Though they didn’t know it at the time, students in Stanislaus County and throughout the state said goodbye until next school year when campuses closed due to the coronavirus pandemic just over two weeks ago.
When public schools in the county closed on March 19, there were only two known cases of COVID-19 and 19 pending test results locally. The action was taken to help curb the spread of the infectious respiratory disease, but by March 26 there were 12 positive cases in Stanislaus County and it was decided schools would remain closed through May 4.
As of March 31, there were 39 positive COVID-19 cases in the county and statewide, 246 people had died. This led State Superintendent Tony Thurmond to announce Tuesday night that students would not be returning for the 2019-2020 school year.
“Due to the current safety concerns and needs for ongoing social distancing, it currently appears that our students will not be able to return to school campuses before the end of the school year. In order to allow schools to plan accordingly, and to ensure that learning still occurs until the end of the school year, we are suggesting that schools plan and prepare to have their curriculum carried out through a distance learning model. This is in no way to suggest that school is over for the year, but rather we should put all efforts into strengthening our delivery of education through distance learning,” Thurmond said.
Thurmond said the state is working to support students, teachers and parents during this time through online webinars, guidance for high school upperclassmen and working to ensure every student has access to a device and internet so that they can participate in distance learning.
“We are in unprecedented times, and it’s hard to tell what the future holds as we are all doing our best to flatten the curve,” he said. “From what we know right now, our schools will be closed longer than we originally thought, and it will be best if our schools are prepared for that extension by having their distance learning models prepared to go until the end of the school year.”
By Friday, Stanislaus County had identified 51 positive cases of COVID-19. During a mid-week Q&A held by StanEmergency on Facebook Live, Stanislaus County Superintendent of Schools Scott Kuykendall addressed the concerns of the public as they realized students would not be returning to class. SCOE and its 25 public school districts have several priorities during this time, he explained: Ensuring the emotional and social needs of students are met, maintaining nutrition programs for students and making sure that teachers work together with their schools to deliver curriculum to students, whether it be through technology or physical copies of the school work.
“While it’s true that the physical school is going to remain closed, I want to make it very clear that education is still going to continue,” Kuykendall said.
He emphasized the need for parents to be patient with their children’s school districts and teachers.
“What I want to be very upfront about is that there is not going to be a substitute for your child meeting every day with their teacher in a classroom setting...I know that our teachers are working really hard and being trained as we speak this week and going into next week to develop skills they need to deliver content in a meaningful and purposeful way online,” Kuykendall said. “We flipped the switch over night, going from classroom to distance learning.”
The superintendent stated that ensuring every child can participate in distance learning isn’t as simple as deploying a device to all homes, as not all families have access to the internet. The California Department of Education is connecting parents to free and discounted internet providers via their website (cde.ca.gov), and Gov. Gavin Newsom announced this week that the state would distribute 4,000 Chromebooks and 100,000 Wi-Fi hotspots donated by Google, with rural communities prioritized.
Kuykendall warned that current distance learning measures could be a “dress rehearsal” should the coronavirus return next school year.
“It really is an opportunity for us now to prepare and to hone in these skills so that in the unfortunate event that we do have to close schools again, in the next fall or winter we already have these systems in place,” he said.
At Turlock Unified School District, teacher teams and the Educational Services Department are working to extend the plans they already have in place, which have included independent learning through digital resources, hard-copy materials and enrichment resources.
“We recognize that students have been out of class for longer than our county school districts initially planned and will do everything to increase home learning to prepare students for the next grade,” Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Heidi Lawler said. “We are considering all options (and will seek input from teachers).”
Currently, TUSD teachers are calling and emailing parents to check in on their students’ progress and make sure they’re fed and engaged in learning (for info on emergency meal services, visit www.turlock.k12.ca.us/Page/2457). Teachers are inquiring about internet access, Lawler said, as a majority of distance learning depends on the use of Chromebooks or other computers.
In addition, the district is also meeting the social and emotional needs of students by connecting with them through social media and the new TUSDtv, which is broadcast daily on Charter channel 2, AT&T U-verse channel 99 and on YouTube.
The show features an expanding schedule with literature, social emotional learning, fine art, music and performing arts, physical education activities and other learning opportunities, and is the collaborative effort of numerous TUSD team members in conjunction with a partnership with Stanislaus State and local television providers.
No matter how their newfound homeschooling experience goes, students won’t be penalized in “any way, shape or form for the school closure,” Kuykendall said. Students who were on track to graduate or move on to the next grade will still do so, and colleges throughout the state are also instituting adjustments to make things easier for juniors and seniors.
Both the University of California and California State University systems announced late Tuesday night that they will loosen undergraduate admission requirements. For example, colleges have agreed to accept credit/no-credit or pass/fail grading where districts have decided to use it for A-G courses and other courses without impact on grade point averages. California is also extending flexibility on a wide range of issues, including testing requirements, timing of transcripts and considerations about financial aid.
Moving forward, Kuykendall said the best way for parents and students to stay informed is to remain in communication with their school districts. There are also volunteer opportunities for retired teachers, student teachers, college students and others who would like to help tutor students. SCOE has partnered with the Love Our Cities coalition to create the Love Our Schools site (www.loveourschools.org), where those interested can sign up for volunteer work and those in need of a tutor can request services.
In addition, parents looking for additional educational resources can find a variety to choose from by visiting www.stancoe.org and clicking on the “Optional Learning Resources” link.
“I know our schools are committed to serving every student in Stanislaus County,” Kuykendall said.