By Debra Moore
Plumas Unified School District students will remain in distance learning through the Christmas break, but just when they return to the classroom again won’t be decided until mid December.
That’s the decision made during last night’s school board meeting, Nov. 18. Superintendent Terry Oestreich laid out two options for the school board members to consider — one recommending that school return two weeks after the Christmas break, Jan. 18, or at the beginning of the next semester, Jan. 25. The second option left the decision to be made during the December school board meeting. In either case, the students would remain in distance learning from now until the Christmas break.
Oestreich said that after discussions with Public Health Director Andrew Woodruff and the county’s Public Health Officer, Dr. Mark Satterfield, she expects the county to be in the purple tier soon. She said that they both “fully support the decision to stop in-person education” for student and staff safety at this time. (PUSD went to distance learning this week following several school coronavirus cases.) As of the meeting time, PUSD had seven students and two staff members who tested positive. Additionally there are two staff and students in other area schools that have tested positive.
Due to the colder weather and the approaching holidays, the situation is expected to worsen before it gets better.
Oestreich said that Option 1 allows the district to get through the holidays. The hope is that if students or staff members contract the virus during this time, the later January return would allow a buffer. She said that neither the district nor Public Health realized the amount of work associated with a positive case at school, particularly in high school. “One student at the high school level led to 25 students and four staff” needing to be contacted, she said.
District office staff supported Option 1. Kristy Warren, the assistant superintendent, said that consistency is important and that returning to school too soon could prompt another pivot to distance learning. Kevin Bean, the director of special education and student services, said that the worry and stress would be compounded if that were to occur.
Their sentiments echoed most of the 15 comments provided by Plumas County Teachers Association President Suzanne Stirling. She asked teachers to provide their input anonymously and then read those statements aloud during the meeting. The overwhelming majority wanted to wait until mid January or the semester break to provide for the safety of staff and students and eliminate the uncertainty for students and their families.
Initially it appeared that the trustees would support Option 1, but ultimately they decided unanimously to re-evaluate the decision in December.
Trustee JoDee Read suggested that an ad hoc committee be formed to consider what measures could be implemented to foster a safer return to in-person learning. She suggested that some of her staff at Plumas District Hospital, where she is the CEO, could be helpful in that regard.
Such a committee could also address the issue of sports.
The future of sports
There are two levels of sports practices that seemed to be intermingled during the school board meeting and caused some confusion — conditioning hubs where students can exercise and go through drills separately; and practices where students actually prepare for competitive play.
Thus far the schools have conducted conditioning hubs, but they have been outdoors. Preparing for winter play — basketball league play would be first — would require moving indoors to the gym and students handling the same ball and coming into close contact with each other.
The district recommended that such play not move forward. Board member Traci Holt said that during a meeting with athletic directors they discussed whether League play could actually happen due to the travel involved. “There’s nowhere to play,” she said. Schools in other counties have the same or worse restrictions that Plumas has at this point. It was pointed out that if Plumas does move to purple, gyms would close.
Board member Joleen Cline didn’t want to take anything else away from students and advocated for finding a safe way to allow for sports. She added that participation is completely voluntary and that students were being supervised during these activities. “I think we need to figure out a way,” she said.
Chester High School Principal Terry Hernandez said that local athletic directors had met virtually with representatives from Utah that had conducted a successful football season, but he cautioned that was outdoors. When it came to volleyball, the positive cases went up. He said it’s much more difficult to play indoor sports safely.
Sara Sheridan, the principal at Portola High School, said that she should be preparing for the junior high tournament as well as the Tiger Classic, but that isn’t happening and she misses it. “But they can’t scrimmage; they can’t share balls … going to purple, gyms would be closed. I don’t see how basketball can happen,” she said.
And Quincy High School Principal Tom Brown said not having sports is “difficult for everyone” and he is a proponent of “getting kids out of the online world. Whatever we can do safely in the guidelines we owe it to our kids to do.”
Board President Leslie Edlund said that this is a painful decision to make, but basketball is “an incredibly intense contact sport.”
The board members ultimately decided that teams would not prepare for January league sports, but they support a working group to consider other ideas to involve students in sports, such as intramurals.