Elementary students at Sacred Heart School will be the first in Turlock to return to in-person instruction next week, following state approval on Monday of the private catholic institution’s reopening plan.
Schools in Stanislaus County have been closed since March due to the coronavirus pandemic, with a majority of students participating in distance learning at home to start the 2020-2021 academic year. The California Department of Public Health developed framework to guide schools on how and when to reopen in-person learning, which permits schools to do so only if they are in a local health jurisdiction that has not been on the state’s monitoring list within the prior 14 days.
Stanislaus County has been on the monitoring list since June 16, but CDPH guidance also allows a district superintendent, private school principal/head of school or executive director of a charter school to apply for a waiver from the Stanislaus County Health Officer once the rate of positive tests drops to an acceptable level. The waivers are only applicable to elementary schools.
The county’s 14-day case rate had to drop below 200 per every 100,000 residents for waivers to be accepted for review, and that happened on Sept. 1. Sacred Heart School Principal Sara Michelena said she found out their waiver had been approved by the County and CDPH on Monday afternoon.
Students in grades K-6 at Sacred Heart will return to campus for in-person instruction on Sept. 14, but parents who would like to keep their children enrolled in distance learning will have the option to do so.
“It’s definitely exciting to a degree and it’s also a big responsibility…We’re very excited to have our students back on campus and very excited to be in person, but we’re also being very cautious. We’ve done so many things to make it the safest place possible,” Michelena said.
Sacred Heart is a small campus, Michelena explained, with just one class per grade level and only nine teachers. This had made preparing a reopening plan much simpler for the private school than other public districts which are much larger. Handwashing stations, air purifiers, plexiglass barriers and other safeguards have been put into place to protect students and staff, as well as other state-required guidelines which have been met throughout the campus. In addition, students will be required to wear masks in common areas, like the hallways and bathrooms.
One of those guidelines requires an eighth of Sacred Heart’s staff to be tested every week, with the entirety of the staff tested every two months. The school’s smaller size made this requirement feasible, but Michelena is still unsure whether or not Sacred Heart will have to pay for the testing themselves.
“There are testing sites we can go to, but we don’t know about the funding part of it yet. If we have to pay for it ourselves, we will. We just don’t know because we are the first so I think it’s sort of uncharted territory,” Michelena said. “We want to do whatever we have to do to open safely and be mindful of all the safeguards.”
She added that a majority of students and staff are excited to return to a semi-normal school day. Still, it will look a lot different for students who are used to a restrictions-free classroom.
“The students’ social and emotional health is just as important to us as anything, so we’re putting some activities into place in the classroom for discussion on how things are going and why everything is so different,” Michelena said. “Students are being exposed to all of this elsewhere, so it’s not like it’s completely out of the ordinary…We’re just going to take it one day at a time and be careful and mindful of each other and how everyone feels about the situation.”
All four catholic elementary schools in Stanislaus County are set to open next week after their waivers were approved, and a total of eight private school waivers have received the go-ahead from CDPH. Turlock Christian Elementary is the only school that has submitted a waiver which has yet to be approved. TC began providing a distance learning camp for small groups of students this week under state guidance.
As far as public schools go, only two districts have submitted waivers for approval: Knights Ferry and Oakdale. Turlock Unified School District Superintendent Dana Salles Trevethan said on Tuesday that the district is in the process of finalizing its reopening plan and waiver for submission, and hopes to share the draft plan with the Board of Trustees later this month.
According to Trevethan, uncertainty surrounding testing remains an area that TUSD awaits further guidance on. The district has begun consultation with the Turlock Teachers Association in an effort to meet waiver requirements for small, stable cohorts and discussions will expand this week.
“We remain committed to pursuing all opportunities to bring students and staff back on campus safely sometime in October,” Trevethan said.
To view which schools have submitted waiver applications or to view their reopening plans, visit www.stancoe.org and click on “Student Waiver Plans” from the homepage.