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Schools gear up for return as Stanislaus County remains in red tier
Turlock Junior High
Turlock Unified School District presented a draft plan to safely reopen secondary schools (grades 7-12) to the Board of Trustees on Tuesday night (Photo contributed).

Local public schools are preparing to welcome some students back to class following Stanislaus County’s transition into the red tier of California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy.

As of Tuesday, the spread of coronavirus in Stanislaus County was still classified as “substantial” — the second straight Tuesday the area remained in the red tier after improving upon its “widespread” classification, or the purple tier, the week prior. Should Stanislaus County remain in the red tier for a total of two weeks, schools can begin to reopen with guidelines in place.

On the same day its waiver for the reopening of TK-6 schools was approved by the California Department of Public Health, Turlock Unified School District presented a draft plan to safely reopen secondary schools (grades 7-12) to the Board of Trustees on Tuesday night. Following the waiver approval, TUSD Chief Communication Coordinator Marie Russell said elementary school students will still return to in-person classes in a staggered format, with TK-K set to return Oct. 26, grades 1-3 potentially returning Nov. 9 and grades 4-6 potentially returning Nov. 30.

“We feel this is the best way to ensure we have time to make adjustments to our COVID-19 health and safety protocols as the number of students on campus increases,” Russell said. 

The secondary reopening plan presented by Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Heidi Lawler on Tuesday did not specify a return date for junior high and high school students, but noted that parents would be asked to complete a commitment survey beginning Oct. 28, which would require parents to commit to whether or not their child would return to in-person classes or continue with the Hybrid Learning Model.

While similar to the reopening plan for elementary school students in that it will require physical distancing, the wearing of masks and frequent sanitization on campuses, the secondary reopening plan was more difficult to create, Lawler told the Journal, due to the “small cohort” requirement and larger student populations.

Secondary student populations will be split into “A” and “B” cohorts. One cohort will be on campus on Mondays and Tuesdays with independent study at home on Thursdays and Fridays, while the other cohort will do the same on opposite days. On Wednesdays, all students will participate in distance learning.

“Athletics, physical education and electives like choir and band are more challenging as well due to specific guidance from the California Department of Public Health that we must follow,” Lawler added. “Many 7-12 schools in the U.S. have already reopened, which has been helpful to us in adapting our elementary reopening plan for secondary.”

Sports and physical education will be permitted outside on secondary campuses only when there is at least six feet of physical distance between students, and locker rooms will remain closed. In-person singing or playing of instruments will not be allowed.

Grab and go meals will be made available for lunch, with increased points of sale to permit more space for distancing. In addition, all staff and students will be required to wear face masks unless they fall within the guidelines for exemption.

In addition to hand sanitizer stations installed in each classroom, disinfecting spray will also be available in every room to clean desks and common surface areas in between periods. Lawler said that TUSD’s Memorandum of Understanding with teachers states they may be required to sanitize these areas themselves, but short-term sanitation helpers will be hired and custodians will also be on site to provide support with additional cleaning and sanitation. 

Like the elementary reopening plan, a class will be closed if one or more students contract COVID-19, a school will be closed when multiple classes or five percent of all students and staff have COVID-19 and TUSD would shut down completely if 25 percent or more of schools have closed. 

New to both plans is the process for temperature screenings, which will now see student entry to campus include a brief visual screening for symptoms of illness and a temperature check with a touchless thermometer prior to entering the classroom. In addition, all staff will be tested every two months.

According to Lawler, the goal is to return all students who would like to come back to class by the end of November. Even if Stanislaus County falls back into the purple tier, once schools are reopen they are no longer bound by tier status. If this scenario happens, Lawler said TUSD will collaborate with local health officials and school officials to determine if there is a need to return to distance learning based on local COVID data.

“The caveat to this, of course, is if the State could always make a change to this based on the status of the pandemic,” Lawler said.

To view TUSD’s reopening plans for both elementary and secondary schools, visit https://www.turlock.k12.ca.us/domain/1690

Nearby, Denair Unified School District is also considering a potential reopening date of mid-November, should Stanislaus County remain in the red tier. Denair Charter Academy would remain an independent study program and bus transportation will not be available due to capacity limits.

“It’s important to note that reopening schools does not mean all students will come back to school five full days per week in order to meet mandated health and safety requirements. We would bring back students in groups, likely by grade ranges at the elementary level and by learning needs at the middle and high schools,” DUSD Superintendent Terry Metzger said in a letter to the campus community on Oct. 15. “The actual daily schedule and assigned teachers will depend on how many students remain on distance learning and how many students attend in-person learning.”

Similar to TUSD, DUSD will give families the option to return to a hybrid model with in-person classes or continue distance learning. Parents and guardians can sign up for either at www.denairusd.org

“We are committed to our cautious approach to protect the health and safety of our students and staff. While we realize it may be difficult for some families to commit to one of the options (either distance learning or hybrid model), we must get an initial commitment in order to complete the planning process,” Metzger said.

In Hughson Unified School District, Hughson Elementary and Fox Road Elementary will open with two days per week of in-person instruction on Nov. 2 after two-thirds of parents surveyed voted in favor of doing so. Like TUSD, half of students will go to school Monday and Tuesday while the other half will attend school Thursday and Friday.

Hughson will invest about $36,000 in robotic technology to aid teachers in 30 hybrid classrooms, which will allow students to hear questions and conversations in the room on the days they are attending school from home. 

According to HUSD Superintendent Brenda Smith, secondary school will likely not return until January at the earliest.

“We will base decisions on health and safety,” she said. “Reopening must be done in a safe manner. We are looking forward to our students returning to a full week’s schedule. Until then, this is a step in the right direction.”