After the first draft of Turlock Unified School District’s reopening plan was presented to the Board of Trustees last week, a virtual community forum held Monday night saw administrators answer a variety of questions from those both for and against returning to in-person instruction.
TUSD students have been participating in distance learning since March, when school campuses throughout the state were shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Despite being on the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list since June 16, school districts, private schools and charter schools within Stanislaus County were able to begin applying for waivers to reopen elementary campuses after Sept. 1, when the county’s 14-day case rate dropped below 200 per every 100,000 residents.
Superintendent Dana Salles Trevethan stated during Monday’s forum that while the TUSD waiver application and reopening plan is not yet finalized, should the local infection rate continue to drop and stakeholder input is gathered in a timely enough manner, a waiver could be submitted soon after the final reopening plan is presented to the Board on Oct. 6. From there, students could return — at the earliest — by Oct. 26, depending on Board action.
Under the current draft plan, students whose families feel comfortable with them returning to class would be on campus two days per week in small cohorts, with 50 percent of students at each elementary site attending school on Monday/Thursday and the other half in class on Tuesday/Friday. On Wednesdays, the absence of students will provide time for complete campus cleanings to protect students, staff and faculty from contracting the virus, in addition to sanitization and cleaning efforts after school each day.
Many parents watching Monday’s virtual forum wondered how TUSD would decide which students go to school on which days. According to Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Heidi Lawler, families with students at multiple school sites will be placed first, then those with students at the same school sites. Remaining students will be randomly assigned to “create balance,” she said, and the district will work with others who may have special circumstances requiring them to go to school on specific days.
In addition, parents were also unsure if their students would be forced to return to school should TUSD’s waiver be accepted. Trevethan emphasized that no students would have to return to in-person instruction if their parents were concerned, but whether they will have the option of a continued distance learning model or a hybrid, independent study model is still to be determined.
There is currently a survey on the TUSD website that asks for parent input on the current draft and further along in the process, TUSD will ask parents to commit to one of the three available learning models so that the district can decide which two best suit the community’s needs based on a majority consensus.
“We can't possibly accommodate every single family...It’s impossible to think we could be running three formats simultaneously at this point, but you never know as numbers come in,” Trevethan said.
She noted that for some students, it’s imperative they return to school as soon as possible. Through communication with elementary school principals, TUSD has learned that there are between 15 and 20 students at each site who are home alone every day and attending virtual class without parent support or supervision. In addition, she mentioned the need to mitigate loss of learning for students who may not be getting support at home as well as the social needs of students who are not interacting with other children their age.
“We do know this — it’s in the student’s best interest for their wellbeing...Our goal is that the amount of time they are present on campus with teachers who care deeply about them will mirror as close to a regular day with social distancing,” Trevethan said.
Even with the blended learning model and staggered schedules, students will have more time with their teachers than they currently do with distance learning, Lawler said. On days when students aren’t scheduled to be in class, they will have a 15-minute check in with their teacher and work on materials sent home with them. On Wednesdays, all students will participate in a distance learning day with their teacher.
Parents also wondered how lunchtime, breaks, recess and physical education will work when students return. Only having 50 percent of students on campus at one time will help to keep students distanced during these activities, in addition to the utilization of outdoor spaces and staggered break times.
“That’s something I think students have really missed, the opportunity to be with their class and participate in those activities,” Lawler said. “It will look different, though.”
TUSD programs like GATE, Special Education and Dual Immersion will still be offered once students return to school and lottery spots will be saved for those who choose to stay home, although the City of Turlock-provided After School Program likely will not be available for quite some time. This is because small, stable cohorts cannot be maintained, Lawler said. For students in TK through second grade, cohorts can consist of no more than 12 students, while cohorts in third through sixth grade cannot have more than 16 students.
Not all questions from the community were able to be answered due to time constraints, but Lawler assured those watching that TUSD is working to address parent and teacher concerns through surveys, communication and collaboration.
“Our intention is to support our students in TUSD. We care about every one of them and want them to be successful...Many families are incredibly hopeful for students to return as soon as possible and we know that many of you have grave concerns,” Lawler said. “...It’s not our intention to force families, but we do want to provide those opportunities when students can return to school safely to be able to return to in person learning.”