By Debra Moore
UPDATE: Plumas Unified School District Superintendent Terry Oestreich announced that students will return to the classroom Oct. 26. Despite the challenges principals and administrators think they can be ready. That date was selected because it marks the beginning of a new educational quarter and it is a four-day week due to an Oct. 30 holiday.
Students in the Plumas Unified School District will be heading back to the classroom soon. The school board made the decision following an hour-long presentation by health professionals, an hour of comments from parents, teachers, students and others, and finally a presentation from Superintendent Terry Oestreich and other district personnel, as well as their own deliberations.
The school board voted 4-0 tonight, Oct. 7, to adopt the recommendation of staff to use an a.m./p.m., four-day-a-week in-classroom approach. While school district staff asked for an Oct. 26 start date to coincide with the beginning of the new quarter, at least two school board members — Traci Holt and Joleen Cline thought that might be too ambitious of a timeline given all that must happen at school sites — and suggested Nov. 3 as an alternate date. Ultimately the board voted to leave the date up to administrators once parents and students weigh in on their education choices, because while the in-person model is now available, the distance learning and independent study options are also.
Oestreich said notifications would be going out to parents Thursday, Oct. 8, with the anticipation that they would be returned by next Tuesday, Oct. 13.
In addition to considering an a.m./p.m. option where students would either attend school in the morning or the afternoon, the school board considered alternating days where students would attend a full-day session of class alternating with days of self study. Friday would be the same for both options, with students checking in for 20 minutes in the morning and then doing self study.
While the pros and cons of both were discussed, ultimately it was decided that the benefits of daily in-person instruction outweighed other considerations. While the full day option eliminated the need to clean mid-day, it meant that students would be on campus for lunch, which would be a difficult time to maintain social distancing and students would need to remove their masks to eat.
Mask wearing in general was another consideration because it would be difficult for students, particularly those in elementary school, to wear a mask for an entire day.
The school board initially made the decision Aug. 4 to begin the school year via distance learning with a plan to revisit the issue Oct. 14. When it became clear that a return to the classroom would be likely, the discussion was moved to Oct. 7 and each of the school board members described the changes that had occurred in the past two months, which led them to re-evaluate the situation. The consensus was two-fold, the county has a low number of cases and precautions can be taken to protect students and staff, and the distance learning model isn’t working for students.
School board president Leslie Edlund said that back in August public comment was split roughly 50-50 on a return to the classroom. “Today I’m hearing a very different story,” she said, not only during the meeting, but from coworkers, parents and community members. “Their students are failing or not engaging,” she said.
Traci Holt echoed Edlund’s comments, but also discussed some of the hateful correspondence that she had received. “The lack of empathy, name calling,” she said. “We need to move forward with grace and compassion.” She discussed the hundreds of hours the board has put in to trying to address this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and the fact that there is no good solution.
“We’ve learned a lot,” said Dave Keller. He noted that while a risk remains, he feels more comfortable than he did in August. He like, Holt, had received critical emails and phone calls, but he said, “We want to keep our teachers and their family members safe, and we want to keep our students and their family members safe.”
Once Trustee Cline had her questions answered regarding sanitation and the a.m./p.m. schedule satisfactorily, she made the motion to return to in-school learning.
Following are some of the issues that were considered in returning to the classroom:
Health and Safety
While it is known that reopening sectors (such as schools) can result in more positive coronavirus cases, Public Health is recommending that in-person instruction with the proper safety measures in place occur for Plumas Unified students.
Both Public Health Director Andrew Woodruff and Dr. Jeff Kepple presented the most current COVID-19 information to the school board and the roughly 195 people attending the virtual meeting. Woodruff and Kepple both said that it is highly likely that there will positive cases when students return to class, but quick testing and contact tracing could minimize spread. “I believe Plumas County is in a position to return to in-person learning,” Kepple said. “We have to be prepared for cases and outbreaks and to quash them.”
Kepple and Woodruff both noted the fact that Plumas County has experienced a low case count thus far and attributed it to quick action and community compliance. They stressed the need for the enforcement of face mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing and good sanitation on campus.
Sanitation is going to be key in an a.m./p.m. model which brings all students to campus four days a week. This will require maintenance staff to clean classrooms, restrooms and all common areas between the a.m./p.m. sessions, as well as again at the end of the day to prepare for the next morning.
A stumbling block for the school district has been the liability issue. Assembly Bill 1384 would have provided liability insurance in the event districts were sued for any COVID related issue, but it didn’t pass. To address the issue, parents will be asked to sign a Hold Harmless agreement before students can be on campus.
A number of forms will need to be changed to accommodate the new model and that will be part of the work that is completed before students can return to class.
Several teachers spoke during the public comment period and all said that they miss their students and many spoke of the crushing workload that has come with trying to teach virtually, provide self study materials, coach students, and run hubs. A Portola High School teacher described her 60 and 70 hour work weeks. “The burnout is real and it’s only October,” she said. Adding back the in-classroom component will exacerbate the workload unless something changes.
Another teacher said that it’s impossible to teach in a classroom while simultaneously teaching students virtually. “I want to say this in the strongest terms possible; a teacher can’t teach face to face and at the same time via Zoom,” he said.
There is concern about what happens if a teacher is unable to be in the classroom. If a teacher is to be out for one or two days, an attempt will be made to find a substitute. If there is no sub available, then distance learning will be used. If a teacher is to be out for three or more days, it will be distance learning.
But substitutes are an issue throughout the district, with a limited number available in each community. If a substitute is not available, parents will be notified by 7 a.m. that it will be an asynchronous or self study day (students working offline at their own pace). At the high school level, students may also study individually, but be supervised by classified or administrative staff.
Parental and student responsibilities
Many parents and students discussed the difficulties of distance learning during comment citing academic and social issues. Many are having difficulty learning and miss the interaction with their peers.
A student advisory committee, composed of 14 Associated Student Body leaders across the district all asked for a return to in-classroom learning.
Now parents will be asked agin to sign their children up for a learning option: either independent study, distance learning or in classroom with the a.m./p.m. option. Oestreich warned that the last time parents were asked about the latter option, most chose a.m., so not all families will be able to be accommodated. Based on state requirements for distance, each classroom can have a maximum of 8 to 12 students depending on its size. An effort will be made to keep students from the same family in the same session.
Part of the student responsibility is the requirement to wear face masks with three tiers of enforcement: Tier 1- education; Tier 2- parent notification and removal from classroom; Tier 3 – Administrative transfer to alternate learning option.
The school district is contracting with companies to enhance indoor air quality and air flow. Filters will be installed and air purifiers will be strategically paced in classrooms, offices and hallways.
Transportation continues to be an issue and will need to be prioritized, with special education, internet needs and housing concerns topping the list. Students must be spaced on the bus and there are currently four vacancies for bus drivers. Screening will also be required for students to get on the bus, just as it is for them to enter school.