Vallecito Union School District (VUSD) and Calaveras Unified School District (CUSD) students will have the option of returning to campuses for onsite instruction beginning, for some, as early as Sept. 28.

The VUSD school board voted unanimously to gradually reopen its three school sites on a normal schedule during a Sept. 16 board meeting.

Per the reopening plan, which can be viewed on the district’s website, some lower grades and sixth grade will be the first to return on Sept. 28, while all remaining grades up to eighth grade will be fully on campus by Oct. 5. 

Shortly before Wednesday’s meeting, a petition signed by 117 parents was brought before the board, requesting that onsite instruction be offered to students.

Mother of two VUSD students Brianna Inks wrote the petition, along with her sister and fellow VUSD parent Becca Kane, while several other parents helped collect signatures.

Inks, who works from home, said she hoped to make it clear to the board that there were many parents who wanted their children to return to school. She cited concerns about the struggles of working parents and children not being adequately educated or socialized in a distance learning setting.

“Face-to-face is best,” Inks said. “We want our kids to be in school, and we don’t have that option at this time. I understand that there are some families who do not want to be in school at this time, and that’s perfectly fine.”

Under the VUSD reopening plan, parents will have the option of sending their children back to campus, homeschooling through the district’s Vallecito Home School Academy Program or continuing with a distance learning program, provided by the district through a vendor.

“It should be noted that the current distance-learning model delivered by the district’s classroom teachers would not likely be available as an option as teachers cannot facilitate in-person and online learning,” the plan reads.

Students who return to campus will remain in a “cohort” or a classroom group for learning, lunch, recess and play, utilizing staggered schedules to prevent contact with other cohorts. With some exceptions for those who cannot tolerate masks, students will be required to wear a face mask while on campus, and the district will provide PPE free of charge to students and staff if needed.

The 31-page reopening plan, which takes guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also includes daily health screenings for staff, contact tracing for positive COVID-19 tests, and strict stay-home policies for symptomatic students.

VUSD was the first school district in Calaveras County to announce plans to reopen campuses. However, Calaveras Unified School District (CUSD) – the county's largest district – followed suit Tuesday evening when its board voted unanimously to return to campuses Oct. 12 with a 50% blended program model (50% of students on alternating days, four days a week).

Their decision followed a peaceful demonstration at the four-way intersection of Highway 26 and Highway 12 in Valley Springs, where CUSD parents and students weathered smoky air on Monday to support a safe return to campuses.

“It’s very difficult. They are not made to sit in a chair for two hours in front of a computer. This is the time they are supposed to be interacting with their peers, making friends and learning everything they are supposed to learn. It’s hard,” Chloe Cox, parent of a CUSD kindergartener who is doing distance learning, told the Enterprise at the demonstration. “Everything that he is learning is given from the teachers, but it’s the parents teaching. There is so much that needs to be learned in a classroom, not from mom and dad.”

Calaveras High School senior Abby Porath said that learning from home has put a strain on students’ mental health. 

“It’s been hard. You’re at home all day and you’re not really doing anything,” Porath said. “And when you do go out into the outside world, you still have to wear a mask and you have to follow all these rules. You are not getting the whole experience. Sitting at home all day doing homework isn’t the ideal situation when it’s your last year in high school.”

A student athlete, Porath thinks her class has gotten the “short end of the stick” in finishing out their high school careers. 

“It is our last childhood experience. It’s the last thing you get before getting filled with college, bills and a house. It’s the last thing of your childhood that’s getting ripped away from you. It’s hard for everyone,” she said.

The final two school districts to reopen campuses in the county will be Mark Twain Union Elementary School District (MTUESD) and Bret Hart Union High School District (BHUHSD). The MTUESD school board will vote on the matter Wednesday, while BHUHSD superintendent told the Enterprise on Tuesday that the district was still “gathering information and determining our options.”

County Superintendent of Schools Scott Nanik has stated that he is in favor of students returning to campus, as long as it can be done safely.

“The enrollment at these schools is such that they have the physical space on campus to ensure proper social distancing and are able to meet all the (California Department of Public Health) guidance,” Nanik said.

According to Nanik, moving into a more restrictive tier in the state’s COVID-19 monitoring system should not cause county schools to shut down again, unless there is a significant outbreak on a campus.

“Under the Tier system, once a school is open it may stay open unless it has (a) COVID-19 infection that meets the closure requirements. Even if we were moved to the Purple Tier on the (Sept. 29), both these schools would remain open. While the state has some closure thresholds for an infection, it really will be more of a case-by-case basis working with our local public health. Yes, it could be possible for schools, grades or classrooms to move in and out of distance learning based on the case,” Nanik said.

Reporter Guy Dossi contributed to this article. 

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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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