Despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement last week that shut down any plans to reopen campuses in Stanislaus County, two private schools in Turlock are hoping they’ll be exempt from the edict when it’s time for students to return to class next month.
Newsom on Friday forbade schools — both private and public — located in counties on the state’s coronavirus watchlist from holding in-person classes until it’s deemed safe to do so. Stanislaus County has been on the list as a COVID-19 hotspot since mid-June, with cases on the rise in the region and ICU beds in local hospitals full.
Prior to Newsom’s announcement, Turlock Christian Schools (TK-12) and Sacred Heart Catholic School (TK-8) had intended on moving forward with their individual plans to reopen with stringent health guidelines in place. Now, both private schools are exploring options and looking at data in order to still do so.
One option that the two schools are considering for their elementary school students is one that wasn’t mentioned by Newsom during his press conference last week, but is included as a footnote in the five-page “framework” for reopening in-person learning released the same day. It states that even if a county is on the state’s watchlist, elementary schools can apply for a waiver granted by the local public health officer.
According to Sacred Heart Principal Sara Michelena, the private catholic school had already submitted its reopening plan to Stanislaus County Public Health and is hoping to be waived from the Governor’s mandate.
While distance learning will be an option for every Sacred Heart student whether in-person classes return or not, Michelena said in a letter sent home to parents that they are moving forward with their reopening plan as scheduled.
“They may move in and out of distance learning through the school year as needed,” Michelena said in an email. “...Our plans are in alignment with all guidelines from the Public Health Department and CDC, we are prepared and ready to open safely. Families may apply for admission on our website and we will contact them to let them know if they have been accepted.”
TCS Head of School Bill Hoyt said that a waiver from the county is something the private Christian school is considering for its elementary students as well. However, he hopes that Stanislaus County will be off of the watchlist by mid-August, when school is set to start back up. To be removed from the list, a county must see a 14-day decline in COVID-19 cases.
Hoyt said while Newsom’s statement on Friday was meant to bring clarity, and did in some areas, it added to confusion in other ways. TCS is committed to opening classes on campus and in-person, he said, unless government or health officials specifically forbid them.
Distance learning will be provided if that is the case, and parents who don’t want their children to return to school will have the option as well. TCS has even added a full-time faculty member to help develop the distance learning program.
“We provided a high-quality distance learning experience for our students at the end of last year,” Hoyt said. “We have learned from it and will do even better at it if need be.”
Hoyt said TCS made the decision to hold in-person classes for several reasons, one being that learning on a screen isn’t the same as learning in a classroom. He also cited students’ mental health, childcare concerns and the fact that the school believes they can offer an environment where risk is reduced to a tolerable level for most families.
“While children do get coronavirus and can be carriers, no child under the age of 18 in Stanislaus County has died of COVID-19,” Hoyt said.
Should TCS reopen in person next month, the health guidelines in place will include 45 different health and safety protocols, like social distancing, maximum use of outdoor space, extra sanitization of high-contact areas and equipment, hand sanitizer stations, removal of drinking fountains, temperature checks and block scheduling, to name a few.
Hoyt said TCS does not yet know if masks will be enforced or not.
“No decision is more controversial,” he said, noting that families with differing opinions have both threatened to unenroll their children over wearing or not wearing a mask.
“A clear majority have expressed satisfaction with a ‘masks optional’ policy,” Hoyt continued. “Our final decision, however, will not be based on a popularity vote of parents. Short of a clear requirement from health or governmental authorities, we will do our best to settle on a practical policy that provides a genuine health benefit. Masks are an area where benefit and practicality collide. Though wearing them could be a benefit, how do you enforce mask wearing all day long in a school setting with students from two to 17 years of age?”
Currently, TCS social media accounts are encouraging families interested in a traditional reopening plan with smaller class sizes to enroll at the school. According to Hoyt, the maximum preschool class size is 12 students. Kindergarten through second grade typically sees 24 students per class, while third through sixth grade classes have 28 students. At the high school, the average class size is 18 students.
There has been a “great deal of interest” and a significant number of new enrollments as of late, Hoyt said. The coronavirus has hit schools who don’t receive public funding hard; in closing the preschool alone, TCS lost over $150,000 in tuition. Hoyt said they are working together with other private schools to let their voices be heard by the Governor, but some have already had to close for good.
“If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would say the governor’s edict was designed to put private and charter schools out of business,” he said.