By Debra Moore
Winter break begins for students throughout the county at the end of class this Friday, Dec. 18, and according to the school calendar adopted by both Plumas Unified School District and Plumas Charter School, students would return to the classroom Jan. 4 — but that’s not happening.
Plumas Charter had already announced a return to class on Jan. 11, but Plumas Unified decided tonight to wait until at least Jan. 25.
Plumas Charter decided to take an extra week following the break and will welcome students back to in-person learning, Jan. 11. From Jan. 4-11 all instruction will be distance learning, allowing for a break after holiday gatherings and travel. (See more details below.)
Plumas Unified students could return to the classroom Jan. 25 if conditions allow, and until that date would also participate in distance learning. The school board made that decision during its monthly meeting tonight, Dec. 16, following input from the county’s leading public health experts, community and staff input, and discussion among themselves. Jan. 25 marks the beginning of a new semester and was considered a good time to resume studies in person — if conditions allow.
The school board will discuss the issue again during its Jan. 13 meeting and at that time assess the county’s tier status, case rates, etc. and decide whether to maintain the Jan. 25 date or postpone it again depending on the status of coronavirus at that time.
Superintendent Terry Oestreich began the Dec. 16 discussion by reading a letter from local public health experts Public Health Agency Director Andrew Woodruff and Plumas County Health Officer Dr. Mark Satterfield weighing in on the topic.
The letter from Andrew Woodruff and Dr. Mark Satterfield:
December 16, 2020
To: The Citizens of Plumas County and the Plumas County Board of Education
Like the rest of California and the nation, COVID-19 case rates and hospitalizations continue to increase throughout Plumas County. They have doubled since November and we are having increased community spread of disease. Plumas County has yet to see a slowing of the current infection surge, and it is even likely to worsen before it improves due to the upcoming holiday gatherings and travel into and out of Plumas County.
Plumas County Public Health Agency and Health Officer Mark Satterfield, MD support Superintendent Oestreich’s recommendation that for the next month the risks of school-based spread of infection outweigh the benefits of in-person instruction at PUSD. Trends in the local pandemic situation and the experience of other districts can then inform a reliable decision on whether to return to in-person instruction in late January. We suggest consideration that priority be given to return of grades K-6 since the benefits are thought to be greater and risks lower for those grades.
Public Health also acknowledges environmental safety, student-teacher ratios, and availability of certificated staff vary significantly between schools and communities and may affect the ability to return to in-person instruction, for all schools, both within and outside PUSD.
Vaccines will be administered starting this month for health care workers, and will include our school staff as soon as late winter or early spring.
There is an increasing shortage of ICU beds at our surrounding medical centers and major staffing challenges at all hospitals. We need to do all we can to keep our healthcare system functional so care for illnesses and injuries not related to COVID-19 can also continue. Plumas County is part of the Greater Sacramento region which is currently under a Regional Stay Home Order because there are less than 15% staffed intensive care unit beds remaining in the region. COVID-19 case rates in Plumas County are surging to an extent that students and teachers, like other residents, continue to be at risk of serious and potentially life-threatening infection.
To help us to stop these dangerous infections, and protect our future ability to return safely to school, citizens need to stop gathering indoors with people other than in their own household, wear a mask when in public, and stay 6 feet from people not in their family. Public Health continues to build shared capacity with PUSD to respond with rapid case investigation and contact tracing in the event that a case is linked to the district. Once case rates stabilize we can get our children back into their classrooms.
After Oestreich read the letter aloud, she said that all school principals had been asked about a return date. “All principals were in support of distance learning until Jan. 25 or beyond,” Oestreich reported. “Some said the beginning of March, the start of the fourth quarter,” would be a better alternative.
Both principals and teachers want consistency. Board president Leslie Edlund said she polled Quincy High School teachers and they want to choose an approach and stick with it. She said many expressed concerns about the three-week return to class that abruptly ended when a single high school student tested positive for the coronavirus and the ripple effect of contact tracing, testing, quarantines and disruptions spread across multiple families.
Ultimately the board voted unanimously to maintain distance learning through Jan. 22 and to revisit the decision at the Jan. 13 school board meeting.
Prior to the school board considering the return-to-school date, community members addressed the board – some advocating to return to school as soon as possible, others advocating for the later start date.
One individual said that they “understand that everyone wants students back in the classroom,” however “our cases are going up and up and up.” The individual expressed concern that the district doesn’t have the substitute infrastructure, but their biggest concern was about having students back in the classroom right after the holidays.
A teacher agreed and shared an experience that he had with a student who began coughing in class and the series of events that triggered. “Every time a student gets sick it’s going to set off an alarm,” he said. “Let’s get through the holiday and see if this calms down any.”
However, a bus driver had a different take. While she could understand waiting a couple of weeks after the holiday break, she said it was time for teachers to go back in the classroom. She said she has been delivering lunches and HUB students. “I feel like I’m an essential worker,” she said. “I wish teachers would feel that they are an essential worker as well and get back in the class.”
Gabriel Hydrick, the Plumas County Administrator and parent of five, spoke twice during the evening encouraging the board to return students to the classroom. “I would echo the bus driver’s comments,” Hydrick said. “Echo that on distance learning. It’s not working.” He said that while COVID and its consequences are real, so is the inequality in education and other ramifications impacting students. “I wish the best for all of our teachers” he said, but “At what point do our kids take priority? When do we get our kids back in school?”
Suzanne Stirling, the Plumas County Teacher Association president, told the board she was addressing the trustees as herself, a teacher of 20 years. “I take great umbrage,” she said of the bus driver’s comments. “I have spent hundreds of hours trying to keep students in class. I can tell you what one case did to our high school, to the number of families that were disrupted. There were huge ramifications.” She said she understood how difficult it is for all involved, particularly the students, but “We can’t just make a blanket statement.” “There are students who are learning,” she said. “Distance learning in my classroom is working.”
A Portola High School senior said, “I don’t think we can go back until the end of the third quarter.” She said she didn’t feel safe at school as there was improper mask wearing and no social distancing practiced. “Constantly I felt unsafe and worried about getting my friends and family sick,” she said, and also addressed the “need for consistency in our lives. This moving back and forth provides a false sense of support.”
Ultimately the school board voted to maintain distance learning through Jan. 22 and to revisit the decision during the Jan. 13 meeting.
There was also brief discussion about perhaps having some of the elementary grades return to the classroom, even all students don’t return. That will also be discussed during the Jan. 13 meeting.
During an interview Dec. 16, Executive Director Taletha Washburn explained the school’s approach to in-person instruction. “We will stay open unless there’s an active case at a school site,” she said, but even then the school is able to trace the potential contacts and make the best decision for that school site.
Plumas Charter operates six campuses spread throughout Chester, Indian Valley and Quincy. Thus far three teachers have tested positive for the coronavirus and the resulting closures/mitigations have been addressed on a case-by-case basis.
School nurse Danielle Wagner-Plocki internally investigates all points of contact and makes a recommendation as to how the school should proceed. “If there’s a positive case, what does that mean? She’s real quick to sleuth it out,” Washburn said. “I can’t sing her praises enough.”
Washburn credits Wagner-Plocki’s coronavirus playbook for Plumas Charter’s ability to remain open — that and the small numbers of students. “The bottom line is there’s less students so it’s simpler,” she said. “We can be fluid.”
Washburn interacts with PUSD Superintendent Terry Oestreich and the Public Health Agency on a regular basis to determine how to proceed. While Plumas Unified has adopted a more cautious approach due to the number of students and campuses involved, Washburn said that Public Health “supports both of our decisions” based on our circumstances.