Jefferson School

Eighth-grade students walk to one of the new buildings at Jefferson School during a tour Friday in 2015.

The drastic spike of COVID-19 cases in recent weeks has caused Jefferson School District's campus re-opening plans to come to a screeching halt. This includes an action made to send its approximately 200 special-needs students, who were brought back on campus in small cohorts in October, back to full-time distance learning.

Originally the district had its dates set: transitional kindergarten through third-grade students wishing to return to school were to be brought back after the holidays on Jan. 19 using a hybrid model developed by district staff. That schedule would allow for teachers to focus on in-classroom and online distance learning students at separate times of the day. Fourth- through eighth-grade students would have returned the following week on Jan. 26.

These plans were officially put on an indefinite hold Tuesday night in light of the latest COVID-19 data.

"At the Jefferson School District Board meeting last night, the difficult decision was made to return all students to Distance Learning until such time that the surge in COVID-19 cases in San Joaquin County subsides," said District Superintendent James Bridges in a statement sent out to parents Wednesday morning.

"The District remains committed to providing families a choice between in-person and distance learning options, but with the unprecedented rise in cases and transmission rates over the past week that is not possible at this time. The Board will review the data again in January and look to set the timeline for schools to reopen to in-person instruction."

Currently, San Joaquin County is included in the state's regional stay-at-home order that went into effect Dec. 6 when the number of available ICU beds in San Joaquin Valley region fell below 15%. Since Dec. 11, ICU bed capacity in the region has been at 0%, putting San Joaquin Valley at the lowest for available beds out of the five designated regions in the state.

San Joaquin County individually is also still in the "widespread" purple tier status of Gov. Gavin Newsom's Blueprint for a safer economy, experiencing 68.4 new COVID-19 cases per day per 100,000 residents. In order for the county to move back into the "substantial" red tier — which it moved out of late November at 15.2 cases per 100,000 per day — it would need to record less than seven new COVID-19 cases per day per 100,000 residents.

"Looking at this, the numbers are frightening. We can mitigate learning loss; we can't mitigate death. I am not a fan, at this point, of bringing people back," said Trustee Debbie Wingo. "I want students back on campus as soon as it is reasonably safe. We can't wait forever. We can't wait for a vaccine. We can't stay out all year. But I just don't see bringing kids back under these conditions."

In his letter to parents, Bridges acknowledged that the topic of schools reopening was "deeply divided" but urged that actions of the public would have an impact on the school's ability to open. He encouraged families to remain safe during the holidays.

"Family gatherings and community spread continue to be major sources of transmission. I know that we all want to gather with family and friends over the holidays, but this is not the time to let down our guard. We need to continue to follow the public health guidance of wearing our masks, washing our hands regularly, keeping our hands away from our faces, social distancing, staying home when sick and not mixing with people outside of our households," he said.

Tuesday's meeting was the last of the year for JSD, who also swore in Wingo and Trustee Pete Carlson in for their new terms as board members. Dan Wells was appointed as the new president of the board, with Trustees Phil Raya and Brian Jackman being appointed as vice president and clerk, respectively.

The next JSD board meeting takes place Jan. 12.

• Contact the Tracy Press at tpnews@tracypress.com or 209-835-3030.

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