By Debra Moore
Kindergarten through sixth-grade students will be heading back to the classroom Jan. 25, but their older counterparts at the junior-senior high school level won’t go back until March. 1.
The Plumas Unified School District governing board made that decision this evening, Jan. 13, following input by district staff, the county’s public health officer, teachers, principals, parents and students.
Not everyone is going to be pleased with this decision. Most of the evening’s comments focused on the ability to return to in-class learning safely — and for all of the teachers and principals who spoke — that meant access to vaccinations.
Chester teacher and parent Camille Klimek used a firefighting phrase “two more chains” in describing where the school district is in terms of the virus. “It’s a metaphor for being almost there,” she said. “Sometimes this pandemic feels like fighting a fire. So close, but not there yet.”
She said that returning to school prematurely would potentially compromise the health of staff, students and the community. “Vaccine is now available,” she said. “First doses will start as soon as this weekend. Teachers can expect protection from mid February to early March.” She advocated waiting.
Some vaccine is available, and some teachers will receive their first dose this Saturday, (the first of four opportunities), but not all teachers were able to secure a spot. Portola High School Principal Sara Sheridan said eight of her staff weren’t able to schedule a vaccine, because all slots had been filled.
Plumas County Public Health opened up vaccination sign-ups to childcare providers and educators today, which not only included Plumas Unified School District, but also Feather River College, Plumas Charter School, and others. One staff member was charged with scheduling and quickly became overwhelmed.
However, in deciding that in-school instruction would resume for elementary schools Jan. 25, board members heeded the advice of Public Health Officer Dr. Mark Satterfield who stressed that even the first dose of a two-dose vaccine, provides some protection, and that the rate of spread in the elementary grades is low.
“Students at the elementary level aren’t transmitting to each other – they shed it in smaller amounts,” Satterfield said. “Whatever date the district should choose … I think this could be done safely.”
He went on to say that the two most important factors in preventing virus spread are wearing masks and meeting in small cohorts. Another important component of keeping the school safe is “skillful tracking of cases that might come into the schools,” he said.
Contact tracing proved to be the undoing of last fall’s failed attempt to resume in-person instruction following a confirmed positive case of a student at Quincy High School. Satterfield admitted that public health wasn’t prepared for the enormity of that contact tracing effort. Unlike at the elementary level where students remain in small cohorts with their teacher, at the high school level students move between classes and teachers.
Quincy High teacher Matt McMorrow said that as the result of that one positive case, five teachers were forced out of their classrooms and into quarantine. He said it showed the problem that the school district has with available substitutes. He, as well as many other teachers, said that consistency is important. “We can’t start and stop,” he said.
Erin Cooper, a teacher at Portola High School, raised several concerns, including consistency and the need for all teachers to have access to the vaccine. But she said her main objection was to the 2-2-1 schedule recommended for Portola and Quincy high schools, which would bring students on campus just two days a week, with two days of at-home learning and a final virtual check-in day. It would use a block schedule which would mean she would see her students for just one 90-minute session each week in person. “This wouldn’t be about education,” she said. “It would be mainly offering a warm place to get them (students) out of the house.” She preferred remaining in distance learning until students could return to the classroom five days a week.
The school board agreed with her concerns regarding the proposed 2-2-1 schedule. Greenville and Chester high schools would be operating under an a.m./p.m. schedule that would bring all students on campus four days a week. That wasn’t recommended for the larger schools due to the number of students who would be on campus each day. But with the start date pushed back to March 1, an a.m./p.m. schedule will be implemented on all campuses. And, if the situation warrants, leaves open the option of a full return to class.
Getting students back into the classroom comes with a monetary incentive for the school district — $450 per student if TK-6 returns in February ($765,000 for the district) and $337 per student if TK-6 returns in March ($572,900). The state funding, which drops each month thereafter, is meant to facilitate in class learning.
Additionally, the school district is addressing enhanced testing through contracts with the three healthcare districts, and is working to ensure that there is ample PPE including face masks at all of the school sites.
When it came time for the final deliberations Superintendent Terry Oestreich said that the recommended dates and schedules were selected based on a lot of discussion and planning focusing on the safety of students, staff and families, as well as the educational needs of the students.
School board member Leslie Edlund reiterated that she had heard from a number of teachers and staff who didn’t want to return to the classroom until they had both doses of their vaccine. Oestreich said she would try to get a list of those teachers who were unable to secure a vaccine slot and prioritize them. For example Oestreich said that she had a slot that she would give to a teacher and she thought there were other opportunities as well.
Ultimately, Edlund joined board members Traci Holt, Joleen Cline, Dave Keller and JoDee Read in voting for the return to campus. A distance learning option remains for those students and their families who don’t want to return to on-site learning.
“The consistency comments were not lost on me,” Edlund said. “One of the worst possible outcomes is to open and then to close again. That is super disruptive for the students, the teachers and the families.”