There is currently much debate over how to respond to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and how to handle public education has become especially controversial.
At a special meeting of the Calaveras Unified School District (CUSD) Board of Trustees held remotely on Oct. 8, it was decided to delay the planned reopening of Calaveras High School and Gold Strike Continuation High School for four weeks.
The meeting was held following a recommendation from CUSD Superintendent Mark Campbell to delay the reopening of the two schools through the month of December due to a staffing shortage. Since last month’s decision to reopen the district’s schools, a significant number of staff have announced their intention to take leave due to COVID-19-related issues and concerns.
Across the district, 13 certificated staff and 16 classified staff are eligible and seeking to pursue leave for up to 12 weeks under either the Family Medical Leave Act or the Family First Coronavirus Relief Act, Campbell said during the meeting. In addition, seven certificated staff and three classified staff have inquired about taking leave, but haven’t yet pursued it further. Campbell stressed that the situation was fluid, and could change as early as the following day.
At Calaveras High and Gold Strike High, seven certificated positions and three classified positions would likely be vacant if the schools reopened on the planned date.
CUSD’s elementary and middle schools will reopen on Oct. 12 using a 50%-Blended Program Model combining remote and in-person instruction. Calaveras High and Gold Strike High students were scheduled to return to campus with the 50%-Blended Program Model on Oct. 19.
“The bottom line is that we want kids back on campus, but we also have to assure our staff that you’re operating in a safe environment,” Campbell said. “Sustainability is an issue, the viability of the academic program is an issue, meeting health and safety guidelines is a huge issue.”
The plan across school sites for addressing staffing shortages includes plugging as many gaps as possible with day-to-day substitute teachers and administrators and combining multiple classes in the gyms if necessary. The pool of available substitute teachers is very limited, Campbell said.
“We’re hoping for a 100% return to campus third quarter for everybody – meeting all health and safety guidelines and getting everybody back on campus where we should be, so we can focus on what we should be focusing on,” he said. “That will be externally dictated to us.”
At the beginning of the meeting, District Area 2 Trustee/Board President Cory Williams voted against revisiting the reopening plan, preferring to move ahead with reopening Calaveras High and Gold Strike High on Oct. 19.
Williams expressed concerns with the quality of distance learning and the impact that it has had on students and families.
“We are supposed to offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible, and it is not the community’s problem that we have a teacher shortage,” she said. “I don’t believe that it is an equitable education for Calaveras (High) to be continuing on distance learning and for the rest of our students to be getting in-person instruction. When it is stated that the quality of the teaching program could be compromised if we are short on teachers, well, the quality of distance learning is already so atrocious that even the worst sub on Earth being in a classroom with our kids would be better than what they are getting right now. … Schools deal with shortages of personnel all the time – this is not new, it’s not unheard of, it happens every day on campuses everywhere, and we make it work.”
District Area 1 Trustee Sherri Reusche responded that the pandemic made the situation more complex than a staffing shortage during normal times.
“I’m sorry, we’re in a pandemic,” she said. “We can say this is normal; it’s not normal. If it was normal, we would just open the doors and let them all in. … We have to be safe, we have to have staff that’s safe, we have to have kids that are safe, and I don’t think it’s fair to say we’re just going to throw them all in, and you guys just deal with it.”
Campbell said that all school sites in the district currently have reopening plans that fulfill state and local public health guidelines.
“We have the ability to execute those plans,” he said. “That is not stopping us from moving forward at Calaveras High School, just like it’s not stopping us from moving forward at any other school site. We also have to engage in the reality that we have some staff that believe that that’s not enough, and that we aren’t prepared, and that could be a debate and discussion that goes on forever that really has no end. In the here and now, my recommendation to you is only because of the staffing capacity and the sustainability factor, and when we talk about gathering large groups of students, that compromises the ability to meet the physical distancing guidelines.”
Calaveras High Principal Mike Tambini voiced disagreement with Williams’ remarks on the quality of distance learning.
“I think the distance learning is fine; I think our teachers are doing a good job,” he said. “If we do this blended 50-50, I have concerns with it. I don’t think it’s going to be better than distance learning.”
Tambini said he had issues with three classrooms on campus which all have one door, no windows and no ventilation, as well concerns over enforcing mask wearing and social distancing with limited staff and classroom space.
“I’m responsible for the whole campus, and I take that on my shoulders, and I take it to heart,” he said. “I care about the kids, I care about the community, and I care about my staff, and I want everybody to be safe.”
After hearing from a large assortment of parents, students and staff, the nearly four-hour meeting came to an end with a 4-1 vote where it was decided to reopen Calaveras High and Gold Strike High on Nov. 16, with the reopening to come sooner if the staffing issue could be successfully addressed.
“For the parents and the students that begged – hundreds of them that contacted me – I’m a 'No',” Williams said.