By Debra Moore
If all goes as planned, students throughout Plumas Unified School District will return to the classroom full time April 26.
The school board voted unanimously March 10 to select that date at the recommendation of Superintendent Terry Oestreich and her staff, and after listening to input from the classified employees and teachers union representation. Both groups shared some concerns about a full return to school — mostly logistical.
“There were a lot of details to discuss,” Oestreich said during the board’s March 10 meeting. “We had to look at the unique needs of each site.”
According to state guidelines, students can be no closer than 4 feet apart, which means the average Plumas Unified classroom can accommodate a maximum of 22 students. Principals at each school site need to asses space needs, and some classes might have to be held in other venues such as cafeterias, gyms, libraries or outside. Some students might find themselves with a new teacher for the remainder of the school year.
During their presentation to the school board, Suzanne Stirling and Yvonne Casalnuovo, the president and vice president of the Plumas County Teachers Association, addressed the need for 100 percent implementation of face coverings and ensuring social distancing.
They also discussed the advantages of the current part-time schedule. Because teachers are working with smaller groups of students it bolsters relationships, as well as the ability for teachers to progress through the curriculum faster.
For families who don’t want to return to full-time instruction, distance learning and independent study remain options.
The teachers also thanked Superintendent Oestreich for ensuring that staff members who wanted a vaccine had access to them. “We know this didn’t happen in other districts,” Stirling said.
Oestreich said that in making her recommendation, she worked closely with Public Health officials and read a statement from Public Health Director Andrew Woodruff and County Health Officer Dr. Mark Satterfield. They noted the county’s low case rate, the increased evidence of the safety of in-person education, and the policies and procedures that are in place to keep staff and students safe. “We expect our schools will continue to be a safe place to work and study,” they wrote.
Dr. Satterfield, who attended the virtual meeting, said he didn’t envy the school board having to make the decision, but added, “We are definitely supportive of moving forward with daily instruction.”
In response to a question regarding the potential for a resurgence of the virus and thus a need to return to distance learning, Satterfield said, “Of course, Covid could take some weird turn,” but he wouldn’t recommend a return to daily learning if he thought it was a significant likelihood.
Director Leslie Edlund said that her biggest concern was the “constant changes” for students. “As we get the data, we’ve been responding as best we can,” she said. “The change has been the hardest part.”
During the meeting and then in a summary the morning after the meeting, Oestreich laid out the factors that influenced her recommendation and the board’s decision:
- Safety practices are in place at each site.
- Staffing – administrators will work with Human Resources and post vacant positions as soon as possible.
- Vaccinations have been offered to all staff. Second rounds of vaccinations will be done by April 26.
- Plumas County has entered the Orange Tier.
- Support to return to full-time instruction from Public Health partners.
- Multiple Region 2 (surrounding area) school districts have returned to full-time in person instruction.
- Closed campus for all four high schools (thus minimizing outside exposures).
- Transportation will be offered with limited capacity.
- Families will still have the option of distance learning and independent study.
- Each principal will send out a survey in the near future asking families’ preferences for in-person, distance learning or independent study.
- Classroom sizes can be accommodated as follows:
- ◦ Elementary- restructuring classes (some students will change teachers)
- ◦ Elementary- use paras or substitutes to help lower the ratio with intervention
- ◦ Junior High/High School- use all available space on campus (cafeteria, gym, library, some classes will meet outside)
- ◦ Junior High/High School- some teachers will be in multiple locations.
- Fridays will be an early release at approximately noon.
- Canvas will still be utilized – more discussion to follow.
While plans aren’t finalized, Oestreich said that elementary students would likely be in class from 8:20 a.m. to 2:40 p.m. and high school from 8:10 a.m. to 2:20 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Students would leave school at noon on Friday. Each site would determine nutrition breaks and lunch schedules; students would be given pre-packaged meals for lunch and the next morning’s breakfast.
When considering return-to-school dates, the administration had considered April 12 (the first Monday after spring break), April 19, April 26 and May 1; ultimately selecting April 26 to allow more time to hire the needed additional staff. At that point there will be seven weeks remaining in the calendar year.
During an interview Thursday morning, March 11, Oestreich was asked if all of the preparation required — hiring more staff, rearranging school sites, altering schedules, changing teachers for some students — was worth it for seven weeks of school, including what is traditionally the more-relaxed last two weeks of the school year.
“I know some of the principals will be saying ‘all of this for seven weeks?’ when we are doing so well,” Oestreich said. “But it’s our board; they want the kids back on campus.”
Some of the school board members are parents with students in the schools and were strong advocates for the return, though they remained mostly quiet during the meeting’s discussion. Before the vote they said that their concerns of staffing, safety and vaccinations had been met.
“At this point I am trusting Dr. Satterfield and staff and all the work that they have been doing,” Dave Keller said.
When asked if money from the state/federal government had any bearing on the decision, Oestreich said no, that the district met all requirements for additional Covid funding with its hybrid schedule.
The next regular meeting of the board is April 21, which is a week later than its normal slot, due to spring break. School will begin the following Monday.
The district must fill a number of positions to open to daily instruction and those listening in to the meeting were encouraged to apply. Substitute teachers, food service workers, aides and more are all needed.