Students in Tracy Unified School District can go back to class for the last six weeks of the semester, effectively ending a COVID-19 quarantine that has been in place since March.
On a 4-3 vote on Tuesday, the TUSD board of education determined that the importance of getting kids back into the classroom outweighs the risk of COVID-19 spreading in schools, especially now that state and county health officials have relaxed their restrictions on what businesses and public venues can and cannot open safely.
Trustees Jeremy Silcox, Ameni Alexander, Jill Costa and Lori Souza voted in favor of reopening classrooms on Nov. 2 under a hybrid model, which would have kids in the classroom two days a week and continuing with distance learning three days a week, with the option of the district’s Independent Study Charter School for those families who aren’t ready to send their kids back to class.
Board President Brian Pekari and trustees Steve Abercrombie and Simran Kaur were the dissenting votes. They favored an alternative that would keep teachers and students under the online distance learning model that the district has used since classes resumed in August. Distance learning would continue through the end of the semester in mid-December.
Julianna Stocking, the district’s associate superintendent of Educational Services, told the board that San Joaquin County Public Health Officer Dr. Maggie Park approved the district’s waiver to open K-5 classrooms. She added that under the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy the county has seen enough of a reduction in COVID-19 cases to move from the most restrictive purple, or “widespread” tier, to the less restrictive red, or “substantial” tier.
“What this means is that technically, districts do not need to have approval of a reopening plan, and they also announced that during this time they will no longer be processing new applications because they are not needed,” Stocking told the board.
San JoaquinCounty moved to the red tier two weeks ago after health officials reported that fewer than eight people per-day out of every 100,000 county residents had tested positive for the coronavirus. As of this week the county was reporting that 6.1 people per-day out of every 100,000 residents were testing positive for the coronavirus.
Stocking outlined the district’s options, including the first option of staying with the remote learning model for the remainder of the semester, and a second option of going to the hybrid model on Nov. 2 with the district’s IndependentStudyCharterSchool available for students. A third option would have more remote learning choices for different grade levels.
“If you’re looking to really want to stay with distance learning through the next 6 weeks then I would recommend option 1,” Stocking said. “If you want to provide the most options for families then I would recommend option 2, because then you leave it to the discretion of the family.
“If they chose to stay home, then they have the option of the IndependentStudyCharterSchool.”
Stocking’s presentation and the board’s discussion was early in Tuesday’s agenda, while the matter was scheduled to come up for a vote later in the meeting. Abercrombie made a motion, and the rest of the board agreed, to take a vote on the matter at that point.
The two votes that followed included Abercrombie’s motion to stick with distance learning for the rest of the semester, which failed on a 3-4 vote. Souza’s motion to approve the hybrid schedule starting Nov. 2 with the option of the IndependentStudyCharterSchool, then passed on a 4-3 vote.
That all happened before the part of the agenda where the public could give its input. Pekari read through 24 email messages, nearly all of the on the topic of schools reopening, and nearly everyone commenting on the matter opposed to bringing kids back to campus.
As the board members debated the matter, Silcox said that the district’s policies should align with the state and county guidelines, which allow the schools to reopen now.
“When we went back to March we were telling the public that we were following health guidelines, and we were following health guidelines up to this point. Now here we are where the health department is telling us, you can reopen,” Silcox said.
“We can all agree that in-person learning is the most valuable, but also that safety is important, and safety is measured in multiple things, not only COVID. Social, emotional is important too and that’s not being talked about enough in society.”
“I believe we should be offering people a choice, for them to choose for themselves what they think is best.”
Souza also was adamant about reopening schools, emphasizing that it becomes a mental health issue when children are isolated away from the social environment of the classroom.
“My concern, especially as a social worker is, socially and emotionally our children are detrimentally being damaged right now,” Souza said. “It’s been 8 months. If we don’t return now in any way shape or form then we’re looking at 2 more months before we return. That would be 10 months before we actually have eyes on the kids from the last time we saw them.”
She said that with the winter fast approaching, families typically experience the stress and anxiety of the holiday season. As distance learning continues many children have become disengaged from their online interactions with teachers and fellow students, she said, and parents could be unaware that their children have tuned out.
“I’ve talked to a lot of parents and teachers as well, and a majority of kids are not turning their cameras on,” she said. “Cameras aren’t on so we’re not seeing them through the cameras anymore, and teachers feel like they’re talking to themselves, and that’s a huge, huge concern of mine.”
Abercrombie said that his own conversations with health professionals has shown him that COVID-19 is still a big risk.
“I actually went to some doctors today, some doctors that I trust very much, and they were not in favor of us opening at this time,” he said. “The numbers are going down. Let’s see if they continue.”
Kaur cautioned against the district putting itself in a position where schools open and then close within a couple of weeks. She said that with winter and flu season coming it’s likely that COVID-19 cases could rise as well.
“That’s what all of the scientific data is pointing to, and based on that, that’s what we should be making our decisions on, so whatever decision we make is the least disruptive for the students at this point,” Kaur said.
• Contact Bob Brownne at email@example.com, or call 209-830-4227.