By Roni Java
Special to Feather Publishing
The Plumas Unified School District (PUSD) announced May 13 the formation of four special advisory committees to cope with unprecedented impacts to local school sites and student education resulting from growing budget woes brought about the COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic.
The announcement was made at that evening’s school board meeting held by videoconference from Quincy when trustees made a difficult choice to cut the equivalent of nearly 58 full-time non-teaching positions for the upcoming school year.
District administrators indicated they are doing everything they can to meet the COVID-19 challenges head-on.
The new committees will address and mitigate the impact of the pandemic response on school operations, families and the district budget, Superintendent Terry Oestreich explained.
They will focus on four critical-need areas: returning to school; student services; budget issues; and learning reimagined. Meetings begin this month.
PUSD outlines fiscal realities
The County Office of Education leadership team provided a sobering outline of PUSD’s efforts to grapple with the COVID-19 budget deficit issues that have impacted all aspects of school site operations and are expected to continue to do so into the fall and beyond.
Lisa Cavin, Deputy Superintendent for Business Services, led the presentation about the district’s financial picture.
“While we are projecting some savings in the current year from limited operations onsite, we have other expenditures related to our new reality that were not previously planned for,” she said.
Governor addresses education
Gov. Gavin Newsom addressed the economic impact of California’s devastating statewide COVID-19-caused deficit in detail at his televised May Revise press briefing on May 14. He explained that the state’s $21 billion budget surplus in January became this spring’s $54.3 billion deficit through historic economic declines not seen since the Great Depression.
“Dreams are being torn asunder and lives are being lost,” the governor said, pledging to balance the state’s budget with multi-year strategies that include judicious use of reserve and special funds, federal relief dollars from the CARES Act, a plan to “pull back” from program enhancements thought feasible at the beginning of the year and making temporary cuts to programs and services that could be mitigated depending upon federal responses to the crisis.
State operations and payroll cost reductions will also be negotiated to aid the budget work leading up to July 1, he said.
Economic impacts to education in California will be felt, but the governor pledged to use $4.4 billion of federal CARES Act monies to help school districts have discretion and flexibility in their areas to “address the issues of lost learning.”
He also spoke about the state budget for special education, saying he cares deeply about meeting the needs of our most vulnerable populations and students.
“We’re not going to cut or dismantle this (portion of the state) budget,” Newsom said of special education funding.
Planning for special education
With so many questions still unanswered for everyone, Kevin Bean, SELPA and Pupil Services Director, assured the virtual audience that PUSD would continue “to provide our most at-risk students with the highest quality instruction, delivered by a credentialed teacher.”
Each special day class, resource program, or learning center will have aide support based on need and numbers, he explained. And the district will “bring back exactly as many special circumstance instructional (one-to-one) type aides as necessary, per students’ individual education programs.
All the things we miss
Kristy Warren, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, offered the most revealing glimpse of what may lie ahead for Plumas schools, students and teachers.
She talked about mourning the loss of our traditional, in-person schools.
“There is so much we miss,” Warren said. “Our friends, our teachers, our bus drivers, our cafeteria workers and everyone who makes our schools thrive. There are so many aspects that we love — our schools are the heart of our communities. Our traditions, the in-person connections between students, teachers, staff, coaches and our community members. We have missed proms, Plumas To Pacific Trips and athletic seasons.”
However, she reminded the meeting audience, Plumas schools have been thrust into a different situation. Due to COVID, in the last eight weeks, she said the district has been on a journey to provide education to all students in a way and to a degree that was previously unimaginable.
“What we’ve learned is that our teachers and staff have done many things well with this emergency remote teaching,” Warren said. “And I say emergency remote teaching because that’s what it has been, a response to a crisis. This is not true distance learning, nor the educational system we want.”
Future impacts still unclear
What makes Plumas County’s current education reality so challenging, Warren added, is the unknown. With so many questions unanswered, she said the one we do know is that our schools will look different next August.
“Our mission is to provide the highest quality education for all students, and we now have the opportunity to structure it differently in Plumas County,” she suggested and posed several questions.
– Will we have all students on campus at the same time and run through a traditional seven-period bell schedule at our high schools? Most likely not.
– Will that require us to be innovative, think outside the box and, quite possibly, create an educational system that is more equipped to respond to the differing needs of students and teachers, while maintaining what we love about traditional schools? Yes.
– Can we provide in-person learning experiences for hands-on courses such as woodshop, culinary arts and music? We are exploring ways to make this happen.
Warren asked the audience to consider what PUSD elementary schools may look like with half of their students on campus at a time.
She said with new students-per-square-footage guidance coming out, “We can expect half the students in each classroom each day, while half learn remotely on alternating days of the week.”
Warren expressed other provocative possibilities as stay-home orders are lifted.
Will students still attend a full day? She mentioned recess will need to look different to maintain social distancing and sanitization requirements.
“Our cafeterias will need to look different,” she added. “Meals may need to be eaten in classrooms and not in cafeterias. Can we provide childcare for students if they are not at school? These are just a few of the topics we are exploring.”
Lastly, Warren predicted the necessary health and safety response to COVID-19 risks will require us to think differently about flexible scheduling.
“If we allow ourselves to be open to the possibilities, we may come out of this on the other side with a new educational system reflecting the needs of our current, and future, students, staff and communities,” she concluded.
Questions and information
For questions and more information about PUSD’s new advisory committees, contact the school district at 283-6500.
Return to School Committee
Led by Superintendent Terry Oestreich
Meets 3:30 – 5 p.m. Thursdays
May 21 and 28, June 4 and 11
Learning Reimagined Committee
Led by Kristy Warren, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction
Meets 3:30 – 5 p.m. Wednesdays
May 20 and 27, June 3 and 10
Students Services Committee
Led by Kevin Bean, SELPA and Pupil Services Director
Meets 3:30 – 5 p.m. Mondays
May 18, June 1, 8 and 15
Led by Lisa Cavin, Deputy Superintendent for Business Services
Meets 3:30 – 5 p.m. Tuesdays
May 19 and 26, June 2 and 9