As school begins this week for most Calaveras County students, educators are still in the dark about what the new academic year will look like.

During the summer, all four school districts in Calaveras County, as with most in California, moved to start the fall 2020 semester entirely online.

However, with the county’s introduction to the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list on Aug. 17 – also the first day of virtual classes for Calaveras Unified School District (CUSD) – schools within the county cannot provide in-person instruction under state guidelines.

For Bret Harte Union High School District (BHUHSD) Superintendent Mike Chimente, the decision was already made by early August due to fear of a COVID-19 outbreak shutting down a school.

“I believe it’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s ‘when.’ ... I just think this is a better way to get a handle on COVID and return to normal,” Chimente said, adding, “I don’t know what normal means.”

Another factor was the absence of sports and most extracurricular activities under state guidelines.

“How many kids come to school for drama? How many kids come to school so they can play their trumpet?” Chimente said.

The educator for nearly 45 years says he doesn’t know when students will return to campuses or how many will return, but when they do, it will likely be a blended online/in-person format.

At CUSD, enrollment was down by more than 130 students in the week before school started.

“This is not normal and is definitely tied to COVID,” CUSD Superintendent Mark Campbell said.

Some of the students left the area due to economic reasons, while others were taken out for homeschooling or transferred when parents believed other districts may be opting for in-person instruction earlier in the summer, according to Campbell.

Vallecito Unified School District, one of the last districts to announce a virtual format for fall 2020, experienced some growth to counter its losses, according to county Superintendent of Schools Scott Nanik. Enrollment at BHUHSD has also increased slightly, but “most are waiting to see who actually shows up,” Nanik said.

Due to the unpopularity of online learning and the need for childcare among many parents, it remains a looming question of how many will choose to pull their children out of public schools in the coming weeks.

“The state doesn’t notify us if a parent files the Private School Affidavit,” Nanik said.

Yet the overarching concern among local educators remains the welfare of students while separated from in-person services and relationships. There is a palpable sense of sadness and frustration in not being able to provide everyday contact and care to the community’s most at-risk children.

“School was the safe place where we could maintain some sanity in their lives, and now they don’t even have that anymore,” Chimente said. “What experience is a freshman going to have not getting to walk onto campus (or) getting to learn what it’s going to be like as a freshman? … I worry about our kids.”

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Dakota graduated from Bret Harte in 2013 and went to Davidson College, NC where she earned a bachelor's degree in Arab studies. After spending time studying in the Middle East and Europe, she is happy to be home, writing about the community she loves.

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