School construction prompts health-order questions

LAHS construction
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Police halted construction at Los Altos High School last week, but crews were allowed to continue after the District Attorney’s Office issued further guidance.

The Los Altos Police Department April 7 instructed workers at Los Altos High School’s construction site to halt work, citing Santa Clara County’s most recent health order. By the next morning, work was permitted to continue after the District Attorney’s Office issued further guidance.

The episode illustrates how police, prosecutors, school districts and county officials are all working in real-time to interpret and apply the latest order from county health officer Dr. Sara Cody, amid an ever-changing coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s an ongoing evaluation of how Dr. Cody wants her order enforced,” said Deputy District Attorney Angela Alvarado.

Cody’s latest order, issued March 31, stops most construction in the county but allows certain limited categories to continue. According to Alvarado, to ensure the order is being applied fairly, it is important that each construction site continuing to operate is evaluated individually to see whether it falls under one of the exemptions.

“This is a health order, it’s nothing we’ve ever seen before, so we’re learning as we go and we don’t want to disproportionately apply it,” Alvarado said.

When the police department receives a report about a potential breach of the health order, Chief Andy Galea said officers will go out to see if a violation is occurring. Last week, a resident reported that construction was continuing at the high school, in apparent violation of the county’s order.

“As we typically do with health-order violations, we sent a patrol car out,” he said.

The department received preliminary direction from the District Attorney’s Office that the construction wasn’t permitted, and the crew stopped work for the day.

Clarifying the order

The Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District is in the midst of constructing new classroom buildings at both Mountain View and Los Altos high schools, along with a new auxiliary gym at Los Altos High.

The order allows public works projects to continue “if specifically designated as an Essential Governmental Function by the lead governmental agency.” The district’s board of trustees unanimously passed a resolution the prior week deeming the construction projects essential. Board president Sanjay Dave has said the new classrooms are necessary because the student population is expected to rise.

“We thought we’d done everything we were supposed to do – we’d passed the resolution,” said Associate Superintendent Mike Mathiesen.

When police stopped work on the site, Mathiesen reached out to Alvarado for clarity on the order’s restrictions. It turned out the crux of the question was what “lead governmental agency” meant.

At first, Alvarado herself had questions about just who the “lead governmental agency” was, thinking it was possible that the phrase might be referring to the county health department.

She contacted attorneys in the county counsel’s office, which has been interpreting the order. The county counsel’s office quickly responded, Alvarado said, and clarified that if the school district is overseeing and funding the project, it counts as the “lead governmental agency” and can therefore decide whether the project is essential.

In this case, the district’s construction is entirely funded by Measure E, a $295 million bond passed by voters in 2018, meaning the money was raised by the district and is ultimately being paid for by local residents.

County counsel James Williams said “lead governmental agency” simply refers to whichever entity is responsible for the project. Rather than having the county health officer review and individually decide which public works projects need to continue, Williams said the choice was made to delegate that to the relevant agencies.

“That decision was basically handed to each governmental entity with the assumption that they would responsibly exercise that decision,” Williams said. “They have to affirmatively deem the project as one that needs to go forward.”

Restrictions remain

Although the construction project can continue, both Galea and Alvarado stressed that social-distancing protocols must still be followed.

“Just because a project is considered exempt as a public works project doesn’t mean it’s exempt from all of the other provisions of the health order,” Alvarado said.

According to Mathiesen, workers have been instructed not to come to work if sick and to maintain 6 feet distance from one another whenever possible, including during breaks and lunch. Workers may come into closer contact with each other if it’s required to safely complete a task, such as placing a beam, Mathiesen added.

Wash stations and hand sanitizer are available, and workers are wearing gloves and face coverings, he added.

“We’re trying to do our part to make sure we’re abiding by those guidelines,” Mathiesen said, “Because we do realize that we’re one of the unique groups that can continue with construction.”

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