With Calaveras County entering a less-restrictive COVID-19 monitoring tier this week, roughly 700 local educators vaccinated, and Gov. Gavin Newsom striking a deal to reopen California schools, it appears that the community has turned a corner in its gradual emergence from the pandemic.
However, some of those hit hardest by the impacts of COVID-19—the children—will not see life return to “normal” quite yet. Due to ongoing demands on schools by the state to adhere to strict social distancing guidance, most county educators, administrators and school board members have instead pinned their hopes on the coming fall semester to bring students fully back to campuses.
With the exception of Vallecito Union School District (VUSD), which was able to reopen fully in late September 2020 due to its small number of students and roomy facilities, public school districts in Calaveras County have adhered to various hybrid instruction models, with most students dividing their time between on-campus and distance learning since fall of 2020.
Yet local schools are ahead of the curve compared to many public schools in California, which are now being coaxed to reopen for hybrid learning with $2 billion in state funds, allocated by Assembly Bill 86, which was signed into law by Newsom on March 5.
“The incentives don’t really apply to us,” county Superintendent of Schools Scott Nanik said of the new bill. “Since our schools are open under the (state’s) definition of ‘open,’ we’re really not doing anything differently than what we’re doing.”
According to Nanik, until the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) issues new guidance relaxing the four-feet minimum social distancing requirements in classrooms, most schools will not be able to reopen fully without hiring additional teachers or risking liability.
In a Feb. 26 letter to county educators, county Interim Public Health Officer Dr. Paul Beatty warned of the dangers of reopening schools fully.
“Any intention of returning to a full in-person instruction model should be tied to a phased reentry plan that includes continued adherence to COVID-19 safety measures. Schools providing in-person instruction must abide by all applicable state requirements including social distancing, case investigations and contact tracing,” Beatty states. “Please note that failure to comply with California Department of Public Health directives, executive orders and public health orders places students, staff and community members at risk. A violation of these orders can jeopardize current relations with the Tuolumne Joint Powers Authority, pose a threat to staff and school credentials, and potentially disrupt future funding.”
These factors have prevented the county’s largest school district, Calaveras Unified (CUSD), from voting on the matter, Superintendent Mark Campbell told the Enterprise. The CUSD school board recently considered bringing senior high schoolers back to campus 100% but ultimately decided against it due to the potential risks.
“We have everything else handled in terms of protocols and guidelines (but) there is no way around that for us, no way we can entertain bringing back students at 100%,” Campbell said. “The feeling I get from staff and our leadership is that they want to ride this out through the end of the year and focus on coming back in July or August on-site.”
When students do return fully to the classroom, it is undetermined how many will attend. Like most school districts, CUSD’s enrollment has decreased significantly—by about 5%—since the onset of the pandemic. While the loss cannot be entirely attributed to COVID-19, the number of students who have chosen to remain in distance learning-only is roughly 38%.
These numbers are concerning to administrators, who are anticipating an eventual budgetary fallout resulting from the dramatic drop in public school enrollment. The state's “hold harmless” policy of freezing attendance-based funding at what it was before the pandemic is set to expire during the 2022/23 school year, Campbell said, and school districts are “operating very cautiously.”
Although AB86 allocates more than $4.5 billion in COVID-19 relief funds to California schools, Nanik said it is undetermined how much money Calaveras County schools will receive.
Despite the many obstacles, some county school districts have continued to debate the full return to campuses. On March 4, the Mark Twain Union Elementary School District (MTUESD) school board voted 4-1 to maintain the current hybrid model after fielding survey responses from parents and staff, one of whom reportedly said they would consider retiring if their campus reopened fully.
“We couldn’t guarantee students would stay with the same teacher. That’s really, really hard on the little ones,” said board member Christy Miro. “I think parents at this point realize the upheaval it would have to cause their kids.”
Miro said she was in favor of reopening fully until she realized the effort could not be safely achieved with less than 60 days left in the school year.
“If we would have voted to do it, it was setting up our entire district for failure. My personal opinions don’t outweigh my duty as a board member,” she said. “I don’t think you’ll find anybody, whether it’s our board or our teachers or administrators, who don’t want their kids back in the classroom.”
MTUESD board president Jenny Eltringham, who has served more than 30 years on the school board, cast the only dissenting vote, though it was primarily symbolic.
“I’m realistic. I understand fully why the rest of the board said, ‘Put it off,’” Eltringham said. “I’m very happy with the bold move that this board made to get them back in school when they did, even at partial time. But the more I see it drag on, the more I can see these children are getting hurt through this whole thing.”
Eltringham said she was hopeful that all local educators who wanted the COVID-19 vaccine getting vaccinated would change the situation, though so far, it hasn’t. She also cited data suggesting that children are not super-spreaders of the novel coronavirus.
At Bret Harte Union High School District (BHUHSD), board members might vote on a full return in the coming weeks, though, again, the effort would be largely symbolic, Superintendent Mike Chimente said.
“It could be an action item in the future to publicly say, ‘If we could, we would.’ … Public Health is going to dictate what we can and can’t do,” Chimente said.
He added that the biggest issues he observed with returning full time were the state’s social distancing requirements on busses and on campus, causing the potential for an entire class to be quarantined for at least 10 days if one student tests positive for COVID-19.
“When you place more kids on campus, you run a higher risk of a case,” Chimente said. “I didn’t want to yo-yo.”
While class sizes at BHUHSD schools may accommodate the social distancing requirements, Chimente said bussing students to and from school while adhering to CDPH guidance would be a difficult feat.
At Tuesday’s board of supervisors meeting, county Health and Human Services Agency Interim Director Sam Leach said that entering the less-restrictive red tier in the state’s COVID-19 monitoring system might allow more freedom in schools, particularly in sports, though “we have to play by the state’s rules.”
“We want the kids in-person. We want the kids to be able to play sports. We want the kids to be able to do the other extracurricular activities,” Leach said. “The reality is we still have to make sure that everybody’s safe and we don’t take things so far that we end up having outbreaks that compromise the progress we’ve already made. One week of a large spike of cases, and we’re right back in the purple tier for several weeks.”