Merced County Times Newspaper
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Merced City School Board OKs dates for opening schools to more students

‘I think this board and this district have been failing too many kids for too long.
We are 11 months into this. It’s time to bring our families back.’

Shane Smith,
member of the MCSD Board of Education

 

BY BEVERLY BARELA
&  JONATHAN WHITAKER

 

Eleven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the return of on-campus instruction is in the works for the 11,000 students in the Merced City School District (MCSD).

The process will follow an updated hybrid model that was first put in place for a short time in the fall before virus numbers started to surge during the holidays.

In an extraordinary meeting on Tuesday night that lasted to nearly 11 p.m., the district’s Board of Education voted to give families a choice to remain in distance learning or return to in-person instruction under the hybrid model within the following timelines and categories:

• Feb. 22 — Those students in Student Supervision, Youth Enrichment Programs, Preschool and Specialized Services. (Board voted 3-1, with one board position vacant and member Jessica Kazakos voting no.)

• March 1 — Transitional kindergarten (TK) though Grade 2. (Board voted 4-0.)

• March 15 — Grades 3-6. (Board voted 4-0.)

• The board did not take a vote regarding the middle school grades of 7 and 8; however, direction was given to MCSD Superintendent Al Rogers and his reopening team to return to the board as soon as possible with more work and detail on the model for in-person instruction for this student group, along with results from new surveys of parents, teachers and staff members. They stated an “aspirational goal” of a possible March 22 return for grades 7 and 8, providing the move would align with Public Health safety guidelines.

In the teleconference meeting that was live-streamed on the MCSD YouTube channel, Dr. Shela Seaton, the district’s chief strategy officer, presented the plan to bring more students back to in-person learning. [Currently, students in Special Day Classes are back in school with a modified schedule.]

“The pandemic started nearly a year ago creating circumstances for many of our children that make it nearly impossible for them to learn,” Seaton said. “Students need to be in school to learn at optimal levels, and through diligent work of district staff, safety procedures are in place to ensure in-person learning is safe for students and staff.”

MCSD officials also acknowledged that regional COVID-19 numbers are trending in a positive direction, with the average number of cases and the test positivity rate over the past two weeks are decreasing.

They referenced a Public Health update at Tuesday morning’s Board of Supervisors meeting in which officials hinted that case rates may improve even more by March. However, they also reported that the numbers are “still way too high.”

Dr. Kristynn Sullivan, the county’s supervising epidemiologist, mentioned the importance of low case rates in the community with regard to in-person learning at local schools. When more schools were open during the fall, she said, districts faced staffing shortages due to quarantine protocols and community transmission of the virus.

Nevertheless, at the same meeting, county officials made clear that the decision to open up schools is up to individual school districts and not the county’s Public Health Department.

On Tuesday night, Board of Education members appeared and sounded extremely cautious about the prospects of reopening in-person education in the classroom.

A majority rejected an initial proposal to bring back TK-2 students on Feb. 22, and Grades 3-6 on March 1.

Board member Kazakos voiced concerns about the most recent COVID-19 numbers and the prospect of new surges after Super Bowl weekend and during the upcoming and traditional Spring Break. Board member Jessee Espinoza voiced similar concerns and underscored recent news that the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine in the region was not coming close to being considered adequate. Board Chair Birdi Olivarez-Kidwell wanted to see more recent data from parent and teacher surveys. She also suggested the administration might be moving a little too fast on reopening.

The one board member who remained firm in his confidence of the district’s plan was Shane Smith. In a candid statement to his colleagues, Smith appeared to not hold anything back about his feelings.

“I continue to be struck by the vocabulary and the focus of this board,” he said. “The sound you are hearing is something that’s been building — and we have been waiting for months — which is the sound of consensus. We are hearing from our teachers, and our parents, and now we are hearing from CSEA (California School Employees Association) and MCTA (Merced City Teachers Association) that it’s time to chart a path to reopen. And when I talk to people in the community, when I sit with Dr. Rogers, and when I have lunch with teachers, the vocabulary is about what this shutdown is doing to kids, what this shutdown is doing to our teachers and their ability to do everything they can to connect with our students to control the environment of the classroom, and to make sure our kids are learning.

“We have heard over and over again that half of our kids are probably not even actually on camera or not even participating in class. We have heard from our teachers that our scores are going up because our parents are getting better at assignments. When we talk to people in our school community, the larger community, for the most part, it’s not about these covid metrics. By the way, with respect to all of us, we are not trained public health people.

“We need to listen to our community. We need to listen to the teachers who have broke down in tears when Dr. Rogers and I are speaking to them because they want their kids back.

“Now granted we probably need to be encouraging some families to send their kids who are struggling more than others on distance learning. I completely agree with that. That point was made clear by our teachers to me at Franklin and was repeated to me today at Gracey. But for this board to substitute its judgment for Public Health and our administration, to say that it’s not safe …

“You know we are hearing from our team that they can do this safely. The focus has been on safety. And in fact this board can claim credit for making sure that there is a strong laser focus on safety. We can open our schools safely guys. We can give parents a choice. We don’t need  to mandate that distance learning is the only option.

“We are hearing over and over and over again, it’s not working for everybody. And it’s not working for all students. It’s not working for all parents. And it’s not working for all teachers. So if this board tonight is going to decide tonight that we are still not ready, still not safe, it’s going to be a decision that the three of you make because I’m not with you.

“I trust our team and I think we need to be giving Dr. Rogers direction to continue this reopening as they have outlined it. … I think this board and this district have been failing too many kids for too long. We are 11 months into this. It’s time to bring our families back.”

During the meeting, comments from the public that were dialed into the meeting consisted of a mix-bag of pro-reopening opinions and those who felt more time was needed. One teacher was worried about getting classrooms prepared in time with upcoming holidays in the schedule. More than one parent and advocate said they were worried about kids being left all alone at home while parents were out working.

One of the more emotional calls came from Priya Lakireddy, a member of a local family that has provided strong support for local schools, Merced College and UC Merced.

“I’m just like really, really lost right now,” she said. “I was almost in tears earlier because this has been going on for so long. We keep talking in circles and circles without any decision, and at one point are we going to say enough is enough. If you don’t want to move forward just tell us this is not going to work and we will adjust a plan for summer or fall.”

The board’s approval Tuesday night is expected to rely on an improved hybrid model that creates equal time for both children who are “in-person” learning and those who are in “distance” learning.

 

‘We know kids are suffering’

In an interview with the Times before the board meeting, Superintendent Rogers informed the Times, “Our current situation is we have about 200 students participating in in-person instruction, and these are students with special needs. Everybody else is doing Distance Learning; that’s basically 11,000 kids.

“But there is a general desire from parents and teachers and staff to get the children, as much as is reasonable, back into the classroom for instruction.

“The Board has five members, but we currently have four sitting trustees.  We are going to have an election for the fifth spot in August.  If there is a split vote of 2 and 2, then it’s a failed motion.  In order to get anything approved, you have to have at least three votes.

“It’s tough to be a trustee because they’re weighing the slowly improving COVID case numbers, which are coming down, and the rising tide of people who are anxious for a return to the classroom and the pandemic fatigue among parents and teachers, and the fact children are experiencing extended isolation from their parents, teachers and principals — they’re balancing that kind of energy with national figures like Dr. Fauci warning us there is reason for cautious optimism and saying, ‘We’re not out of the woods yet.’

“We know the kids are suffering, but we don’t want to expose them or their teachers to a dangerous or life-altering situation and it’s a terrible predicament to be in.

“The trustees have to balance that, and we caution people not to pin their hopes on the vaccination, or say something like ‘When we get 50 percent of the teaching staff vaccinated then we can return to the classroom’, because the Merced County Department of Public Health does not yet have a schedule for vaccination and that’s based on the fact they don’t have enough vaccine doses.

“Our teachers and staff are relatively high up on the list for eligibility to receive the vaccine, but we don’t have the doses or the schedule.  They haven’t said when they will.  So I caution others not to make plans around the vaccine.

“We have seen evidence that safety measures across the nation, when adhered to, work.  We have seen the combination of a lot of things — small groups of students that are cohorted where we can maintain the six feet of social distancing, the PPE, and the range of other safety protocols like frequent hand washing and controlled ingress and egress to the campus — add up as evidence to suggest that students are significantly less likely to become infected as a result of their attendance in school, even without the vaccine.

“I haven’t met any teachers who aren’t anxious for a return to a normal teaching environment, but they range in their comfort with the situation.

“We’re finding that about two-thirds of our staff have expressed a willingness to get the vaccine when available, and the majority of our staff are also prepared for a safe return to classroom instruction.  But about one-third of the staff are cautious and want us to be careful about returning to campus.  These are people who are hesitant to take the vaccine because they’re pregnant or they have an underlying health condition or they’re uncomfortable about something else, and those people are fearful of risking a return to on-campus instruction, and we understand that.

“I’m excited that we are in conversation with our teacher’s association to put together a permanent Distance Learning Academy. That way, those teachers who can’t come back to the classroom and also those families who, for lots of reasons, are just not yet comfortable with the children coming back to class, will have the option of a full Distance Learning Academy for the summer and fall.

“Then we will have small cohorts on the campuses, as well as a robust and organized Distance Learning Academy available for the others.  We’re discussing various models for the Academy like the hybrid model.  This would keep the classroom cohorts intact so they won’t be separated from their beloved teachers.

“This model of hybrid instruction has kids who are fully in Distance Learning getting live instruction for a portion of the day and for a portion they will do asynchronous instruction.

“Those taking advantage of the option for in -person instruction will get two half days per week on campus and spend a portion of their day in asynchronous instruction.

“There is even a model where teachers will teach some kids through Distance Learning in real time while they teach other children at the same time in person.”

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