New Year Begins as Gateway Crusaders Mull Over Superintendent Pick and America Falls Apart

Cartoon by artist Phil Fountain.

Happy new year, ladies, gentlemen and assorted and sundry genders! It’s 2023 and the American way of life as we’ve known it is on the wane.

It doesn’t have a darned thing to do with which pronouns you use, the alleged teaching of Critical Race Theory in public schools or the false claim the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

It has everything to do with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to decimate staffs in economic concerns ranging from public education to healthcare, from commercial aviation to the global hospitality industry—the latter term referring to tourism, one of Shasta County’s main money-makers.

Yet COVID as a cause of disruption is rarely mentioned in mainstream media coverage of economic calamities such as Southwest Airlines’ recent holiday season meltdown during a record-breaking cold snap. If COVID is mentioned at all, it’s buried deep in the story, as in this sample from CNN.

You have to scroll halfway down to discover Southwest had enacted “operational emergency” staffing procedures a week prior to the winter storm due to employee absences caused by the surging tripledemic of COVID, flu and RSV.

Likewise, COVID was hardly mentioned two weeks ago at the Gateway Unified School District Board of Trustees meeting.

Restless audience awaiting the Gateway USD board of trustees to return from closed session last month. Photo by R.V. Scheide.

During a closed session, the board’s new MAGA majority, led by Cherrill Clifford, summarily fired superintendent Jim Harrell.

Harrell’s detractors, including Rich Gallardo and his merry band of citizen propagandists, have pointed out that the teacher’s union voted no confidence in Harrell in 2021.

What Gallardo & Co. failed to provide was context, and that context was COVID, which has killed more than 700 Shasta County residents and was surging at the time of teacher’s union vote. In fact, shortly after the teacher union’s vote, Harrell caught a nearly fatal case of COVID and was sidelined for months.

According to a half-dozen Gateway teachers I’ve interviewed, the faculty across all campuses was sharply divided about COVID mandates. The majority of teachers were frustrated that Harrell wasn’t enforcing the state’s mandates, permitting the minority of COVID-denying teachers to put everyone’s life in danger.

One source said COVID-denying teachers would hang sheets in the classroom near the front door so no one could peek through the window and see the teacher and the class weren’t masked up.

COVID-caused tensions remain high at Gateway, thanks to a mass exodus of older teachers, aides, administrators and staff unwilling to expose themselves to the novel coronavirus. This is a nationwide phenomenon across all industries that involve workers interfacing with the public yet its impact is rarely noted.

This hasty exit of older employees has led to an overall deterioration of the public education system. The teachers, administrators and staff who remain must do more with less, even as the pandemic continues to surge.

As reported by The 74, a nonprofit news organization that tracks public education, increased teacher and student absenteeism ranks just below learning loss in ongoing problems caused by the pandemic. According to The 74’s survey of 800 schools nationwide, 61 percent reported difficulty in finding substitute teachers.

If you’re looking for someone to blame for those figures, I’m your huckleberry.

On a somber gray day in March 2020, my 60th birthday, I called the school where I’d been substitute teaching for nearly two years and reported I wouldn’t be coming in until the pandemic was over. At the time, I had no idea that the pandemic would never end and that I’d never substitute teach again.

Millions of middle-aged and older Americans have made similar decisions, causing tremors that are still reverberating throughout the economy. I’ve been working remotely for much of my journalism career. It can be isolating sedentary work, and substitute teaching was the antidote to that.

But once it became clear I was literally putting my life on the line because of COVID surging through our schools, the decision to work from home was an easy one.

The reader is justified in wondering why I mentioned transgender pronouns, Critical Race Theory and the false claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation at the top of this essay.

After all, I just argued that COVID remains one of our most daunting problems. I didn’t even mention China has abandoned its Zero COVID policy and is letting the novel coronavirus rip through its 1.4 billion population. You think we saw supply chain issues in 2020 and 2021? President Xi says hold my beer.

Pronouns, CRT and Christian nationalism have nothing to do with that. I mentioned transgender pronouns, CRT and Christian nationalism up high because that’s the agenda Gateway board chair Cherrill Clifford is pursuing, instead of addressing the district’s very real problems with staffing and learning loss.

Cherrill Clifford. Photo source: Cherrill Clifford’s Facebook page.

Clifford has made her opposition to the LGBTQ community plain in numerous Facebook posts. She’s doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state. Naturally, the 80-year-old Clifford is an anti-vaxxer.

According to persistent rumors, Clifford intends to force the board to hire Bryan Caples, an open Christian nationalist who falsely claims that CRT is being taught in public schools. This action could take place at the board’s next meeting this Wed., Jan. 4, at 4 p.m. at Central Valley High School.

Bryan Caples, failed Shasta County Superintendent of Schools candidate, previously dismissed from several school superintendent jobs.

If the name Caples sounds familiar, it should. In February, A News Café was the first news outlet to break the news that the failed candidate had been fired from his last three stints as a school district superintendent. Many northern California news outlets picked up on the story.

Caples’ sketchy work history is no secret. Will Clifford pull the trigger Wednesday and hire him anyway? Stay tuned.

It would be easier to dismiss Clifford as a religious zealot whose beliefs are out of step with changing times and have no effect on society at large if her far right views weren’t embraced by the current majority on the United States Supreme Court.

Last year the court’s current 6-3 ultraconservative Christian majority permitted high school football coaches to hold Christian prayers on the 50-yard line after games, eliminated any federal right to abortion in the Dobbs case and limited the rights of states to regulate firearms in the Bruen case.

This summer, the court will decide if evangelical Christians can refuse to provide services to members of the LGBTQ community based on some Christian business owners’ sincerely held religious belief that homosexuality is a sin.

Back in 2019, six months before COVID-19 surged into the United States, I reviewed “The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American” for A News Café. Written by the nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation’s lead attorney Andrew Seidel, the book reiterated the Founders desire to create a secular nation, and systematically destroyed the religious right’s attempt to rewrite the Constitution otherwise.

This book review was so objectionable to some local readers that Carl Bott invited me on his rightwing radio show to explain myself. He seemed genuinely surprised I wasn’t the anti-Christ; just an objective observer of encroaching rightwing Christianity.

Unfortunately, Seidel’s book did little to stem the rightwing religious tide that has rolled over American since the election of Donald J. Trump. So Seidel has written another book, “American Crusade: How the Supreme Court is Weaponizing Religious Freedom.”

In the book, Seidel details SCOTUS decisions during the past 20 years as the court’s majority has shifted to the far right. The book’s forward offers a warning:

“We should be scared. That is the message of Andrew Seidel’s brilliant and chilling book detailing the dramatic changes in the current Supreme Court’s approach to the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Because change in constitutional law generally happens incrementally, case by case, sometimes it is difficult to fully realize even radical changes until they have occurred. Seidel’s book shows us that we are in the midst of the Court overruling decades of precedent and obliterating any semblance of a wall separating church and state.”

In other words, we’re all in the situation of the slowly boiling frog.

It’s up to us to jump before the water gets too hot.


If you appreciate journalist R.V. Scheide’s in-depth reporting and commentary, please consider a contribution to A News Cafe. Thank you!


R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide is an award-winning journalist who has covered news, politics, music, arts and culture in Northern California for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in the Tenderloin Times, Sacramento News & Review, Reno News & Review, Chico News & Review, North Bay Bohemian, San Jose Metro, SF Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, Alternet, Boston Phoenix, Creative Loafing and Counterpunch, among many other publications. His honors include winning the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s Freedom of Information Act and best columnist awards as well as best commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists, California chapter. Mr. Scheide welcomes your comments and story tips. Contact him at RVScheide@anewscafe.com..

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