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May 8, 2021

Valley school districts weighing return to class

By Todd Guild, Katie Evans and Christina Wise

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Dec. 30 released a plan under which schools could reopen as early as February.

The plan, which streamlines the process of applying for a waiver to bring students back for in-person instruction, is bolstered by $2 billion to help schools pay for testing, ventilation systems and personal protective equipment.

Newsom says that the State Safe Schools for All plan is supported by evidence that children are less at risk for contracting Covid-19 than adults. It is also based on the notion that in-person learning is critical for young people. 

“As a father of four, I know firsthand what parents, educators and pediatricians continue to say: in-person is the best setting to meet not only the learning needs, but the mental health and social-emotional needs of our kids,”  Newsom said in a press release. “In the midst of this pandemic, my administration is focused on getting students back into the classroom in a way that leads with student and teacher health.”

Newsom added that returning to the classroom is particularly important for the youngest kids, those with disabilities, those with limited access to technology at home and students who have struggled with distance learning.

But the plan has raised concern among some school officials, who say that it would be difficult to implement it so quickly.

Santa Cruz County Office of Education Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah says that many details—such as increased testing and vaccines—have yet to be hammered out.

Perhaps the most difficult hurdle, Sabbah says, is that teachers and other school employees have expressed concern about coming back to the classroom while the number of people infected with Covid-19 are so high.

“An important part of our work is to get support from our school community,” he said. “So being able to move forward with the plan without support from our teachers and our classified unions would be challenging.”

Another challenge is how teachers will deliver a hybrid model of instruction—both distance learning and in-person instruction—since it is almost certain that some families and teachers will not want to send their children back to school in the midst of the pandemic.

Sabbah said these plans could include a dedicated distance-learning teacher. They could also include offering streaming content.

“It is definitely challenging, but it is also something we have been working on and looking at,” he said.

Locally, the Scotts Valley Unified School District began bringing students back on campus for small group support on Jan. 12. Around 30-50 students with the highest needs returned to campuses.

“We are currently looking into the Safe Schools for All plan and trying to understand all of the grant requirements,” Superintendent Tanya Krause said. “We are beginning to engage in conversation with our teachers’ unions, however, there’s a lack of clarity in the Governor’s proposal around student and staff testing.”

Krause pointed out the plan’s requirement for a Covid-19 case rate of 28 people per 100,000. Santa Cruz County is currently around 59 people per 100,000.

“If districts do all this work that the governor has outlined, but we don’t qualify based on the case rate, will it be for naught?” she asked.

County superintendents, working alongside Sabbah, hope to receive clarity within the next few weeks.

“In the meantime, our District is beginning to look at the Covid-19 Safety Plan requirements due on Feb. 1,” Krause said. “We don’t want to be behind on the other required components, in case the news is positive so we can move forward…There are some very strong opinions and intense emotions related to this topic. We are doing the best we can within our abilities to accommodate people’s requests, both parents and staff. It’s not an easy task, but if we can provide small group instruction safely and legally, we would like to be able to do so.”

In the San Lorenzo Valley, Unified School District Superintendent Laurie Bruton said she realizes it’s been the perfect storm as it relates to people’s health, safety and wellbeing.

“It feels like things are colliding at once. Covid-19 is on a rampage throughout the world, and the Governor’s plan is to return people to school in the middle of it. Add in the anticipation of the vaccine, and, hopefully, these pieces can all come together in a productive way for kids and staff. We want kids back,” said Bruton, who is also aware of the risks teachers take by returning to their classrooms. “The California Teachers Association (CTA) has been instrumental in much of the year remaining online, and I say that without any animosity towards CTA.”

Bruton said she acknowledges the potential for transmission in classrooms, and the risks that come with bringing those cases home.

“Parents want school to start, but most people are keenly aware of increasing cases; the risk is exponentially higher than it has been previously,” she said. “The holiday surge from Halloween forward clearly caused a lot of cases, not only in our county but worldwide.”

Santa Cruz County’s numbers have skyrocketed in recent weeks and Bruton said she is watching that climb closely.

“SLVUSD will submit our plan and be prepared to start when our county meets the infection criteria, as well as the testing criteria (staff must be tested up to two times per week),” she said. “Right now, we do not have capacity to do that.”

Bruton was optimistic back in October, when she held parent and staff meetings at all school sites in preparation to return to the hybrid-learning option at a minimum.

“Conditions have changed, so we will be going back out to parents to discuss options for their children, and I believe that’s true in every Santa Cruz County district,” she said. “We’ve all been closely aligned to provide consistency of education across the county.”

The good news, Bruton said, is that she has heard school personnel are next on the county’s vaccination list.

“Hopefully that will help instigate the process of starting in-person school,” she said. “I do believe wholeheartedly that SLV teaching staff is anxious to get back into the classroom. They know it’s critical: relationships and interactions are at the heart of every good learning opportunity.”

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