Sacred Heart School saw students in kindergarten through sixth grade return on Monday, following state approval of the private catholic campus’ reopening plan earlier this month. Children had previously been participating in distance learning, which has been the case since March when campuses were closed 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.
Sacred Heart principal Sara Michelena found out the school’s waiver was approved by the California Department of Public Health last Monday, she said, and one week later students were back in class. The school’s reopening plan is 70 pages long and took months to develop, with care to address every health and safety guidelines the state requires.
The private school students were the first in Turlock to return to school on Monday; Turlock Christian Schools’ waiver was approved by the state that day as well. Michelena stated the first day back was “amazing,” and that students and parents had no trouble at all adhering to guidelines. Even younger students in kindergarten through second grade wore their masks all day, she said, despite the fact that it is only encouraged for children their age.
Michelena believes the first day went off without a hitch thanks in part to the students and parents, but also the Sacred Heart staff who have been quick to sign up for mandatory COVID testing and are taking the health guidelines seriously.
“The kids were so happy and so excited to be back and see their friends and teachers,” Michelena said, adding that some parents cried tears of joy as they watched their children return to class. “We were prepared because our plan is very comprehensive and we had gone through everything. The staff is going above and beyond and it doesn’t surprise me. They're just an incredibly committed group of people.”
Thanks to Cooper Avenue, which runs through the middle of the Sacred Heart campus, students were able to stay in their cars for individual health screenings in the morning, then enter the building once they had passed. In addition to sanitization measures and safeguards like masks and plexiglass barriers, a staggered schedule and social distance between students are a few ways the school hopes to keep everyone safe.
About 10 percent of Sacred Heart’s small population of students opted to continue distance learning, Michelena added, and teachers are providing instruction to both students in class and students at home at the same time. There are still three to four spots available in every grade level, she added, and the school is already receiving calls from parents who would like to enroll their child. In addition, Sacred Heart is exploring learning pods for its seventh and eighth graders who hope to return to class.
Overall, Michelena is optimistic that Sacred Heart classes will continue, so long as everyone continues to follow the rules.
“What I've told everyone is that it’s not about your opinion and it’s now about how you feel — it’s about us providing a safe environment for our students and our staff, end of story,” she said. “There’s no room for opinions or politics or any of that here.”
“I can empathize with my classmates and agree that it can be a very difficult time for some people to learn through Google Meet or Zoom...but people need to grasp the idea that the reason schools are closed is more than the fact of students having the possibility of getting COVID...it’s the fact that these people can and will be transmitters of COVID,” he said, and thanked TUSD for its efforts to keep students, staff and faculty safe thus far. “I hope that we can come to some sort of agreeance in the community and help to prioritize well being. So to the people in favor of reopening schools, there’s one thing I ask of you: social distance, wear your mask and do everything you can to meet the state criteria so that we can open up.”
Turlock Teachers Association president Christine Rowell shared concerns from TUSD faculty and staff.
“Your employees want to trust that you’re doing your best to follow guidelines recommended by the best experts in their fields. Your employees want to know that you care about their health and well being more than controlling their teaching environment or family choices,” she said, noting that employees don’t trust the district for information anymore. “We are busy trying to help fix broken situations that TUSD caused by promising parents more than can be delivered.”
TUSD’s reopening plan/waiver has not yet been submitted, but the district has created a draft plan in anticipation of submitting their waiver. The plan includes physical distancing measures (signage, barriers, masks and procedures to minimize mixing of cohorts) when it comes to bus rides and moving throughout campus. Lower and upper elementary school students will be part of small, stable cohorts, and the current draft plan features the Blended Learning Model, with students on campus with staggering schedules two days per week, and distance learning the other three.
Recess will be held in separated areas designated by class and will also be staggered; contact sports and activities that encourage close contact will be avoided. During lunch, students will remain with their cohorts and eat individually plated/bagged meals.
All TUSD classrooms have been equipped with mounted hand sanitizer dispensers and most elementary classrooms also have a sink. In addition, each school will implement routines for frequent hand sanitization and use video/print resources as instruction for students in handwashing and other hygiene practices.
While all staff and students in third through sixth grade will utilize face coverings, Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Heidi Lawler said that students who do not wear one will still be permitted in class, although the teacher will work with them to provide either a face shield or mask. Each school will have a supply of disposable face coverings for anyone who fails to bring one, and those who fall within CDPH guidelines for individual exemption will be provided with accommodations.
The long list of guidelines continues for 35 pages, and also includes staff training and family education, health screenings for students and staff, tracing measures and testing for staff and students. The campus community is encouraged to get tested as soon as possible if they develop symptoms of COVID-19, and staff will participate in testing under the county-wide testing initiative coordinated by the Stanislaus County Office of Education.
A class will be closed if one student develops symptoms, a school will be closed if multiple cohorts have confirmed cases or five percent of all students/staff have confirmed cases, and the district would close if 25 percent or more of schools in TUSD have closed due to COVID-19.
According to Lawler, distance learning will be offered to students and families who may not feel comfortable returning to class. Like Sacred Heart, TUSD is also exploring the possibility of small learning cohorts for non-elementary students, but only those who have acute needs. The reopening plan is still a work in progress, she noted, and the district continues to work with stakeholders to develop the document and make the right decision on when to submit the waiver.
“I just wanted to thank you for laying that foundation,” Board President Lori Carlson told Lawler. “I feel like there’s a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation out there, and I feel like just to remind us it’s a fluid process is super helpful. It’s not set in stone, it hasn’t been decided and we’re still receiving input.”
TUSD does not have a set date yet to submit its waiver to the County Public Health Officer, and once it is submitted the district may set a “To Be Declared” start date. From 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Sept. 21, TUSD will host a Virtual TK-6 Reopening Forum via Zoom. A link to the Zoom call will be posted at www.turlock.k12.ca.us on the day of the forum.