, ‘My school is not protecting my rights,’” she added. “That will be a big deal for trans and nonbinary students.”

“While on paper, trans students are certainly protected in our schools, we don’t always experience that.”

Eli Erlick, UC Santa Cruz doctoral student and co-founder of Trans Student Educational Resources

The Education Department has already issued informal guidance saying that Title IX protections apply to gender and sexual orientation, but a federal judge in July temporarily blocked the department from enforcing that interpretation in 20 states that sued, saying the advice conflicted with anti-trans laws they’d already passed. Controversy has erupted in a number of states over whether transgender students should be allowed to participate on sports teams that correspond with their gender identity; the Biden administration has said it will issue a separate Title IX rule specifically addressing athletics.

Attorneys with the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation argued in a September op-ed in The Hill that the new rules would “pose a severe threat to free speech” by censoring viewpoints such as that of a professor who “declines to use a student’s preferred pronoun because of her religious beliefs.” 

In California, a new law took effect this year requiring public colleges to update records for students who have legally changed their names, including as a result of a gender transition, and allowing graduates to request an updated copy of their diploma for free. Starting with the next academic year, colleges must allow students to self-identify their names on diplomas even without documentation of a legal name change. 

The state’s public university systems say they are reviewing the impact the Title IX changes could have for their respective campuses, with University of California spokesperson Stett Holbrook saying they “represent a great improvement over the regulations issued by the previous administration in 2020, many of which UC opposed.”

UC campuses are also rolling out a gender recognition policy that goes beyond the state law to ensure people are identified by their accurate gender identity and name in all their interactions with the university. Another state law will require the community colleges to do the same, starting next fall.  

Transgender and nonbinary students say policies alone aren’t enough. 

“While on paper, trans students are certainly protected in our schools, we don’t always experience that,” said Eli Erlick, a doctoral student at UC Santa Cruz who co-founded Trans Student Educational Resources, a national organization led by trans youth.

Erlick said it’s crucial to have campus support networks built by and for trans people. 

When she co-founded the organization, she said, “this was the idea: to help people understand their rights, know their choices and opportunities and know what they can do to protect themselves.”

At UC Santa Cruz, Fénix López, a fourth-year undergraduate, has built their own community on campus. Lopez, who identifies as queer and nonbinary, helps run the Lavender Club, a queer undergraduate group, and is a resident assistant for the LGBTQ-themed floor in their college residence hall.

“As a queer person, I feel like I have to make my own spaces,” they said. This year, those spaces include a “Queersgiving” event that the club hosted.

“The point was to kind of celebrate not Thanksgiving but gathering with your friends, having a meal with your found family, because I know that the holidays can be rough for a lot of queer individuals,” López said. 

Universities need to pay more attention to meeting transgender and nonbinary students’ basic needs, López said, which include not just housing and food but “making sure you have a community, that you feel that you have that sense of belonging.”

“What we see is that queer and trans students generally feel less welcome on their college campuses and more concerned about their physical safety, but also their emotional safety.”

Emilie Mitchell, co-organizer, California Community Colleges LGBTQ+ Summit

Despite the protections California transgender and nonbinary students have, campus staff who work with those students say they still regularly hear reports of misgendering and other negative experiences on campus.

delfín bautista, director of the Lionel Cantú Queer Resource Center at UC Santa Cruz, said that while California was more welcoming to transgender and nonbinary students than Florida and Ohio, where they previously lived, “students do feel invisible, and they don’t feel necessarily embraced and affirmed.”

Per California law, all single-stall restrooms on the UC Santa Cruz campus are gender neutral – but they are in short supply, said bautista, who lower-cases their first and last name. And while UC Santa Cruz policy says that athletes can use whatever locker room they identify with, that doesn’t mean they always feel safe doing so, bautista said.

At UC Berkeley, graduate students often tell Em Huang, the campus’s director of LGBTQ+ Advancement and Equity, that the professors they work with misgender them or call them by an incorrect name. It can be easier for that to happen in small labs, Huang said, where there are fewer people around to speak up and the student feels isolated. 

O’Hara, the Equal Rights Advocates attorney, said that when representing students in Title IX proceedings, they have been misgendered by Title IX coordinators and so have their clients. 

“If you’re trying to seek safety and protection and resolution on campus, but the people you’re interacting with barely understand you, that doesn’t feel safe, that doesn’t feel OK,” O’Hara said.

At American River College, where Mitchell used to work, a 2019 survey found that nearly one-third of about 1200 students felt it was necessary to hide their gender identity from fellow students, with an equal number saying they hid it from their professors. 

While the college has a Pride Center, Mitchell estimated that fewer than a dozen of the state’s 115 community college campuses have such a center with at least one paid staff person.

“There are a lot of campuses that rely on unpaid volunteer staff or advocates,” Mitchell said. “When you’re talking about institutional support, right, an institution saying, ‘We’re really interested in providing high-level services to our queer and trans students,’ I don’t know how you do that when you rest all those efforts on the shoulders of the committed but unpaid.”

The state Legislature allocated $10 million last year to the California community colleges to support LGBTQ students; Melissa Villarin, a spokesperson for the Chancellor’s Office, said colleges are using the funds for LGBTQ-focused centers and curriculum, professional development and mental health care, among other services. 

Campus advocates say students often are confused about Title IX and what their rights are under the law. Some said universities should create and publicly post an LGBTQ bill of rights, and that the Department of Education should give schools specific examples of prohibited types of conduct unique to transgender and nonbinary students.

The new Title IX rules, said O’Hara, could also make a difference in cases like California State University’s Maritime Academy, where the Los Angeles Times reported that “claims of widespread sexual misconduct, homophobia, transphobia and racism” have roiled the campus. One cadet filed a Title IX report over messages in a group text chat where cadet leaders mocked LGBTQ classmates, according to the Times, but both the campus and the Cal State chancellor’s office found that the chat, which did not name any person, was protected speech under the First Amendment. 

O’Hara, who is not involved in the case, said that their first question as a Title IX attorney would be, “OK, what else is going on?”

“Because if that’s how your classmates are talking about you in their private messages, chances are they’re doing other things to make you feel uncomfortable in your identity,” O’Hara said. The new rules’ affirmative monitoring requirement would put the responsibility on the school to gather that evidence, O’Hara said.

In addition to the challenges, transgender students also told the CalMatters College Journalism Network about times they felt supported on campus.

Erlick, who received her bachelor’s degree from Pitzer College, said there were a lot more resources there, and later at UC Santa Cruz, than in her hometown of Mendocino County. She found student groups that helped her thrive and learn in an academic environment that also incorporated queer and trans people, she said.

As Xander navigates the enrollment process at American River College, he said staff never mention his former name out loud if it appears in legal documents. Instead, to avoid outing him, they’ll show him the name on a computer screen or say the first initial, he said.

While working to have his name changed in the college’s system, he connected with a staff member who told him, “Oh, I understand. I’m nonbinary. I went through a name change.”

“I was like, wow, that’s super cool. Like knowing that there’s a trans person on staff,” Xander said. “And so that made me feel safer. It made me feel a lot better actually.” 

Shaikh is a former fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. Network fellow Oden Taylor contributed reporting. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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During UC strike, professors take learning outside of the classroom

After tens of thousands of UC academic workers walked off the job last month – in what may be the largest strike in higher education history – professors and teaching assistants took class to the picket line. Students have made films about the strike, attended teach-ins about disability rights, and gotten crash courses in labor…

In summary

Charles Drew University, the only historically Black university in California, will launch a new MD program next year. The goal is to train more doctors of color to help underserved communities in a state where only 3% of physicians are Black.

Medical student Allison Leggett knows the power of her presence as a Black health professional. During her clinical training she met a young patient with social-developmental delays, who was very sick and spent a lot of time in the hospital alone because her father, her sole caretaker, worked three jobs. “At first I thought she didn’t like me, but when I told her it was my last day and I was leaving, she started crying!” said Leggett. “Afterwards, her dad pulled me aside and told me, ‘I don’t think you realize how much of an impact you made on her.’”

That moment also had an impact on Leggett, who realized how representation at the bedside can put a family at ease. “Having a Black physician on the team really made him feel comfortable, especially since he couldn’t be there all the time advocating for his daughter, and he really felt like we were taking care of his baby girl,” she said. “He was extremely scared, but he knew we were fighting for him and for her.” 

As a student, Leggett wants to fight for the community that raised her, which is why she began her medical career at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, California’s only historically Black university. The university has graduated more than 900 physicians since 1981 through a joint program with the University of California Los Angeles.

Next year, Charles Drew will start its own medical school in the hopes of training even more culturally-competent doctors like Leggett. 

Sometimes the difference between great care and a patient slipping through the cracks can come down to who is in the room, research shows. A 2020 study, for example, found that Black infant mortality in the first year of life is halved when treated by a Black physician. But in California, Black doctors have for decades made up around 3% of the state’s total physicians. The nationwide figure is 5%, according to a Georgetown Review study, compared to 14% of the country’s population. 

“We have to get students out into the community, especially marginalized communities, so they can experience first hand what is happening to patients outside of the system.”

Leon Clark, chief research and health equity officer at Sutter Health

One reason the study cites for the shortage of Black physicians: a lack of medical schools that serve Black students. Of the country’s 102 historically Black colleges and universities,  only six are accredited to operate medical schools, but a recent push for medical equity and diversity has opened pathways for more accreditation.

“Many African American medical students are interested in treating African Americans and in closing the health disparities gap – and by opening this new MD Program, CDU provides greater opportunities to study medicine in a setting where the mission of the institution is the same – closing the gap,” said Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, the inaugural dean for Charles Drew’s new College of Medicine. 

Founded in wake of the Watts riots in 1966, Charles Drew trains nurses and physicians and assistants and offers specialized residency programs, in addition to the joint medical degree. Its mission is, “excellent health and wellness for all in a world without health disparities.” 

Medical students in its joint UCLA program do their pre-clinical training at UCLA, focusing on the same subjects as students at other medical schools. But they also get the support and resources of an HBCU, and the opportunity to be part of a diverse student body that more accurately reflects the communities they hope to impact in the future  – 33% of Charles Drew students identify as Black, 22% as Hispanic or Latino and 22% as Asian. Leggett says the connections she has with her peers have been critical as she navigates medical school, an experience she described as “like drinking from a fire hose,” and including having to deal with microaggressions and racism while doing clinical rotations.

A recent study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that Black medical students at HBCUs felt a greater sense of belonging and reported higher confidence in their academic abilities compared to those attending predominantly white medical schools

“One of the reasons I chose to go to Drew in the first place is because they are very clear and steadfast in their mission to work with our most marginalized communities, and it wasn’t just by words, it was through action,” said Leggett, who’s in her fifth year of the joint Charles Drew-UCLA program.  “Drew was my first interview and I fell in love with the community, I fell in love with the students and the home environment.” 

Leggett, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles and received her undergraduate education at predominately-white Loyola Marymount University, said attending a program that allowed her to focus on giving back to her home was essential. “If you look at the campus, you’ll see we really are in South Central,” she said, “versus other campuses which are just a college town.”  

The university is located next to Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital, the only full-service hospital in the Watts/Willowbrook area. Students do rotations at the hospital and other sites that offer primary care to underserved communities.Watts is one of the most densely populated places in California, and the country, with more than 18,000 people per square mile. The area is also 85% Latino and 15% Black, more than double the California average.

Having its own medical school will allow Charles Drew to focus on its mission without influence from the goals of another institution, Prothrow-Stith said. The university will accept 60 students for its independent program, set to start in July 2023, and another 24 will continue its joint UCLA program. The California Legislature set aside $50 million to support the new program, which school leaders say will be used to build a new Health Professions Building with a simulation and virtual anatomy training facility. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2023 and be complete in 2025.

The curriculum will train students to identify health problems affecting low-income, urban areas, including lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, asthma induced by insect excrement, overcrowded and stressful living spaces, lead exposure and pollutants from bus parking lots, said Prothrow-Stith. That’s in addition to meeting all the standard requirements for pre-clinical training. The curriculum will also include a service learning component, in which students will work alongside community health workers and provide care to homeless people through mobile clinics.

Charles Drew University in the Watts region of Los Angeles on Dec. 7, 2022. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters
Charles Drew University in the Watts region of Los Angeles on Dec. 7, 2022. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters

By training more Black doctors and getting them out into the community, Charles Drew’s new program could help improve health care for the state’s Black patients, said Leon Clark, chief research and health equity officer at Sutter Health.

To provide equitable care, he said, medical schools should require training in qualities such as sympathy and unconscious bias, combined with immersive experiences.  

“We should be in the classroom, in the hospital, but at some point we have to get students out into the community, especially marginalized communities so they can experience first hand what is happening to patients outside of the system,” he said.

And representation matters, he said. 

“I want to be clear, that is not to suggest only Black doctors can treat Black patients. I think things like empathy, cultural humility, bias, are things that can be taught and trained,” Clark said. “But on the other hand, there is a comfort level, a baseline of trust, that is enhanced when you see folks (who) you feel understand what your needs are, what your preferences might be.”

Leggett said her medical school experience has illustrated the importance of that cultural competency. She recounted another experience with a patient, during her first year of training. She was observing a team of practitioners treat a child with severe burns down her back. Unsure how the child ended up with such an injury, the team didn’t know the best way to treat her, Leggett said, and was about to ask Child Protective Services to investigate possible abuse.

Noticing the fresh braid style the patient had, Leggett mentioned the burns may have occurred when dipping the hair in hot water, a way of sealing synthetic hair extensions. The doctors confirmed the explanation with the child, Leggett said. Even though she was the lowest ranking member on the team, she said, she was able to help expedite care and keep a child with her parents.

“Medical school is just a microcosm of what happens in our world,” said Leggett. As future doctors at an HBCU, she said, “we are constantly interacting and seeing the beauty of diversity within the community.”

Story is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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Universities can’t yank financial aid from students who get private scholarships, new law says

California colleges often reduce financial aid to students when they earn private grants, a practice known as scholarship displacement. Students say it’s unfair to lose funds they’ve worked hard for and need to pay for soaring living costs. This year, the state agreed, and banned the practice for low-income students starting in the 2023-24 academic…

In summary

Under previous rules, family members of those who had insurance through an employer were not eligible for Covered California. In some cases, those employer plans cover the employee but are expensive for spouses and children, leaving families with few options.

Hundreds of thousands of Californians previously shut out of Covered California — the state program that offers discounted health insurance — soon can participate because the eligibility requirements are changing.  

Prior to the new rules, individuals who had access to an employer-based health insurance plan through a family member were not eligible for Covered California. Employer plans are often expensive for spouses or children, driving up the cost of coverage for those family members. Those caught in this unaffordable “family glitch” have few choices: buy the expensive plan, try to buy a bare-bones plan separately or go without health insurance. 

In April, the Biden administration issued guidelines to fix the near-decade-long problem and last month the federal government adopted the regulation. Starting in January 2023, if a family’s premium costs more than 9.12% of the household income the family could be eligible for federal susidies, or discounts, through Covered California. 

According to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, the “glitch” impacts an estimated 615,000 people in California, mostly women and children from low and middle-income families. The center estimates that about 400,000 of those people would be eligible for financial assistance through Covered California based on their income.

“For the people impacted, it could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, a consumer rights group. “It really does have an impact on the health and well-being of the family and their finances.” 

A state analysis by Third Way, a national think tank, found that a California family of four with $53,000 in annual earnings would likely save about $4,340 a year in health insurance premium costs. The report shows that lower-income households would see the most significant savings.

The federal government is footing the bill for the expansion and pays subsidies directly to the health plans based on Covered California’s marketplace prices. The Congressional Budget Office reported that it would cost $44 billion over the next 10 years to cover family members previously impacted by the family glitch.

Covered California pays for outreach to families, including those who have been caught in the glitch, said Jessica Altman, executive director of Covered California. Covered California has a $109 million annual budget for marketing and the bulk is spent during open enrollment to outreach to Californians to sign up or renew coverage. 

Open enrollment started this week and runs through Jan. 31, 2023. Coverage can begin as early as Jan. 1.  

In San Jose, this is the change Patricia Moran has been waiting for. Moran doesn’t know yet how much she will save when she’s finally able to enroll in a Covered California plan. She is confident it will be less than what she pays now for health insurance. 

Moran, 63, has been on her husband’s employer-provided plan for nearly eight years because she got sick and could no longer work. The plan is expensive but she needs it to pay for monthly injections for her aggressive rheumatoid arthritis. 

“I’m stuck. I can’t have Medicare or any other help,” she said.

For Moran’s husband, the plan is free. For her, it’s $1,200 a month — almost half of her husband’s paycheck. That’s $14,400 a year, or about 21% percent of the couple’s total income from his job as a maintenance worker at a school and from the child care program Moran runs at her home.

Even with insurance, the injections cost $250 a month, said Moran, who said they give her mobility and the ability to care for the kids in her child care program.

“This is a big relief,” Moran said about the new policy. “It’s going to help a lot. We can have some savings for our retirement. It’s been so hard because we have to pay the mortgage, we have our bills and all of this stuff.”

California health advocates have been trying to solve the glitch at the state level for years but it was too expensive for the state to pay the cost. The federal government had to decide to fix it and fund it. 

This change should help reduce the number of uninsured people in California. The state has experienced the steepest decline in the number of uninsured since the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, launched in 2013. Since then, some 35 million people have enrolled in health plans nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

The state’s rate of uninsured residents dropped from 17% in 2013 to 7% in 2021. More than half of the 3 million still uninsured in California are eligible for some sort of coverage, according to UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and UC Berkeley Labor Center. The remainder, about 1.2 million, are undocumented immigrants who are ineligible for coverage through the exchange,  although some may now qualify for public programs..

Any change that increases coverage for Californians, especially children, is a boon, Wright said.  

“This is a big deal toward the goal of a government guarantee that everybody has access to affordable health coverage,” Wright said of the policy change. “The more we get rid of asterisks and exclusions the better.”

Patricia Moran plays with the children enrolled in her at-home daycare in San Jose on Nov. 2, 2022. Photo by Laure Andrillon for CalMatters
Patricia Moran plays with the children enrolled in her at-home daycare in San Jose on Nov. 2, 2022. Photo by Laure Andrillon for CalMatters

The change comes as employers continue to shift insurance costs to families. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, premiums for family coverage increased 22% between 2016 and 2021. 

Nationally, about 5 million individuals are eligible only for unaffordable employer-provided insurance. More than half of those are children. Among adults, more women than men are caught in the glitch.

“It created an unaffordable situation for a small but meaningful group of people,” said Christine Eibner, a senior economist focused on health care at RAND, a nonprofit research organization that published a report about the issue in 2015. “Most of them were enrolling anyhow and paying the higher premium. They could be paying 15% to 20% of their income.”

In California, of the estimated 615,000 who are stuck with high-priced employer insurance plans as their only option, researchers estimated that about 87,000 are uninsured, Altman said. About 35,000 are in the individual market paying full rates and the majority are paying for that expensive employer-sponsored coverage, Altman said.

“There are families that can save thousands of dollars — middle-income families, lower-income families — that it’s going to make a significant change for,” Altman said. “There is value in helping people who have coverage to connect with lower-cost coverage.”

If people are uninsured or have expensive coverage they are less likely to get the care they need.

“This is a big deal toward the goal of a government guarantee that everybody has access to affordable health coverage.”

Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California

Those who stretch their budgets to sign up for employer-based plans may take the least expensive plan with higher deductibles or catastrophic coverage, Wright said. That could result in people going to the doctor less or not using the plans they have because they would still have to pay out of pocket.  

“We believe it’s important to have the whole family covered,” Wright said. “There is a real result of not having coverage. The uninsured live sicker, die younger and are one emergency away from financial ruin.”

The Affordable Care Act requires employers with at least 50 employees to offer health insurance to them and their dependents. Spouses are usually included but not required under the law. In California, 47% of people are enrolled in an employer-provided plan. A national study published in the Health Affairs Journal found that families spend an average of 16%of household income paying employer-based premiums.

Before the latest change, the Affordable Care Act allowed employees to obtain insurance through discounted state programs if their employer health plan cost more than 9.1% of their income, which is considered unaffordable. Employers face penalties if their workers are obtaining insurance through those state programs.  

Also, prior to the latest change, the law did not define affordability for family members and employers faced no penalties related to the cost of premiums for family members.

more on health care

In summary

California colleges often reduce financial aid to students when they earn private grants, a practice known as scholarship displacement. Students say it’s unfair to lose funds they’ve worked hard for and need to pay for soaring living costs. This year, the state agreed, and banned the practice for low-income students starting in the 2023-24 academic year.

As Dixie Samaniego prepared for her first semester at California State University Fullerton, she had one focus: finding a way to pay.  

“I knew that my family wasn’t going to be able to pay, or help in any way financially,” said Samaniego, now a senior, “so I started applying to scholarships everywhere.” 

As a low-income student, she qualified for a federal Pell Grant and a state Cal Grant, but still had a substantial balance to cover. After hours of applying, writing essays, and interviewing, she received a $5,000 award for her first year from a private foundation that aimed to help students who faced barriers to college.  

But then, Samaniego said, she got some unwelcome news from Cal State Fullerton’s financial aid office: Adding the scholarship to her financial aid package would reduce the amount of aid she was getting from the university.

Confused and disappointed, Samaniego decided not to accept the scholarship she’d worked hard to earn.

“I didn’t know a single thing about higher education. I didn’t know a single thing about financial aid,” said Samaniego, who is the first in her family to attend college. “I got all this money, and then I had to make some really difficult decisions.” 

What Samaniego says she experienced has a name: scholarship displacement. The practice occurs when a student receives a scholarship after their initial financial aid award and their college or university reorganizes their institutional aid package, often leading to a net zero gain for the student. And starting next fall, it will be banned in California for low-income students who qualify for a Pell Grant or for state financial aid under the California Dream Act.

California is one of five states in the U.S. with such laws, and only the second in the nation to bar scholarship displacement at both public and private colleges and universities. 

It’s difficult to quantify how many students scholarship displacement affects, or how much money they lose. But a 2013 study by the National Scholarship Providers Association found that 20% of colleges nationwide reduce institutional grants when a student earns a private scholarship, even if a student still has demonstrated need. Advocates for low-income students say the practice can be a significant barrier to college affordability.

A spokesperson for Cal State Fullerton said federal privacy law prevented the university from commenting on a specific student’s financial aid package. But the Federal Student Aid office’s guidelines instruct universities and colleges to re-negotiate financial aid awards if there is a possibility of funds exceeding either the cost of attendance or the student’s need as demonstrated on their Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The rules also give financial aid officers some discretion in working with students to package their awards, however, and colleges have their own policies that they follow in addition to federal law.

“Inside the financial aid office, the details are more complex,” said Christina Tangalakis, president of the California Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “Some students are very successful in their college funding searches and are offered more assistance than they have costs to support” under the federal government’s methodology, Tangalakis said. But schools vary in their response to so-called “overawards,” she said.

Complicating the issue is the debate over whether colleges are accurately calculating the cost of attendance in California, where living expenses have skyrocketed in recent years. Colleges and universities are required by the government to provide “reasonable” estimates for costs accrued during a school year, according to the Federal Student Aid Handbook. Most schools use averages of expenses in a region when calculating estimated costs for housing, transportation and supplies, which can skew the results. 

Yet it’s exactly those non-tuition expenses that place the heaviest burden on students. A 2021 study on college affordability by the Public Policy Institute of California concluded that “for a majority of students attending public postsecondary institutions in California, the combined cost of housing, fees, books, and transportation is greater than tuition.” 

“We believe that California leads the nation in providing financial aid to students… but the total cost of education, and specifically the non-tuition costs, are being unmet by financial aid programs. So students have to rely on external sources,” said Marcos Montes, policy director for the Southern California College Attainment Network. 

With the new law, Montes said, students will be able to maximize the use of scholarships. ”A student can use that money to pay for their housing, their books, their food, transportation, a new device, a new computer.” 

Montes, himself, dealt with the stress of scholarship displacement while an undergraduate at California State University Los Angeles. Schools often calculate different costs of attendance for students based on their living situations. As a commuter student living at home, Montes was in  the lowest category for cost of attendance. But he still needed money for textbooks and car maintenance.

“I was receiving a scholarship as a student government representative,” said Montes. “And when that scholarship hit, I was expecting a check of money to come to me so that I can use it to cover some non-tuition expenses, and that check was not coming.” 

The school’s financial aid office told him he had maxed out on the amount of aid the school was willing to offer, Montes said. To access the funds, Montes was forced to move out of his parents’ home and change his residency status. He was able to use the scholarship – though not in the way he’d intended.

“I found, you know, a little one-bedroom place where I could live, and I used that money to pay for rent,” he said.

Before the law’s passage, Southern California College Attainment Network and other advocacy organizations were already working one-on-one with students who faced scholarship displacement.

Counseling those students can take hours and requires studying the financial aid award letter, understanding which dollars have been displaced, and working with counselors to find strategies to recover the funds. And not all students even realize what has happened to their financial aid package, or know where to go for help, said Mer Curry, executive director of the Northern California College Promise Coalition.

“It’s inefficient to be (advocating) student by student, but it’s also inequitable,” Curry said. “What we were finding from students is that they felt lucky, privileged, they were in a program, or had someone that explained to them what the issue was so that they could even go through a process of advocating or asking for help.” 

Krishan Malhotra, President of Cal State Student Association, on Oct. 28, 2022. Photo by Julie Hotz for CalMatters
Krishan Malhotra, President of Cal State Student Association, on Oct. 28, 2022. Photo by Julie Hotz for CalMatters

Cal State Student Association president Krishan Malhotra said he didn’t receive any explanation from his university’s financial aid office when he lost $5,500 in aid after getting a stipend for his work in student government – money he was counting on to pay for digital textbooks.

“I keep track of my money pretty well,” said Malhotra, “But when you have a million things going on, when you have a full-time job, when you’re taking 18, 15 units, some students have families or dependents, and there’s so much going on, you can definitely miss it.”

Malhotra called the conversation about scholarship displacement “long overdue.”

The new law, passed by the Legislature in August and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, will allow the most vulnerable students who are able to secure additional funds for post-secondary education to have more freedom in how they use their funds. 

The Cal State Student Association worked with advocacy groups to pass the law, and the California community college system signed on in support. Scholarship providers, frustrated that their funds were not always reaching the students who needed them, also weighed in.

“Scholarships play an integral role, not only with increasing access, but reducing student loan debt,” said Mike Nylund, president and CEO of Scholarship America, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that helps students find and manage scholarship funds. “This new law will ensure that those students most in need will not lose their critical private scholarship funds.” 

Tangalakis said the new rules might cause confusion at first, but would ultimately cause some schools to reprioritize aid policies to accommodate scholarships.

“Students will benefit from more consistent treatment of scholarship funds, and fewer adjustments to their institutional funding,” she said. 

The scholarship displacement ban does leave out some students, however: those who aren’t low-income enough to qualify for Pell Grants or the California Dream Act, but still might have financial need. 

“The bill has limitations. It doesn’t apply to everyone,” said Sbeydeh Viveros-Walton, director of higher education for Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm that backed the bill. And students will still need to be informed about the issue so they can monitor their financial aid packages and ensure colleges are complying, she said. “It still puts the burden of fixing this on students.”

With the bill set to start protecting low-income students during the 2023-24 academic year, its sponsors are eager to ensure those students are educated and prepared. 

“I think next is focusing on the implementation,” said Samaniego. “Figuring out if these bills, and these efforts, are actually reaching the students that they were intended to reach.”

Story is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

more on college beat

Central American Studies gains popularity on California campuses

California colleges are launching new classes and departments in Central American Studies, part of an increased focus on ethnic studies statewide. With California host to a quarter of the country’s Central American population, Central American Studies scholars say it’s about time.

In summary

In the face of overwhelming demand, a Medi-Cal program providing assisted living for low-income patients is expanding, but slowly. In the meantime, family caretakers struggle with jobs, child care and other responsibilities as they wait.

Former grad school classmates Kelsey McQuaid-Craig and Chelsea Oruche have recently bonded over a similar struggle — trying to place loved ones in assisted living.

McQuaid-Craig and her husband, Brandon, are looking to place his mother, Mary, 67, who has dementia and is deteriorating quickly, in a memory care program in Sacramento County. They are currently expecting their first child, and caring for Mary full time while juggling their careers has become overwhelming.

In San Pedro, Oruche is experiencing a similar stress. Caring for her 70-year-old mother, Peggy, who has multiple health issues, while raising a toddler, attending law school and working is leading to burnout.  

Assisted living and memory care centers aren’t cheap — about $5,000 to $7,000 a month — a high cost even for families with somewhat comfortable incomes. So the two friends looked into Medi-Cal, which through a special project, covers assisted living costs for eligible low-income seniors and people with disabilities in 15 counties, including Sacramento and Los Angeles. 

Demand for the program is high and the slots are limited. Scoring a spot in Medi-Cal’s assisted living program is a years-long odyssey for some, leaving family members who serve as caregivers stretched thin as they scramble to find workarounds for their loved one’s care and living situation. 

The state has been expanding the program, which is good news for families interested in this service, but for some in line now, it could still be more than a year before they are placed in a facility.

Because spots are limited, generally those interested must first get on a waitlist. Those waitlists can be lengthy — in some cases, people being placed now have been waiting since 2019.

“It is a full-time job to care for a parent. Unless you’ve done it, you can’t wrap your head around it.”

chelsea oruche, family member

McQuaid-Craig said that in January she was told by care coordination agencies, which contract with the state to assess individuals and help place them in a facility, that the wait could be as long as two years in the Sacramento area. The few agencies that shared estimated wait times with Oruche in the spring told her that Peggy’s wait could be anywhere from one to three years in Los Angeles County. 

According to the state’s most recent data, there are 6,301 people enrolled in Medi-Cal’s assisted living program and 4,754 people are waiting to get in. 

In the meantime, families try their best to care for their loved ones with very little respite. Peggy, for example, has chronic pain stemming from a fall decades ago. Some days are better than others, but she deals with depression, anxiety and neurological issues, and it’s become clear that she may need more care than Oruche can provide. 

“We’re operating under water,” Oruche said. “It’s not sustainable. It is a full-time job to care for a parent. Unless you’ve done it, you can’t wrap your head around it.”

She believes placing her mom in assisted living will help rekindle family relationships. “It will allow us to be her kids again,” she said.

Supply and demand

A waitlist to get into this program isn’t new, but demand continues to outgrow supply — signaling that California is in need of more housing and care options for low-income seniors who can no longer live on their own. Aging and health advocates say this is concerning, especially as one quarter of Californians are expected to be older than 60 by 2030. 

In response to the growing demand, California sought approval from the federal government to secure 7,000 additional slots for its Medi-Cal assisted living program. It got the green light in January. (Because Medi-Cal is jointly funded by the state and the federal government, the state needs federal permission to expand programs.) 

Officials with the California Department of Health Care Services, which oversees the program, said they started rolling out these new spots in May and plan to clear the waitlist or at least reduce it substantively by Feb. 28, 2024. 

“The Department recognizes that achieving this goal is dependent on several external factors, including [coordinating agencies’] capacity, bed availability, and continued growth of the demand,” Katharine Weir, a spokesperson with the Department of Health Care Services, said in an email. 

Weir said the department is also working toward integrating the assisted living services with another one of its long-term care programs, which should streamline services and allow more people to access assisted living.

“We had to file a self-neglect case because there is no abuse, but we also are running up on not being able to take care of her for much longer.”

Kelsey McQuaid-Craig, family member

Advocates say the need is probably much higher than enrollment and waitlist numbers reflect. Many Californians do not know that assisted living, including some memory care programs, is an option for eligible low-income people on Medi-Cal. (While services are paid for, people do pay a portion of the cost for their room and board through their supplemental security income.) 

Maura Gibney, director of organizational development at California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, described Medi-Cal’s assisted living program as opaque. Many people don’t know that this benefit is available because there is generally not a lot of public outreach about the program, Gibney said. 

“But if there was, the waitlists wouldn’t be two years long, they’d be five years long,” she said.

Navigating the system

Seniors and people with disabilities who need round-the-clock medical care often require a nursing home setting, which is a mandated benefit under Medi-Cal, and people who qualify are often placed immediately in those facilities. Assisted living is considered an alternative for people who don’t need to be in a clinical environment, but may need assistance completing daily tasks. 

In California, 55% of older residents and people with disabilities need help from another person for routine care, such as completing chores, shopping or getting to appointments, according to a recent analysis from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. About 21% need help with personal care, like eating, bathing and getting dressed. Of those who need assistance, 40% reported needing more or not receiving any at all. 

People on Medi-Cal generally have two entryways into assisted living. They can be placed immediately if they are being discharged from a hospital or being transferred from a nursing home. These individuals are prioritized for the assisted living program because hospital care and nursing home living is more expensive, so this move saves the state money. People who are transitioning into assisted living from their home must first get on a waitlist. Once it’s their turn, they can submit an application to enroll in the program. Historically, about 60% of people on the waitlist end up enrolling in the program, according to the Department of Health Care Services.

This means that while folks wait, caregiver duties usually fall on a daughter or son or another relative who bears the brunt of the cost and work. About 91% of Californians who care for a family member or friend do so without getting paid, according to state data. 

Kelsey McQuaid-Craig and her husband Brandon J. Craig at their home in Sacramento on Aug. 8, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
Kelsey McQuaid-Craig and her husband Brandon J. Craig at their home in Sacramento on Aug. 8, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

There’s the cost of temporary care when McQuaid-Craig and her husband have to travel and the house adjustments to make it safer and easier for Mary to get around. Then there is the mental and emotional toll: the hours-long struggle of trying to convince Mary it’s time for a bath; the patience to calm her when she gets agitated. 

After McQuaid-Craig learned she was pregnant, she looked for ways to speed up the process of getting Mary into a memory care program. Care coordination agencies told her that unless Mary fell or became ill and landed in a hospital or nursing home, the only other way to place her sooner was to get the county’s Adult Protective Services agency involved.

Through this process, the county agency sends a case worker to people’s homes to assess their living situation. If this agency decides that a person is experiencing abuse or neglect, it can fast-track a person’s move into assisted living. Self-neglect, when a person is no longer able to care for themselves — can’t feed, clothe or take care of their own health — can also qualify a person for an expedited process.

“We had to file a self-neglect case because there is no abuse, but we also are running up on not being able to take care of her for much longer. Unfortunately, that was the only way to move her up (on the waitlist),” McQuaid-Craig said. 

McQuaid-Craig and Oruche met during their graduate studies at the University of Southern California’s public administration program in Sacramento. McQuaid works in health policy for the California chapter of the American Colleges of Emergency Physicians, Oruche for a venture philanthropy. Both said the cumbersome process of trying to place their parents in memory care and assisted living raises questions about how accessible the program truly is. 

“I have to imagine that if two highly educated, white women are struggling to get answers and find placement for their low-income loved ones then there is a lot more going on here. Especially for immigrants or non-native English speakers, and those who do not have connections,” McQuaid-Craig said.

During their research, they grew frustrated by the lack of transparency from some of the care coordination agencies they contacted. There are 31 agencies in the state, according to a recently updated list from the California Department of Health Care Services. 

Each agency has its own waitlist, and a person can only sign up with one. Meaning choosing one over the other could be the difference in how long people wait. She wanted to know how long each waitlist was to choose the shortest one. A list provided last week by the Department of Health Care Services shows agencies’ waits vary greatly, with lists as short as one individual to as long as 929 people. 

But for Oruche “Half of the agencies on the list (serving Los Angeles County) did not respond. And of the half that did, only four or five gave me a number,” she said. Some of the agencies told her that her request was unusual, she added. 

“I have to imagine that if two highly educated, white women are struggling to get answers and find placement for their low-income loved ones then there is a lot more going on here.”

Kelsey McQuaid-Craig, family member

Neil Rotter, CEO of Libertana, a care coordination agency serving Fresno and Southern California, said agencies don’t always tell people where they stand in line because they don’t want to deter people from seeking services; plus, that number could change quickly from one month to another. He said his agency is upfront with families when it is experiencing a longer wait than other agencies.

Rotter said part of the challenge is the state’s move from a single statewide waitlist to an agency-specific waitlist. That’s when the state department started issuing an equal number of slots to each agency every month, which has prompted questions about how fair that is. For example, people who sign up with newer agencies with shorter waitlists may be placed before someone who has been waiting longer at an older agency. 

Lauren Firenze, program director at Senior Care Solutions, a care coordination agency that serves Sacramento and San Joaquin counties, echoed this concern. Firenze advises families to contact more than one agency and figure out which is the most helpful and responsive. Also, “don’t wait until you’re in crisis to get on the waitlist. Some people wait too long to access services,” she said. 

As of last week, McQuaid was working on an expedited assisted living application for Mary, and Oruche ultimately chose a care agency that gave her an estimated year wait time. Oruche said she has also talked to Peggy’s doctor about the nursing home option, and although that is not Peggy’s preference, going to a nursing home first would allow her to more quickly transfer into assisted living. 

But that option “seems really inefficient and really disruptive to her mental health,” Oruche said. 

For now, Mary and Peggy continue to wait.  

more on health

In summary

State environmental experts worry that smashing old TVs, monitors and laptops in so-called ‘rage rooms’ may release hazardous waste or potentially harm customers’ health.

Lea este artículo en español.

If you’re a fan of local TV news, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a segment about so-called “rage rooms.” These are businesses – often in strip mall storefronts or office parks – where people pay to don a pair of safety glasses, grab a baseball bat and smash the heck out of things like old dishes, cabinets and fax machines. 

There’s no shortage of fun features showing some affable news figure putting on coveralls and whacking glassware and old phones, often in a plywood-walled room adorned with funky graffiti. It’s de-stressing through destruction. 

While the businesses have been growing in popularity, some California environmental officials say they are worried that operators often don’t know about safety regulations and could be releasing hazardous waste into the environment. One high-ranking state environmental regulator says her department is too thinly staffed to do anything about it.

“It’s like that nightmare that’s just out of my reach. Like, I know it’s a huge problem,” said Rita Hypnarowski, a senior environmental scientist and e-waste team leader in the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control. “Fundamentally, there’s nothing wrong with smashing some plates in a room for stress release. But the problem comes in when they’re breaking things like e-waste, which can seriously harm people’s health.”

Hypnarowski’s department cited a Sacramento rage room in 2019 for mishandling e-waste. The Los Angeles County Fire Department recently cited a rage room for similar issues.

Electronic waste includes things like old televisions, flat screen monitors and laptops. Some of that waste has leaded glass while others are lined with rows of mercury tubes, Hypnarowski said. Those items are supposed to be recycled at facilities that use special equipment to separate the hazardous elements. When people smash e-waste, the rooms can fill with a fine dust of toxic metals, Hypnarowski said.

“You’re getting exposed to flying airborne particles and you don’t even know you’re being exposed,” she added.

Hypnarowski said her department became aware of the issue around 2018. In 2019, they inspected a business in the Capital region, Smash Sacramento, state inspection records show.

“There’s nothing wrong with smashing some plates in a room for stress release. The problem comes in when they’re breaking things like e-waste which can seriously harm people’s health.”

Rita Hypnarowski, Department of Toxic Substances Control

Inspectors found old computers and other electronics, according to inspection records. The owner told the state he got the material from e-waste companies but refused to say which ones, the records show.

Inspectors scanned debris on site in April 2019 and found elevated levels of lead, zinc and cobalt, according to a statement of facts in the case. The department cited the company at that time for two alleged violations of the state’s hazardous waste control laws, which are supposed to protect the environment from improper waste disposal. 

The agency didn’t conduct air sampling, so it’s unclear the degree to which the release of the heavy metals was a health risk to customers or employees. The inspector did indicate, however, that it was a concern, documents show.

“I informed him that I was seriously concerned about the health and well-being of not only Smash’s customers but of (the owner) as well,” the investigator wrote in a statement of facts regarding the case.

That case is still open and the owner did not respond to interview requests.

California has at least 14 rage rooms operating in the state, according to a list provided by Hypnarowski. 

The danger to the environment and to customers from such businesses is likely minimal – especially compared to larger issues the Department of Toxic Substances Control regulates, said Antonio F. Machado, professor of environmental and occupational health at California State University, Northridge. The amount of toxic material rage rooms generate is probably small, and good ventilation could alleviate much of the concern for patrons, he said.

“To me the largest health concern potentially would be workers in the facility who are exposed daily,” Machado said.

The names of the 14 rage rooms aren’t listed in a database of sites the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) has inspected.

Some of the businesses explicitly state on their websites that they don’t allow patrons to smash certain toxic items. 

One rage room in Southern California says that outside items “must be reviewed by our staff prior to entering the rage room for safety. Items such as fluorescent lightbulbs, batteries, power tools and CRT TVs…are not allowed due to hazardous materials found inside of them.”

Hypnarowski acknowledged not all electronics pose a health risk. For example, computer towers pose a minimal danger as compared to monitors. But that’s why inspections are so important, she said. 

“To me the largest health concern potentially would be workers in the facility who are exposed daily.”

Antonio F. Machado, California State University, Northridge

The 2019 Sacramento inspection was both the first and last inspection the Department of Toxic Substances Control conducted of a rage room, Hypnarowski said.

The department has struggled to hire and retain scientists, making it difficult to keep up with inspections, said David Rist, a senior environmental scientist who’s been with the department for more than 30 years.

“We have lost inspectors in a variety of programs,” Rist said. “They come for the mission but leave because there are other opportunities and (they) don’t like being undervalued.”

Scientists like Hypnarowski and Rist are talking about shortcomings in their departments’ oversight as their union – the California Association of Professional Scientists – is currently in labor negotiations with the state. The starting salary for an environmental scientist is around $50,000 to $62,000 a year. A union spokesman said higher pay would help the state keep talented young scientists in departments like Toxic Substances Control and allow for better regulatory oversight.

“The state needs to pay equitably so we can pay to fill these positions to protect the people of California,” said Bianca Gutierrez Petzold, staff director at the California Association of Professional Scientists.

A Smash Sacramento location in the Upper Land Park neighborhood of Sacramento on July 20, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
So-called “rage rooms” like this one in Sacramento allow patrons to don safety glasses and smash things like plates and old furniture. But environmental regulators are worried some might be mishandling e-waste, a potential threat to people and the environment. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Without the state, oversight of rage rooms could fall to local regulators, as has happened in Los Angeles.

“Los Angeles County Fire has been looking into these sites and is concerned about potential hazardous waste issues,” according to a statement the Los Angeles County Fire Department provided to CalMatters. The department issued a citation in June to one local rage room for violating environmental regulations.

The department declined to provide a copy of that citation or provide details because the case is open, and the business can still attempt to defend itself against the alleged violations.

“It’s a concern to ensure that hazardous waste is not being illegally disposed of and also that the individuals in these so-called rage rooms are not being exposed to hazardous constituents,” according to the department’s statement.

“Los Angeles County Fire has been looking into these sites and is concerned about potential hazardous waste issues.”

Los Angeles County Fire Department statement

A Riverside County environmental official said his office is aware of rage rooms but didn’t know there were any in that county until CalMatters reached out.

The county will contact the businesses to see if they’re allowing people to smash e-waste on site and, if so, to educate owners on the various regulations, said Nicholas Crain, program chief in the county environmental health department’s hazardous materials management branch.

An education campaign is often enough to make sure businesses know of and follow health and safety regulations, he said. But it’s a lot of work.

“There’s always another business popping up that’s generating hazardous waste,” Crain added.

more on justice

In summary

Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature agreed to create an inspector general job for high-speed rail as part of a compromise that they hope will get the project moving and end with an actual train.

Lea este artículo en español.

After a decade of cost, schedule, technical, regulatory, personnel and legal problems, the California high speed rail project will be getting an inspector general soon as part of a deal between Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature.

The new investigative position is intended to intensify oversight and improve performance of the $105 billion railroad project. Enthusiasm for the change is high, but whether it will fix everything is uncertain, even among state leaders.

“There is nothing but problems on the project,” said Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Lakewood Democrat. “The inspector general provides oversight and some sense of what is going on with management. That has been missing for a long time.”

But will it work?

“We don’t know,” Rendon said. “We need to be vigilant. The IG will provide what we need to carry that out.”

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

Anthony Rendon
D

Anthony Rendon

State Assembly, District 62 (Lakewood)

Anthony Rendon

State Assembly, District 62 (Lakewood)

How he voted 2021-2022
Liberal Conservative
District 62 Demographics

Voter Registration

Dem 57%
GOP 15%
No party 22%
Campaign Contributions

Asm. Anthony Rendon has taken at least $2.9 million from the Labor sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents 26% of his total campaign contributions.

Until now, a variety of outside agencies have advised the Legislature and the governor on the project, resulting in recommendations that often were not carried out. In some cases, they required changes that nobody had the power to make and in other cases carried too high a political price with outside interest groups.

In 2012, the Legislative Analyst’s Office recommended against an appropriation to start construction, arguing the California High-Speed Rail Authority wasn’t prepared. Gov. Jerry Brown lobbied the Legislature for it and won. Now, many agree the LAO was right. The Peer Review Group has long warned  that the state needs a secure financing plan. But the project proceeds without one. 

Such outside advisors have lacked the resources and the mission to intensively delve into the day to day work of the rail project, its army of consultants and its stable of  international  contractors. 

“The IG will bring a level of oversight that we have not had before,” said Helen Kerstein, the lone bullet train expert at the Legislative Analyst’s office. “This is very powerful.”

The law creating the inspector general lists a wide range of authorities the new office will have: full access to all the project’s records; authority to review contracts and change orders; and issuing subpoenas for witnesses and records, among much else.

“It is not some person sitting in a basement,” said Laura Friedman, chair of the Assembly Transportation Committee who is widely credited with pushing through the inspector general idea. “It is going to be staffed. It is going to be real.” 

That would include investigating waste, fraud and abuse, as well as working with law enforcement and prosecutors, she said. 

What the position might look like

How big an organization will it require? So far, there is no budget. But the inspector general for the high-speed rail project would be paid the same as the inspector general for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, who makes $192,382 and will have a staff of 212 in the coming fiscal year. 

Fred Weiderhold, a West Point civil engineer who served for 20 years as Amtrak’s inspector general, said if he were taking the California job, he would want to start with a staff of at least 50 people, half auditors, 30% investigators and 20% inspectors and evaluators. 

“It is a daunting job,” Weiderhold said about the California project. “You have to follow the money. I guarantee you that on any project this large you will have fraud, product substitution and waste.”

By the time Weiderhold left as Amtrak inspector general, he had helped put several hundred people in jail and caused 2,000 people to be fired. 

The high speed rail inspector general will not have authority to control actual spending, a decision that was considered and rejected by Newsom. 

A more aggressive plan was followed by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in 2015, when it faced a breakdown in Boston area service and spiraling capital cost overruns. State lawmakers fired the authority’s existing board and installed a new Fiscal and Management Control Board.

Estimated construction costs on a 4.3 mile extension of a light rail line had grown from $1 billion to $2 billion, said Joe Aiello, the board’s chair. The board stopped work, threw out existing contractors and put in an independent team to evaluate what was going wrong, he said. 

“There was outrageous scope creep,” Aiello said. 

By the time the board was dissolved last year, the construction cost had been hammered back down to $1 billion, he said.

State still needs actual train

Even while increasing oversight, the deal doubles down on the bullet train mission. An appropriation will release $4.2 billion from a 2008 bond fund, but only for completing a 171-mile Central Valley segment from Bakersfield to Merced. 

“They need to deliver something soon that the public understands is a train,” Friedman said.

Newsom met another Assembly demand by adding $3.5 billion for transit projects in the Bay Area and Southern California, as well as $300 million to fix an Orange County Amtrak rail that is ready to fall into the Pacific. 

“You can’t have enough oversight on a project like this,” Friedman said. “This is not a minor change. It will be a very big change for the project.”

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In summary

Hospitals, public health agencies and other providers have no systematic way to share patient data among themselves, limiting their ability to monitor trends and work efficiently. Under the state’s new data-sharing requirement, a doctor or case worker could get immediate access to a patient’s full medical history, and patients could view their own records easily.

In March 2020, as Californians hunkered down for what many expected to be a two-week lockdown, high-ranking health officials were scrambling to find out how many COVID-19 patients were hospitalized, how many were in intensive care and how many beds remained available.

With no system in place for hospitals to report this information to the state and share it, Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s public health director and other staff had to call 426 hospitals to assess the situation.

Now, officials hope to avoid similar scenarios in the future by changing the way patient data is collected and shared. Legislation passed last year requires all health and human services providers to sign a statewide data-sharing agreement. This includes hospitals, doctor’s offices, nursing homes, public health agencies, laboratories, mental and behavioral health providers, substance use treatment facilities, insurance plans, public health departments and emergency services.

The final version of the agreement will be published July 1. Most participants will have six months to sign the agreement and a year to begin sharing data. 

If implementation goes as planned, a doctor or case worker could request a patient’s full medical and social services history in real time. Patients could view their own records easily, and government agencies would also have access to more reliable aggregate data on patient outcomes and demographics — rendering the pandemic scramble obsolete.

“Myself along with our (California Department of Public Health) director and lots of staff were reaching out to hospitals across the state,” Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said. “We depended early on on phone calls and asking charge nurses and the shift managers at different hospitals ‘What is your COVID burden in the emergency room and around the wards?’”

The health care industry already amasses incredible amounts of patient data. John Ohanian, chief data officer for the state Health and Human Services Agency, likens it to “freeways of information.” The problem is, not everyone has an on ramp to the freeway. 

“Our goal was — and the governor’s goal was — to make it mandatory that people exchange information and provide rules of the road and guidelines so it can be done well,” Ohanian said. 

It’s a huge endeavor for the state, and not everyone is on board. 

In a public comment responding to a draft of the agreement, the California Hospital Association and California Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems complained that the requirements exceed the statutory authority of the law that established the data-sharing requirement. When contacted for clarification, hospital association spokesperson Jan Emerson-Shea said there was nothing to add beyond what was in the letter. 

The California Association of Health Plans also commented that parts of the draft proposal go beyond the scope of the new data-sharing law, including the proposed governing body that would oversee compliance. The association also pointed out potential conflicts with a parallel federal effort to create a national data exchange for health data.

Other groups, including the County Welfare Directors Association of California, County Behavioral Health Directors Association and Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, raised concerns about data privacy and security. They also want patients to be given the ability to choose whether their data is shared and noted that addiction and mental health records are more strictly protected than other health data. In a letter to the state, Planned Parenthood asked to delay implementation by one year.

“There’s a reason why we’re pushing for an accelerated timeline. It’s because people need to have this information in their hands.”

John Ohanian, chief data officer for the state Health and Human Services Agency

Ghaly said there are no plans to extend the timeline, and that other states have already executed similar plans.

“I often take a lot of pride in how California leads and innovates, but we are not innovating here. We are in some ways catching up,” Ghaly said.

Ohanian acknowledged the timeline was “aggressive,” but said the pandemic drove home the need for public health and social services data to be accessible instantly. 

“There’s a reason why we’re pushing for an accelerated timeline. It’s because people need to have this information in their hands,” Ohanian said.

According to a state analysis, the proportion of medical and social services organizations that currently use digital records and share that information with other providers varies widely based on sector and location.

While 97% of family physicians used electronic record-keeping methods in 2020, those who didn’t tended to be small independent practices or they were in rural areas. Likewise, 90% of medium and large hospitals also used electronic-only patient records, but only 70% of small hospitals in the state used digital records.

The report found a little more than a third of addiction treatment centers used electronic records to document treatment plans and view laboratory results. Less than half of nursing homes used electronic records and only 10% reported that their systems connected with local hospitals.

Some of the organizations with the fewest digital record-sharing systems are government agencies like county public health and social services departments. “Many types of public health data are collected and transmitted via paper-based, phone, fax, or other non-machine-readable formats,” the report said. It also noted that hospitals frequently cited the inability of local public health offices to send or receive digital records as a major impediment. This caused problems early in the pandemic when public health labs were the only ones able to conduct COVID-19 tests, Ghaly said. 

“That information, unless it was carried by paper or shared by fax…it was invisible, gone. It didn’t exist for those on the health care services side,” he said.

The state Legislature’s approved budget includes $50 million over two years to help small doctor’s offices, rural hospitals and community organizations invest in the technology needed to comply with the law.

Even before the pandemic, community clinics and social services providers like homeless shelters say disconnected record-keeping systems caused chronic problems.

“On average our staff spend 50% of their time doing paperwork and administrative stuff and 50% doing direct service. If the government eliminated some of the bureaucracy, we could double services with the same number of employees,” Bay Area Community Services CEO Jamie Almanza said.

Community Services provides emergency housing, intensive case management and mental health services for seven Bay Area counties. Working in all three fields allows it to see the “breakdowns in the system,” Almanza said.

On any given day, 2,000 people live in Community Services shelters, but each of the seven counties it works with uses separate systems for medical, mental health and housing records — all of which differ from the organization’s internal software. This creates duplicative work, especially when its clients access services in multiple counties, which is a common occurrence. 

“Just in Alameda County I’m putting data into four different systems,” Almanza said. “Say a client needs to leave Oakland and we enroll them in housing in Contra Costa County: I have to redo the same thing even though it’s the same client five minutes away.” 

Almanza sits on the data exchange advisory group, which has met nine times since the legislation passed last year. He said while there are concerns about what implementation will look like, most stakeholders agree that improvements need to be made.

“The bureaucracy is a killer. The data exchange committee is trying to collapse that for the whole state, but I think they’re still trying to give a lot of leeway to the jurisdictions,” she said.

On a broader scale, the patchwork of digital accessibility has made it difficult to reduce health disparities for conditions like heart disease and diabetes, both before and during the pandemic, said Kiran Savage-Sangwan, executive director of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network and a member of the data exchange advisory group.

“This system really has the potential to improve our ability to see disparities both on an individual clinical level and on a population health level.”

Kiran Savage-Sangwan, executive director of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network

Pacific Islanders statewide experienced the highest death rates from COVID-19 in the past two years, and Black Californians saw their death rates increase as vaccination rates stagnated.

Communities of color make up 63% of the state’s population but represent more than 80% of all enrollees in Medi-Cal, the state’s health system for people who can’t afford health insurance. According to a California Health Care Foundation report on health disparities, Black and Latino residents are far more likely to experience preventable hospitalizations for conditions like asthma, heart failure and diabetes than white residents. The same groups are also the most likely to report delaying health care due to cost or lack of insurance. 

“The other thing that this system really has the potential to do is to improve our ability to see disparities both on an individual clinical level and on a population health level, because this will require all providers to collect standardized demographic information about consumers,” Savage-Sangwan said.

In recent years, the state has launched ambitious plans to transform the Medi-Cal system   through an initiative called CalAIM, which aims to address the root causes of failing health, like food insecurity and housing instability. It offers coverage for services not typically thought of as medical needs, such as housing. CalAIM, along with the state’s Healthy California for All Commission, which is exploring what a single-payer health care system could look like in California, relies on data.

“I can’t think of a thing on our list of huge transformations that won’t either depend on or benefit from this effort,” Ghaly said. “All of these data systems having some ability to come together around the individual is going to accelerate — whether it’s a social worker or an emergency room nurse — their ability to provide more comprehensive and coordinated services.”

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This story is part of a series on the experiences of students attending three different California school districts during the COVID-19 pandemic, in spring 2022. It was produced through a partnership with CatchLight Local and CalMatters

Anthony Pritchett, a senior at Nevada Union High School, sits on the Nevada Joint Union High School District’s board of education as the student member. He’s tried to enjoy his last year of high school while also trying to navigate the politics surrounding schools and the pandemic.

In February, the district’s school board voted to make masking optional on campuses, violating an agreement with its teachers’ union. Schools in the 2,700-student district closed in the days following the vote because teachers refused to come to work.

As a student board member, Pritchett’s vote doesn’t count. But he said he voted against changing masking rules because it would set a “dangerous precedent” for teachers and their working conditions.

“It was a very scary, high-tension atmosphere at that board meeting,” he said. “I didn’t want to say much at all, which I still very much regret.”

Superintendent Brett McFadden said he was also disappointed by the board’s decision, because the district had to spend over $30,000 on legal fees to reach a settlement with the teachers’ union.

Nevada Union High School

Grass Valley, Nevada County
1,477 students, per 2021-22 enrollment
Two largest groups by ethnicity
72.3% White
17.4% Hispanic or Latino
39.1% percentage of students receiving free & reduced price meals
4,690 recorded COVID-19 cases in the school’s ZIP code (population: 26,281)

“Individuals from the community or outside the community would parachute in and throw their hand grenades on whatever issue they were passionate about, and then they’d leave,” McFadden said. “Well, the next morning, it’s the teachers and myself who are here and we have to repair that damage.”

McFadden, who’s leaving the district in July for a new job, said the relationships within the community will take a long time to recover. If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, he said, he likely would have stayed at the district. He said most of his employees are completely burned out. 

“People were saying two or three months ago that we just want this year over,” McFadden said. “There was a sentiment of let’s get this year over with and come back next school year, hopefully refreshed.”

For Pritchett, this school year was full of compromises. School dances were held outside. Rallies were canceled. Friend groups dwindled.

But Pritchett said he tried to attend all his school events.

“We haven’t had any of these dances in like two years,” he said. “So I’m definitely trying to make the most of it.”

Students arrive in the morning at Nevada Union High School in Grass Valley. In Nevada City, classes moved to a hybrid model — with students alternating between remote and in-person lessons — in the spring of 2021.
Coming back to in-person classes was exciting to Pritchett (center), who sees himself as a naturally social person.

But the return to classes was also stressful. “We hadn’t seen anyone in like a year. We’d only seen them on FaceTime or Zoom calls,” he said. “We haven’t interacted in person, you know, and people changed so much. They grew beards out, they got taller, they changed completely. So learning how to talk to people, how to talk to friends you haven’t talked to face-to-face in a while, was almost an overwhelming experience.”
Pandemic-related safety protocols and precautions met students upon their return to in-person classes and added to the stress of the experience, Pritchett said.

“It was stressful, because, you know, most upperclassmen they’ve been in school (in person) the entire time,” Pritchett said. “We were just kind of picked up from our younger years and just plopped back into school as upperclassmen. I think a lot of people in my class, they didn’t really feel like upperclassmen because they didn’t really get that chance to mature in their junior and senior years.”
This played out in many different ways, Pritchett said, but none so vividly as what happened to the school’s bathrooms.

“Things just started to get taken or stolen. You’d notice that mirrors started to get stolen. Sinks. Entire sinks started to get stolen. Bathroom doors were getting ripped off,” Pritchet said. “Things got so bad that the majority of bathrooms (were) actually closed on campus and the school actually brought in porta potties on campus and bolted them into the ground.”
One new factor students had to navigate upon returning to in-person learning was wearing masks, which Pritchett said quickly became about more than their function in preventing the spread of COVID. “Black masks are really popular,” Pritchett said. “I’m usually late to school by a couple minutes because my sister takes forever to get ready,” he said. “She can never find a black mask. And so she’ll always be rummaging around the cabinets and the house trying to find a black mask.”
Another new aspect of returning to in-person classes was the absences. Statewide, both attendance and enrollment plummeted since the start of the pandemic.

During the 2021-22 school year, districts that typically had less than 5% of their students absent on a given day were seeing up to a quarter of students absent during the delta and omicron surges. Teacher absences also brought schools to a breaking point.

“There’s so many kids out of the classroom, with COVID. Same thing with teachers, too,” Pritchett said. “You’ll get like someone who’s been gone for a long time and you don’t really ask where they are. You know they got COVID.”
While attending school remotely, Pritchett said that students’ preexisting social lives were upended.

“My neighbor, we grew super close during the pandemic just because we weren’t going anywhere. We would just go on little walks every night and just play basketball on his basketball court,” he said. “We weren’t that close before the pandemic, but proximity brought us together.”
Now back in school, Pritchett said the consequences of that time are still playing out.
 
“Coming back from the pandemic, school’s just very, like click-y. Friend groups really dwindled and became a lot tighter and smaller,” he said. “I remember like my freshman and (the) beginning of sophomore year, at lunch, we would all congregate and the entire class, basically, the entire grade would be eating lunch together,” he said. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”
Anthony Pritchett and a group of his friends hang out during lunch.
Many of the activities and spaces that brought teens in the community together outside of school were shut down due to the pandemic and have yet to resume, Pritchett said. As a result, school took on greater importance as a place where young people can socialize with each other face to face.

At the same time, Pritchett’s father works in a nursing home in close proximity to seniors who are at a heightened risk of severe illness if they contract COVID. For Pritchett, this means he’s felt the need to stay extra vigilant to avoid infection even as he has sought to reestablish the connections with his peers that dwindled while learning remotely.

“It’s one of those things you definitely do think about, though, especially when you’re with a bunch of kids in school, or (at) parties or events,” he said. “You’re always wondering, ‘Am I going to catch COVID here?’ It is one of those things that’s always on your mind.”
Although masks were mandatory in school for much of the 2022 spring semester, Pritchett said that many of his peers became unhappy having to wear them and some took to openly disobeying the rules. There are “classes where the majority of kids don’t wear masks,” he said, “and the teacher, and students will ask (them to) and things will just escalate from there.”
Like many places in the state, some parents in Nevada City and Grass Valley objected to mask mandates in their public schools. Under pressure from those parents, in February the district’s school board voted to make masks optional on campus, a move that violated a prior agreement with the teachers’ union.
As the student representative on the school board, Pritchett watched as school board meetings became a flash point in the community.
“They should be boring. But they’ve definitely become like a battle ground for a lot of the cultural wars we’ve seen,” he said.
Shortly after the February school board vote to end the mask mandate, teachers walked out of classes for two consecutive days. At the time a trusted teacher told Pritchett that “the majority of her colleagues were looking for other jobs,” he said. “That’s super sad to hear that teachers are feeling that way.”
As the student representative on the board, Pritchett has a ceremonial vote, meaning that his vote is recorded but it is symbolic and not counted in final tallies. “I voted ‘no,’” he said about the decision to end the mask mandate “because teachers in a lot of (schools) are scared of COVID. They are scared of giving it to their families, to their parents, to their own students.”

“And if I’d had a vote, the resolution could have failed.”
Devin Bradley, head of the English department at Nevada Union High School, attends the district board meeting on  March 9, 2022.
Stepping back, Pritchett wonders if there isn’t more going on in the debate over the mask mandate in Nevada City than the specific matter at hand. “I don’t think the issue revolving around masks is the actual mask themselves. I think the issue is someone telling someone else to do something, like forcing someone to do something,” Pritchett said.

And while he disagrees with how the school district ended its mask mandate, he says that the process showed him “just how diverse of a community we do have, and really, how tough it is really, to actually build unity.”

“It’s a very precious thing to have,” Pritchett said. “But it’s hard to get there. It’s very hard to get there.”
Students attend the Nevada Joint Union High School District Board Meeting at Nevada Union High School on March 9, 2022.
By graduation day on June 11, there are no masks in sight at Nevada Union High School as Pritchett and his fellow students prepare for the ceremony inside the school gym.

Over the past few months Pritchett said he watched masks steadily fall out of use at school. “As certain reports came out, certain mandates were lifted, certain people started wearing masks less and less until really, the majority of people stopped wearing masks. And that’s where we are today.”

But rather than dwelling on it, Pritchett is looking ahead. He’s been accepted to UC Berkeley, where he’s enrolled in the College of Natural Resources and he plans to continue his engagement in advocacy work and politics.

“I’ve seen the necessity of people that need their voices heard and maybe can’t always get their voices out there,” he said. “One of the most effective things the pandemic did was shift everyone’s focus. And in a lot of ways, my focus was shifted from that purely academic viewpoint to realizing that there are more important things to tackle in the world.”
Hand shakes, hugs, fist bumps, and high fives. Aside from his friends that couldn’t make it because they were sick with COVID, Pritchett said the graduation seemed nearly normal.

“It’s been a very surreal high school experience ever since sophomore year, ever since COVID hit,” he said. But “just the fact that, you know, as a class we were able to overcome, that’s an accomplishment.”

Student Reflections: Looking Back on School during COVID was reported and written by photojournalists Larry Valenzuela, Salgu Wissmath and David Rodriguez for CatchLight & CalMatters.  

This project was produced by CalMatters & CatchLight as part of the CatchLight Local CA Visual Desk. Contributors include Joe Hong, Miguel Gutierrez Jr., Martin do Nascimento, Mabel Jimenez and Jenny Jacklin-Stratton. The San Antonio Elementary School project was produced through additional collaboration with the Salinas Californian.