The Jefferson School District Board of Trustees voted unanimously on Tuesday to continue distance learning for its students until at least Jan. 4, 2021, during a virtual Zoom meeting. The board will continue to keep the topic of reopening as an agenda item in its next two meetings on Nov. 10 and Dec. 15 to review data surrounding COVID-19 and set a firmer date for reopening the district's four schools.
“I would suggest that we look at this again in November and then really look at it in December. Because if we're going to make a decision to bring them back in early January, we would want to make that decision at the December board meeting, so that we can notify staff and parents,” said Superintendent James Bridges during the meeting.
While other schools in Tracy have already or are currently in the process of reopening their campuses to students this year, JSD has opted to take a watch-and-wait approach in light of the holidays and the height of cold and flu season. This reasoning was reinforced when Bridges read the public comment cards from district faculty, which urged the board to consider delaying school reopenings until more information was available.
“The reality is that there are too many unknowns at this point and a watch-and-wait approach during this unprecedented time is critical to our safety and the safety of our students,” read a comment by Jeniene Cruz, on behalf of the Jefferson Teachers Association.
Cruz's public comment shared survey results to the board, indicating that 72% of the 81 JSD teachers surveyed voted in preference of returning to campus no earlier than January.
Other public comments from teachers cited the disadvantages of hybrid learning and expressed concerns that it may increase the amount of exposure among students and faculty, forcing them into an unsafe situation that could spread further to family and loved ones.
“My husband and I are lucky enough to have two sets of parents. We would like to keep it that way,” read a comment from JSD teacher Sheila Fierro.
Some comments addressed the impracticality of trying to reopen at a time when multiple holiday breaks can already mess up student routines and structures that are barely just setting in with the current distance learning model. Under a hybrid model, some teachers may be juggling two groups of students online and in-person on alternating days.
“The chaos of opening, closing and opening again is not in the best interest of student learning,” read a comment by JSD teacher Nicole Craft.
The JSD board was initially presented with three reopening timeline options: Schools remain in distance learning until Jan. 4, schools reopen in November with an A/B hybrid model using phased approach, or schools reopen with a traditional school model but also using a phased approach.
“This is where I get bogged down. First off, I cannot see how we can even consider it (reopening) when we're sitting in our kitchens and dining rooms,” said board member Deborah Wingo.
Wingo pointed out that, although the San Joaquin County is currently reporting weekly positive COVID-19 cases in the low 40s, that is still four times more than the number of weekly reported cases from when schools first stopped face-to-face instruction in March.
After 45 minutes of deliberation, board member Pete Carlson made the motion to adopt the first option of tentatively returning to on-campus learning on Jan. 4, based on current COVID-19 data and on parents' and teachers' feedback. Carlson also noted that the board should convene in person if they are going to make a decision to reopen schools.
Board member Brian Jackman seconded the motion, with an amendment that there be further discussion of the possibility of bringing at-risk students struggling with distance learning back on campus earlier.
“I think we would be doing a disservice to those children if we don't think about some way to assist them during this time,” said Jackman. “We can't just wash our hands of them and say it's the pandemic's fault, and they're the casualties of the state that we're in. We're bigger than that. We're better than that. As humans we are stronger than that.”
JSD has already brought small cohorts of students that receive most of their services in a specialized setting back for on-campus learning according to the office of the superintendent. The board will leave it up to the discretion of the superintendent and other district staff to come up with a plan to bring students who would benefit from in-person instruction back to campus.
In an email to Tracy Press, Cruz expressed gratitude to the JSD Board of Trustees.
“Our JTA Executive Board and Negotiations Team appreciated how the school Board took our comments to heart and that we felt heard,” read her email.
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