By Debra Moore
After listening to 90 minutes of public comment and discussing its options, the Plumas Unified School District Board of Trustees voted unanimously to begin the new school year with 100 percent distance learning.
“This is the most difficult decision I have ever had to make on this board,” said Leslie Edlund, the school board president.
Going into the Aug. 4 special meeting, the school board had been prepared to offer students and their families three options: half day (a.m./p.m.) in-classroom instruction, distance learning or independent study.
Those who spoke during public comment — parents, students, teachers, school staff and community members — were divided, many voicing strong opinions as to why students should be in the classroom (some even wanted a return normal instruction), while others worried that putting them there would increase their risk of contracting COVID and spreading it.
All seemed to agree that in-classroom learning is the best option for most students, but ultimately, the health and wellbeing of those students, their families, school staff and the community, drove the board’s decision.
Superintendent Terry Oestreich, at one point in the discussion, said that it’s not a matter of “if” a positive case of COVID would occur at a school site, but a matter of “when.”
Trustee Traci Holt asked a couple of hypothetical questions about what would happen if a student or staff member tested positive, and they all led to the same outcome — distance learning.
“There are processes for when to close a classroom, when to close a school … when to close a district … and ultimately the outcome is distance learning,” Oestreich said.
The trustees were also very aware that while the decision currently rested in their hands, at any time local public health officials or the governor could mandate distance learning.
Trustees said that starting and stopping school would be more disruptive for students than simply beginning the year with the best distance-learning model possible and incorporating some opportunities for social interaction.
Other issues came to light during the meeting as well. For instance, PUSD is already shorthanded when it comes to teachers and substitutes, and many at-risk teachers have already requested distance learning, thus there could be instances when no one would be available to teach in a classroom if someone became sick and/or quarantined.
The district also received notice from its insurance company that it could be liable for any claims made by students or their families if they contracted COVID, including legal and medical costs. (There is a bill in the state legislature to hold school districts harmless, but it has not passed yet.)
There were also issues surrounding the inability to use fans to cool classrooms because of the potential to spread the virus, as well as ongoing concerns about whether students actually would wear masks and practicing physical distancing, as well as concerns about proper sanitation, PPE for teachers and other safety devices.
But the arguments for in classroom learning were strong — not only for the teacher’s direct instruction, but for the social interaction with peers. Additionally, for many students, school is safety net from at-home turmoil, and a place to receive nutritious meals. There are also the challenges that some students face because of poor Internet connections in many areas of the county, or multiple students in the same household needing screen time.
One way to address the social interaction is by forming “pods” for students — limited to a handful of students — who share a common interest such as music, or science, or outdoor learning, to name just a few. The pods could also be used for tutoring sessions or computer labs.
Board president Leslie Edlund said that the use of pods was a successful model in some countries, and the board ultimately included that option in its decision to begin the school year with 100 percent distance learning. Details will be worked out in the coming weeks.
Trustee Dave Keller struggled with the decision just as his fellow trustees did. While he wanted to try the a.m./p.m. model for in-class instruction, ultimately he decided that if schools had to change to distance learning, the disruption would be too great. He is hopeful that there could be a resolution to the virus in six months or less.
Trustee Traci Holt said that as a parent of a senior in high school, she too has struggled with the decision. She said that while her daughter and her friends want to go back to school, “The protection of the safety of our students is going to be very difficult.”
“I have an overwhelming responsibility — if one kid gets sick,” Edlund said. Earlier in the evening, a commenter who supported students returning to the classroom, had said that it’s important not to live in fear. Edlund addressed that statement when she said, “I don’t want to live in fear, but I have a responsibility to everyone else.”
More details about the new school year, which begins Aug. 24, will be shared as they become available.