After weeks of discussion, Jefferson School District finalized its school re-opening plans for the rest of the 2020-21 school year.
With the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines underway throughout the state and the rollout of Gov. Gavin Newsom's Safe Schools For All plan — which outlines gradual steps to reopen all schools in California — JSD's Board of Education felt more assured to approve a reopening plan and timeline presented by Superintendent James Bridges.
"I think we've got a good, solid distance learning option. We need to continue that for the remainder of the school year for those families that want to stay on that track," said Bridges. "And we need to continue to monitor things to bring students back when it's safe to do so. We have enough families that want to do that."
The board voted 4-1, with Board President Dan Wells dissenting, on the following schedule for a modified five-day in-class instruction plan:
• Small cohorts of special education and at-risk youth would return to campus starting Feb. 1, after initially being pulled away from in-person learning just before winter break when San Joaquin County had first reached 0% ICU capacity.
• TK through 3rd grade students would return to campus Feb. 16.
• 4th through 8th grade students would return to campus March 1, at the start of the third trimester.
Students wishing to remain in distanced learning would still have the option for the remainder of the school year. A survey was planned to be sent out as early as Thursday asking parents to check off which option (in-person or distance learning) they would like to commit to for the remainder of the school year. Bridges did note that in order for the reopening of in-person instruction to be most effective, a close to 50-50 balance between students wishing to continue distance learning and those wishing to return to school would be most ideal.
Following the usual line of public comments for the past few months, parents and teachers expressed mixed reactions to the board's continued discussion on the topic of reopening. Some parents felt like making any type of reopening move while San Joaquin County was at 0% ICU capacity was not wise.
"There has been no improvement, and in fact, the public health emergency has only worsened since the board met in December,” said parent Frank Austin. “Until vaccines roll out to the school staff and regular testing is available and in place, the current status of distance learning should remain in place."
"And please keep in mind that families still have health concerns,” Austin added. “So even when teachers are vaccinated, until there is wide availability of the vaccine in the community, distance options will have to be maintained."
On the flip side, parents who have been lobbying for their kids to return to classrooms cited research put out by agencies, including the Governor's office and the Center for Disease Control, that pointed out the lower transmission rate studied among elementary school-aged students in the classroom, and that transmissions either occur outside the classroom or from teacher to teacher.
With most teachers already on campus teaching their kids via Zoom, Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams, parents pointed out that there wouldn't be a significant change in risk if half the amount of students returned to school, which is an amount projected based on previous surveys conducted by the district.
A comment — signed "Concerned parent of a kindergartener" — said, "The CDC has come out and said schools should be open because transmission of COVID-19 has not been found in schools. This adds to the mounting evidence that our children are in far more mental, emotional and physical danger by not being in school."
Many comments read out by Bridges urged the board to either table to the discussion until the county moved to a less severe tier, based on Newsom's Blueprint for a Safer Economy, or to make a more concrete decision that night. Some even alluded to the board not taking into consideration what parents' concerns and thoughts were.
While the board mostly agreed with the superintendent's outline of plans, they were a bit more apprehensive by some of the early dates. Initially, Bridges had the district's small cohorts planned to return on Tuesday, after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
"The Jan. 19 date is giving me a bit of pause. I know those students need to be back with teachers but my personal preference would be to push that until the first vaccine has rolled out," said Trustee Debbie Wingo.
When schools first started to reopen in San Joaquin County, the adjusted case rate for positive COVID-19 cases was at 6.4 per 100,000 back when the area was still slotted in the red "substantial" tier. As of Tuesday the County is at an adjusted case rate of 73.2 per 100,000 in what Bridges described was a "deep purple" tier — over 11 times the amount of just three months prior.
With the data about student transmission rates and the potential of new funding from the state through the governor's new plan, Bridges hopes that vaccinations of staff, increased testing, reduced classroom sizes and preventative health measures already established by the district — including the purchasing of air purifiers for classroom and a stock of PPE equipment — will help mitigate the risk for infection spread on campuses.
If someone were to show COVID-like symptoms at school, Bridges said the district plans to tackle this through quarantining the parties involved and doing diligent contact tracing, which will be jointly coordinated with the state.
"My only caveat is, before we come back, I would really like all the staff to get both shots," said Trustee Pete Carlson. "That's one of my biggest concerns, is the staff itself. The kids are less likely or less susceptible to this disease. It's the adults that are problematic."
According to the Public Health Services of San Joaquin County, the first round of vaccinations for school staff should start in early February.
In compliance with state guidelines, JSD will also implement a web-based "hotline" for school staff and parents to report concerns regarding COVID-19 and will also submit data mandatory data to the state for its publicly available online dashboard.
Funding from the state, which would range from $400 to $750 per student would go directly toward costs for vaccinations, testing and any additionally needed PPE equipment. Currently it costs about $115 per COVID-19 test, which Bridges says most of the funding would likely go toward. The district plans to offer testing for students and staff weekly on a voluntary basis due to legal restrictions.
"The governor's money is not a motivator for me. It is certainly not a sure thing. I kind of resent that he is trying to bribe us to make decisions here. Some of it doesn't seem plausible to me," said Wingo, who made the motion to push back reopening dates, which was seconded by Carlson.
Wells inquired as to whether COVID-19 vaccinations would be required for students, like other state-mandated vaccinations. Bridges explained that that was not currently in the cards.
"At the moment, the state of California has not come out with anything stating it is a requirement that every student in the state of California receives this vaccine. But I did hear today, I read a news article that LA Unified Superintendent and Board are working to actually require it for students to return to instruction in the fall," said Bridges. "I think we're a little bit ahead of the game going down that path. But it is definitely something I'm sure the state will weigh in on that at some point."
Currently, there is no set COVID-19 vaccine for children as those currently on the market have not yet been deemed safe for younger age groups. Per the FDA, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines on the market have an age restriction of 16-years-old and 18-years-old, respectively, with clinical trials on younger kids recently just beginning.
• Contact Brianna Guillory at email@example.com or 209-830-4229