As high school seniors countywide prepare for drive-through graduation ceremonies, school administrators are struggling to organize the fall semester under new COVID-19 guidelines.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a detailed roadmap for safely reopening schools. Guidelines include the cancellation of large gatherings, staggered arrival and dismissal times, spaced-out desks and access to remote learning for at-risk families. More concrete guidance from the state is expected within the next two weeks.
In mid-March, schools throughout the state scrambled to accommodate students’ learning needs through online formats after campuses were shuttered. On March 13, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order ensuring that closed schools would continue to receive funding.
However, according to Calaveras County Superintendent of Schools Scott Nanik, waivers submitted by districts to receive funding for remote learning will expire before the fall semester arrives in mid-August.
“While talks of hybrid distance learning are nice, we don’t have the waivers to do it yet,” Nanik told the Enterprise on May 22. “We don’t have the waivers in place at the state level to operate anything beyond traditional learning at this point.”
Other aspects of the state’s incoming guidelines are “tall orders” which require “more money and some additional flexibility,” Nanik said.
On May 13, California Superintendent Tony Thurmond suggested that school districts consider providing facemasks for students, teachers and staff. He also recommended shift schedules as a method for reopening schools, with some students arriving in the morning and others in the afternoon.
According to Nanik, it would cost $2.4 million per year to provide disposable masks for every student in Calaveras County. Regarding the possibility of shift schedules, long-distance bussing and a large number of working parents within the community make that system difficult to achieve.
“On the safety side, (it’s) good, grounded practice, scientific-based recommendations. It just doesn’t align well with the practical and isn’t any good for the kids,” Nanik said. “We all want kids back in the classroom in August. We just don’t know how to do that and maintain the safety to make that happen.”
But can a district choose to ignore state guidance and resume unmodified classes in the fall? The short answer is “no,” according to Nanik, as insurance carriers won’t cover districts that don’t follow state guidelines.
Additionally, with all California school districts likely facing higher budgetary needs in the fall, Nanik foresees staffing cuts on the horizon, as well as some at-risk teachers who may be reluctant to return to the classroom.
In mid-May, the state announced a $54.3 billion deficit that must be closed before the next fiscal year begins on July 1.
“The proposed education cuts for the 2020-21 budget will be devastating at a time when students need more support,” E. Toby Boyd, president of the California Teachers Association, told the Los Angeles Times. “(It) will lead to cuts to vital student programs, educator layoffs, furlough days and pay cuts just like it did during the last recession when we lost 33,000 educators.”
Community colleges will likely also be impacted by state budget cuts and the burdens of safely reopening.
At Columbia College in Tuolumne County, all summer courses are being offered solely online, while fall classes are currently planned for a “typical blend” of in-person, online and off-campus courses.
“We continue to monitor the situation and, if necessary, will adjust the fall schedule to reflect the most current guidelines,” the college stated on its website.
For graduating seniors, college plans remain uncertain, with some students choosing to forego their chosen four-year institution for the cheaper option of community college.
Bret Harte College and Career Advisor LeAnn Millar says that universities opting for an online-only format throughout the fall semester, including the entire California State University system, has been the driving force behind students withdrawing their enrollment.
“They’re making a decision whether they’re going to pay a lot of money for online classes at a four-year institution or start at Columbia (College),” Millar said.
On Friday, Bret Harte seniors will be the first in the county to graduate with a drive-through ceremony. Nanik says school administrators worked alongside the county health department to create a plan that was permissible under state guidelines.
“There were very few adjustments to the plans submitted. They were very impressed with the quality of the plans,” Nanik said. “We’re really collaborating to figure out the best possible plans for the kids, and I would say we have a very open channel with our Public Health director, who is willing to struggle through those conversations with us.”
Nanik hopes that state officials, too, will be willing to have those conversations with practitioners as the planning continues for the fall semester.
“Let’s really get people who are going to have to live in this environment talking about what it’s going to take,” he said. “It’s become too much of a sound byte in a political issue.”