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Some Calaveras schools resume onsite learning, others debate return

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Seventh grade students enjoy socially-distanced social time during a break earlier this week at Avery Middle School. 

After nearly seven months away, students filled classrooms at Avery Middle School last week, with sixth and seventh graders arriving Sept. 28 and eighth graders joining them on Monday.

The school of roughly 180 students was one of the first in Calaveras County to welcome students back to campus, with the Vallecito Union School District (VUSD) board voting unanimously to reopen its three school sites on Sept. 16.

The return to campus has brought joy and a sense of normalcy to teachers, staff and students, Principal Scott Nicotero says, but it has also been a challenge.

Students must remain within their grade-level cohorts at all times, utilize separate bathroom areas and stay on designated paths of travel when moving around campus – all while wearing masks. For staff members, the return to onsite instruction has meant cleaning protocol between classes, nightly sanitation of facilities, and daily health screenings, guided by health officials and a reopening advisory committee comprised of staff and parents.

Despite the many restrictions on campus, Nicotero believes that inviting students back was the best option.

“The kids are adapting really well. … Being in the classroom, having that engagement with teachers – the social aspect of it has been huge for the students,” Nicotero said on Oct. 2. “The custodians are doing a tremendous job of disinfecting classrooms each night. … Again, it’s one of those scenarios where it’s different and challenging, and we have to work a lot harder.”

Feedback from parents has been overwhelmingly positive, Nicotero said, after 117 VUSD parents signed a petition to return last month. However, approximately seven students have opted out of onsite learning at Avery Middle School. For those students, classes will continue via remote instruction or through a homeschooling program.

As principal, Nicotero says he is “elated” to welcome back students.

“This school is beautiful, but it’s an empty shell when we don’t have students on campus,” Nicotero said.

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Avery Middle School Principal Scott Nicotero works with 8th grade students on new distancing protocols on their first day of in-person school attendance.

At Calaveras Unified School District (CUSD), another unanimous vote from a school board to return to campuses this month might not be enough to bring students back to middle school and high school.

While CUSD elementary schools are reopening with a 50% blended model on Oct. 12, 31 staff members at Toyon Middle School and Calaveras High School have submitted requests for formal leave, resulting in a staffing shortage.

“The board is meeting this Thursday to consider a recommendation that we continue with 100% distance learning at the middle and high schools, due to a projected staffing shortage created by a significant number of certificated (and) classified staff submitting for a formal leave of some kind (primarily family medical leave or COVID-related expanded family leave),” CUSD Superintendent Mark Campbell told the Enterprise on Tuesday.

The recommendation will likely bring opposition from a coalition of CUSD parents and students who staged a demonstration last month urging the district to reopen school sites.

Currently, Bret Harte Union High School in Angels Camp is the only high school in the county with confirmed plans to reopen.

Beginning Oct. 19, students will return to campus for two days out of the school week, with cohorts alternating onsite learning days.

Bret Harte Union High School District (BHUHSD) was the last in the county to vote on reopening school sites, following three other school boards that voted “yes.”

The BHUHSD board’s decision on Sept. 28 was unanimous and the result of “a lot of discussion,” according to BHUHSD Superintendent Mike Chimente.

“It’s just the right thing to do for the kids,” Chimente said on Tuesday. “While, in my heart, I feel it’s the right thing, I don’t think waiting any longer would have made any difference. We just have to try and see what happens.”

Roughly 100 students at the high school will be continuing with distance learning, Chimente said, reflecting approximately 20% of parents surveyed by the school who answered that they did not want their children to return to campus.

Staff members have been largely supportive of the reopening plans, he said.

“The majority I’ve talked to have missed the interaction and are all cautiously optimistic,” Chimente said. “I can’t speak for 100% of staff, but I think they all understand that virtual (instruction) is not what they signed up for.”

Planning to reopen a high school has brought unique pitfalls, requiring the reimagining of some activities and the canceling of others.

With the state’s governing body for high school athletics planning to begin both winter and spring sports during the winter season, Chimente says more guidance is needed from the state to determine how sporting events should be staged and when pre-season conditioning can commence. Meanwhile, he said, coaches and student athletes are “chomping at the bit.”

Band is no longer feasible under COVID-19 guidance, nor is changing into physical education (PE) clothes. Chimente says students might obtain PE credits by keeping a daily exercise log at home, while a drama production might be organized with social distancing.

“In high school, it’s not just all core academics. It’s important for us to be able to provide (Career Technical Education), art, labs. For a lot of kids, that’s the hook for them to come to school,” Chimente said, adding that distributing meals to students on a 50% blended model also presents new challenges.

“I think every district is doing the best they can to navigate these uncharted waters,” he continued. “We have to be mindful of how we’re going to take care of each other when we return. … It is just going to be different for a while, but I still think that difference is worth having kids on campus.”

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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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