Merced County Times Newspaper
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Washington School opens for TK – 6 students

Richard Lopez, superintendent of the Merced River School District, received approval from the Merced County Public Health Department to reopen Washington School for TK through Sixth Grade students based on a waiver program. The kids’ first day at school was Sept. 21.
Richard Lopez, superintendent of the Merced River School District, received approval from the Merced County Public Health Department to reopen Washington School for TK through Sixth Grade students based on a waiver program. The kids’ first day at school was Sept. 21.

A waiver program allowing kindergarten through sixth grade students in school districts that apply and are approved to return to on-campus instruction is underway in Merced County.

Initially, waivers were approved for 10 elementary schools, and recently another three were added.

Washington School in the Merced River School District was one of the original 10.  It brought Transitional Kindergarten (TK) through Sixth Grade students back to campus on Sept. 21.

The district covers a rural area of about 30 square miles in eastern Merced County, and draws its TK through Eighth Grade students from the Merced River area, Hopeton area, and outlying rural areas of Winton, Atwater and Merced. The district used to consist of two schools, Hopeton and Washington, but due to decreasing enrollment, the campuses were consolidated into one.

Richard Lopez, superintendent/principal, told the Times, “Four years ago, we added four classrooms to Washington School and were able to accommodate the Hopeton Elementary kids.  We now have a classroom dedicated to each grade level.  We have 215 students enrolled on our campus. We have just installed a brand new portable building for an extended Transitional Kindergarten classroom for the 4-year-olds.”

Describing how the waiver program at Washington School came about, he said,

“We are in a rural community out here, and parents have been wanting our school to open, but because of COVID we couldn’t. Our parents have been troopers during Distance Learning, and were sitting right alongside their kids to make sure they were fulfilling the teachers’ expectations and were engaged. We applaud our parents’ efforts in making this work for their kids when they are not in the classroom.

“Even with the parents’ great efforts, we saw loss of learning, especially for TK through second grade, because they weren’t receiving that direct instruction in person from the teacher.  They missed the one-on-one and small group environments where the teacher supports the students in letter recognition and other basic skills.  It’s so important for those students to master foundational skills so they can go on to be successful.

“We also were concerned about social/emotional learning, which is interaction at school between peers and between students and adults.  An example is story time.  It would usually be done by bringing the kids onto the carpet in the classroom and the teacher would be reading and the children would be interacting and participating, and it’s not as engaging online.”

“We purchased chrome books for all our teachers so teachers could access methods to deliver instruction over the Internet to the kids.  It’s been working wonderfully.  But our school board was adamant that we open back up as soon as possible. It’s been a unanimous vote from Day 1 since the closure.  When we had the opportunity for the waiver, the Board said, ‘Let’s get this pushed through as soon as possible.’

“The way it came about is six to seven weeks ago, we submitted our waiver to the Merced County Health Department. Some other small school districts took advantage of that to bring students back on campus.  With the guidance of the Health Department, we fulfilled the requirements of the waiver.

“Option 1 for opening was on-campus teaching for all K through 6 students. Option 2 was hybrid, and that was bringing students back pending requirements. Option 3 was Distance Learning only.

“Our classrooms are only so big and could only accommodate so many students with six feet of distancing, so Option 2, the hybrid plan, was our only choice for on-campus learning.

“We submitted our plan, and they approved it with certain things they wanted changed.  They wanted our plan to stipulate a six foot distance in the classroom between students, and they would be wearing masks all the time. We made the changes, resubmitted it, and the Health Department approved it.

“As soon as we got the waiver approved, we talked to the teachers.  The teachers’ union was part of the approval process for the waiver, and they were all for it.

“Our first day with students on campus was Sept. 21.

“What we’re doing is we have eight to 12 students on Monday and Tuesday, which is Cohort A; on Wednesday, everybody is doing Distance Learning only; and Thursday and Friday, we have Cohort B and that is a different group of eight to 12 students on campus.

“We have to account for instructional time so those in Cohort A still log on from home on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and Cohort B still logs on from home on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.  That way, all students have school five days a week.

“Students that are uncomfortable coming to the campus are logging on at 8:30 a.m. into their teacher’s classrooms.

“Teachers are doing a combination of on-campus teaching as well as teaching via Zoom to those at home.

How has the 2020-21 school year been going?

“The 2020-21 school year started Aug. 12 with Distance Learning.

“The technology students have learned is amazing.  We noticed kids as young as 4 to 5-years-old knew how to mute and unmute, and most of these kids knew how to log onto Zoom and their Google e mail account which has their lesson plans for the week. It was very impressive to see that six weeks into school, students as young as 4 or 5 were able to maneuver technologically.

“We do have a handful of students who live in the country and have no connectivity and can’t access Wi Fi. We offer them use of the Stars Student Support Center, and those students come in on an as-needed basis and use the school’s Wi Fi.  We require that the students wear masks at all times, and when entering and exiting classroom, they are to wash their hands.

“Since the school was reopened for K through 6 students, we’ve been checking students’ temperatures when they show up the first thing in the morning.  Any student with a temperature higher than 99 degrees is told to go home.

“Parents are not allowed on campus. We escort the students to their classroom or designated area.

“All staff is required to take a COVID self-assessment and answer a series of questions that makes sure they don’t have a temperature. Staff members are required to follow strict sanitation protocol and wear masks at all times.

“We provide a healthy snack on campus, and students go outside in designated areas, staying in their Cohorts. We stagger recess so they have access to the playground.  They are constantly reminded about social distancing and proper hygiene, meaning washing hands a lot.

“We provide lunch for the students, and the teachers walk students to the designated spot. They are given a lunch for that day and a breakfast for the next morning when the parents pick them up to go home.

“Because students are six feet apart, it’s a little unique, but we’re making it work. “Parents are also making it work. As of right now, we are not transporting students to and from schools.  Parents transport their kids at 8:00 or 8:30 a.m. and they are back in the afternoon to pick them up.

What do classrooms look like?

“Our classrooms are deep cleaned every day. Our district purchased a sanitation fogger machine. Through the use of that machine, in 60 seconds, the custodian can spray down all the surfaces of the classroom. The custodial staff deep cleans restrooms and door handles daily.

“We remain very hopeful we don’t have a COVID case out here. We’re keeping everyone as safe as possible. Our kids understand the reason for masks, so you can walk into a classroom and you will see kids wearing masks engaging in conversations with their teacher.”

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