Turlock Unified School District students will kick the school year off from home next week due to the coronavirus pandemic, but a group of parents hoping to see campuses reopen sooner rather than later took to this week’s Board of Trustees meeting to protest the decision.
The group, called Parents Fighting Back Against School Closures, has amassed 375 members in their public Facebook group. On Tuesday, a group of about 20 parents and their children stood outside of the TUSD Trustees meeting with signs calling for the reopening of school campuses and a return to traditional learning.
School psychologist Steve Barco led the protesters with chants like “Hey ho, what do you know? Distance learning has got to go!” and “What is essential? Education! When do we want it? Now!”
Barco said that he and the other parents are protesting in the interest of their own children and other students who are missing out on the classroom experience this year.
“I think our main goal is for (TUSD) to come up with a plan. Some people misconstrue us and think we’re saying, ‘open tomorrow,’” Barco said. “They’ve had five months to come up with a plan for the reopening of schools and they haven’t done anything to reopen.”
Barco said the protesters don’t believe TUSD’s current plan to reopen campuses is adequate. Under direction from Stanislaus County Public Health Officer Dr. Julie Vaishampayan, TUSD will open with a Distance Learning Model on Aug. 12 and phase into reopening campuses with health guidelines in place once hospitalizations and positive cases in Stanislaus County begin to decline. The recommendation came from the County in mid-July as coronavirus cases surged.
Just a couple of days later, Gov. Gavin Newsom mandated that all schools in counties that are on the state’s COVID-19 watchlist as hotspots, which includes Stanislaus County, will need to begin the year with distance learning.
“That’s not acceptable because they’re relying on the County, which could be indefinite,” Barco said. “We want them to take leadership with the interest of our local students in mind.”
“I want everybody to be safe, but at the same time we do need to weigh out the risks versus the benefits. We’re looking at the community as a whole and the kids as a whole. Not everybody is able and willing to do what other people are willing to do,” parent Lori Hooper said. “It’s like we’re in the caveman days, hiding in caves and waiting for the first person to make a move. At a certain point, we have to move and we have to continue on with our lives. There’s no way as parents we would ever put our children at risk knowing that they could die, but there’s risks every day.”
Both Barco and Hooper pointed to new guidance released by California health officials this week that would allow for elementary schools in counties on the watchlist to reopen, given they can fulfill certain criteria. Parents protesting wondered why TUSD has not applied for such waivers for its elementary schools, to which Superintendent Dana Salles Trevethan responded during the meeting.
According to Trevethan, Vaishampayan told Stanislaus County superintendents she would not be approving any such waivers due to the current pandemic conditions locally.
“…But, she did encourage us to begin completing them because there is an extensive list of criteria so that when the numbers do begin to fall and she feels more confident in reopening those elementary schools, we wouldn’t be starting from scratch,” Trevethan said.
On July 27, Vaishampayan released a message to the community which said 669 Stanislaus County school-aged children (five to 18 years) have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, 204 of whom were diagnosed in the nine days prior. She reiterated that children do spread the virus and that children have been hospitalized in Stanislaus County due to COVID-19.
“Our goal is to get Stanislaus County children back into the classroom. How can we do this? It is going to take effort by all of us. There is no magic pill, no quick fix. We need to decrease the spread of COVID-19 in our county,” Vaishampayan said. “We can do this!”
Parent Nicole Flaherty said she hopes campuses reopen as soon as possible because although she is able to stay at home with her children for distance learning, she’s not cut out to be a teacher. She added that she’s not worried about TUSD potentially losing out on state funding if they were to go against Newsom’s guidelines and reopen early, as has happened to cities like Atwater that defied state orders.
The parents also wondered why it was okay for the City of Turlock to host a distance learning camp (which permitted a total of 50 children) at the fairgrounds when schools were not allowed to reopen.
“I think that there does come a point where we have to make a stand,” Flaherty said. “How long is too long? How long can these kids suffer? When are we going to draw the line as a community?”
Barco added he worries about students who may not have a good home life and the mental health fallout that could follow if children can’t return to school.
“Mental health was really important in schools even before this and now it’s even more exasperated because of this,” he said. “More could have been done. There was a failure in leadership for them just to rely on what County health is going to say and just go with that.”
While protesting parents want a reopen date, Trevethan explained why it’s not as simple as it sounds during a TUSD Board of Trustees Special Meeting held July 15.
“I hate putting a timeline on something because then folks hold you to it and if it doesn’t come to fruition…the info and data continue to change daily, so I hate giving anyone a false sense of hope and then planning when we can’t make it happen. I hope that you will realize that we are prepared with social distancing guidelines and Personal Protective Equipment. We will be prepared to return to the campuses with a phase-in model when it’s safe to do so. We’re hoping and praying that it’s sooner rather than later,” she said, later adding, “People are shocked and they’re disappointed and they’re upset. I am, but we haven’t been smart this summer…perhaps it will take this to open peoples’ eyes to say, ‘We need to be more careful and smart and responsible so we can get kids back in school.”