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As COVID numbers decline, waiver could reopen some TUSD schools
TUSD distance learning
Distance learning may end sooner than anticipated for Turlock elementary students as the county’s 14-day COVID-19 case rate continues to drop (Photo contributed).

Turlock Unified School District is keeping an eye on coronavirus data in Stanislaus County in hopes that numbers will improve enough to reopen its elementary campuses via an extensive waiver process.

During their meeting on Tuesday, Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Heidi Lawler provided the Board of Trustees with information on the topic which could see K-6 campuses resume in-person instruction — as long as the numbers are right. Students could return to class when a waiver is submitted to public health and accepted, but can only be done once Stanislaus County reaches a 14-day COVID-19 case rate of less than 200 cases per 100,000 residents.

Grades 7-12 cannot return to school until the county is removed from the state monitoring list, which would require 100 or fewer cases per 100,000 residents.

“We know that there is a great interest from many to be able to open the schools, however, we must abide by these guidelines as a school district. That is the requirement — for us to work with state and local public health,” Lawler said.

As of Friday, Stanislaus County remains on the watchlist with an average of 287.9 cases per 100,000 residents over the last 14 days. That number is trending downward; on July 26, the 14-day case rate was nearly 700. According to TUSD, Friday’s weekly meeting of the county’s superintendents saw public health officials provide information on the waivers.

Stanislaus County’s coronavirus update on Friday evening showed a total of 13,120 positive cases to date, with 11,958 recovered cases. There have been 226 deaths.

In a Facebook post on Thursday, Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors Chair Kristin Olsen said the 14-day case rate is expected to dip below the 200-case threshold within five to seven days.

“The good news is that if the current trend line continues, we now expect to meet that threshold sooner than we originally anticipated,” Olsen said.  

Prior to applying for a waiver, TUSD must consult with labor, parent and community organizations and publish the elementary school reopening plans on the district website. The plan must address a variety of safety measures in alignment with public health guidelines, like sanitization, small student cohorts, face coverings, health screening, contact tracing, physical distancing, testing and more.

If and when TUSD is able to reopen its elementary campuses, distance learning will cease during that time. Lawler said parents who are not comfortable sending their children to school will have the option of enrolling them in the Hybrid Learning Model, similar to independent study.

Noting the slow return rate of COVID-19 test results and lack of testing resources in general in Stanislaus County, Trustee Frank Lima questioned how TUSD would be able to provide adequate testing for students and staff, per the state’s guidelines. He also worried about the availability of accurate data, as the county’s COVID-19 dashboard which displays details such as ages and location of positive cases has been experiencing technical difficulties for weeks.

Even then, he added, it’s impossible to know which student groups, if any, are at risk of being infected and spreading the virus to staff or their families. 

“The reality is for us to make good decisions, we have to have good data. That’s probably the most frustrating thing I have in this whole idea is that everybody has an opinion and there’s no data, and then as soon as people deliver data, they say it’s fake news or it’s wrong or it doesn’t work,” Lima said. “…I really hope the county will give the districts good data because until now, all we’ve been getting is some very general statements and from day one they won’t identify the age of the person (with COVID-19).”

While TUSD awaits the go-ahead from public health to submit their waiver and supporting documentation, which must be turned in 14 days prior to the schools’ desired opening date, Lawler said information was recently received about another waiver which would allow students with acute needs and disabilities to return to campus.

According to Olsen, public health could begin reviewing and considering waivers as early as late next week. Some waiver applications are on file with the county already, though TUSD has not submitted theirs yet. More information will be provided on the school waiver process during the Board of Supervisors meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday.