Update: The Calaveras County Office of Education and the county’s school districts announced the latest plan for reopening in a joint letter on Thursday.
“At this time and after feedback from our stakeholders, each district has selected to resume education under the following models,” the letter states. “Bret Harte Union High School District and Calaveras Unified School District will begin under a distance learning model. Mark Twain Union Elementary School District plans on a blended model and Vallecito Union School District is currently in the middle of a multi-campus remodel and hopes to begin back in the classroom around the 8th of September with full regular classroom attendance. Calaveras County Office of Education programs will be a blend of models depending on the district and location they serve.”
With the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year only weeks away, county schools are gearing up to offer limited in-person instruction.
However, the ability for schools to reopen depends upon the county limiting the spread of COVID-19 and staying off of the state’s monitoring list.
On July 17, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that no schools will be allowed to reopen unless their respective counties have been off of the state’s monitoring list for at least two weeks.
So far, Calaveras County has managed to stay off of the list and can move ahead with reopening schools.
County schools are planning on offering a mix of in-person instruction and distance learning this year, County Superintendent of Schools Scott Nanik said.
“The plan right now is still to be all blended learning,” he said. “We are still kind of weeding through the new document and guidance from the state, looking at some of the adjustments that need to be made to align with that, and working closely with Calaveras County Public Health to make sure that we’ve got everything in line.”
Nanik said that local schools are working hard to balance a variety of factors.
“We are trying very diligently to balance everybody’s needs, and to ensure our students and families, community and staff are all safe,” he said.
There is significant variation between school districts on what reopening will look like, Nanik said. Bret Harte Union High School District is planning on having half of students on campus each day for four days a week, while Vallecito Union School District is looking to engage in significantly more in-person instruction.
“Being a smaller district and having space, they are thinking they can bring a lot of the kids back,” Nanik said.
Calaveras Unified School District (CUSD), the largest school district in the county, is planning on having students on campus for minimum days on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Only one-quarter of students will attend on any particular day to limit class size and observe social distancing, and most students will only attend campus one day a week. Students will receive five days of instructions per week – one day of in-person learning and four days of distance learning.
“At this point, subject to change, we are looking at approximately 25% of our students on campus one day a week each,” CUSD Superintendent Mark Campbell said. “We will also explore ideas and options to bring designated populations of students onto campus more than one day a week for extra supports and services.”
Families who prefer a higher degree of distance learning can enroll in the district’s Sierra Hills Education Center.
“Students will not receive a 100% distance learning option at their school site, at this time, subject to change,” Campbell said. “Sierra Hills is as close as they can get to a full distance learning model.”
Campbell said that enrollment at Sierra Hills has increased significantly, and that students will be allowed to transfer to and from Sierra Hills over the course of the year.
“Sierra Hills ended last year with 32 students and is now up to 163 at last count,” he said. “Students may seek to transfer to their prior school at any point during the year.”
The state has encouraged schools to reopen as long as COVID-19 data allows for it, Campbell said.
“As of July 2, as outlined in SB 98, all schools were directed to provide as much in-person teaching as possible, working with local public health to determine the extent that could be done while still meeting health and safety guidelines,” Campbell said. “That’s why we shifted focus from 100% distance learning to the 25% blended program. Now, on July 17, the California Department of Public Health issued new guidelines that seemed to soften the directive for in-person instruction and allowed more flexibility for the ability of districts to go with 100% distance learning. So our dialogue continues, local and county, with public health.”
Campbell said that it’s important to offer in-person education to students, as long as it’s safe to do so.
“Direct engagement of our students is an absolute necessity, but health and safety conditions are a top priority,” he said. “If time and conditions determine that we can’t meet the health and safety needs of our staff and students, then we should not be providing in-person learning. We continue to work diligently to be prepared for either of three scenarios – on campus or distant learning, or both.”
Students can receive a quality education through distance learning, Campbell said.
“I am confident that our staff has learned and grown from our experiences last year and have taken, and will continue to take, necessary steps to strengthen our distance learning opportunities,” he said. “Nothing is stronger than our staff directly engaging our students in person to deliver instruction and support, but I do believe our staff has the capacity, and the desire, to deliver a quality education through distance learning.”
The district has been working to ensure that students have adequate resources to engage in distance learning by “reaching out to families, identifying needs and addressing them the best we can – devices, hot spots, access to campuses for internet access,” Campbell said.
The state guidelines that pose the biggest challenge for the district involve health and safety protocols, Campbell said.
“Health and safety protocols for daily temperature checks and physical distancing, as well as the depth of cleaning and sanitizing needed, are the most challenging,” he said. “Programatically, the biggest challenges are effectively serving students in designated populations – special education, those without internet access, English learners, homeless, etc.”
The state mandates a wide range of safety precautions for schools that reopen their campuses. All students in third grade and above, as well as all staff, will be required to wear face coverings while at school.
“By state directive, students in grades three through 12 are mandated to wear face coverings,” Campbell said. “If students refuse to do so, they are not allowed to be on campus. We will work with students and families to address this issue with kindness, respect and humanity.”
Other safety measures at CUSD include daily temperature checks and health surveys for students and staff, sanitation procedures including the nightly disinfection, or “fogging,” of classrooms, and the observance of social distancing.
“I am fully confident in the collective efforts of staff to do all they can to create, and sustain, a healthy and safe working and learning environment,” Campbell said. “However, I can’t say I am 100% confident that the virus will cooperate, therefore I can’t say I am 100% confident that we can say that there is zero chance staff and/or students will be impacted – and science would bear that out.”
Students and staff members who show symptoms of COVID-19 will be excluded from campus, and students and staff will be monitored throughout the day for signs of illness. If a student or staff member in a class tests positive for COVID-19, “that class and all contacts will move to distance learning until notified to return, follow the direction of the Calaveras Public Health Department, COVID-19 test is recommended, and the classroom will be closed for 14 days from last exposure,” according to CUSD’s website.
Parents have had mixed reactions to CUSD’s reopening plan, Campbell said.
“The whole spectrum of feedback is being heard,” he said. “Parents have widely different opinions and perspectives on these issues – love vs. hate distance learning, thankful vs. upset about face coverings, fearful of returning to campus vs. those who believe people are overreacting to COVID-19 and many, many more.”
Campbell said that staff have responded well to the challenges posed by COVID-19.
“Staff have been amazingly dedicated in their efforts to address health and safety issues and concerns, to strengthen distance learning opportunities, to craft reopening plans and protocols, to stay on top of all communication and information that flies, and changes, day to day,” he said. “And they are doing so while also working through legitimate questions and concerns about the sustainability of our significant efforts to address health and safety areas – given the trending of COVID-19 data.”