Bella Vista Christian Academy is ready to get back to in-person instruction, and wasted no time in getting permission from the state and county to reopen the local campus.

The school was one of the first in the state to apply for, and receive, permission to bring students back to its campus.

San Joaquin County’s status as having “widespread” infections of COVID-19 means that schools, which started the 2020-21 school year with distance learning, are still closed to most students. But the latest rules, enacted across the state at the end of August, also provide exemptions. Schools had the ability to apply for waivers, which allow schools to open up their classrooms for students in grades K-6. On Monday, the California Department of Public Health announced that counties had issued 501 waivers to schools across the state.

Bella Vista Christian Academy at the corner of Lowell Avenue and Chester Drive was one of them. Dave Schnurstein, executive director for education at Bella Vista Christian Academy, said the waiver clears the way for about 110 students to return to class, though he doesn’t expect to bring kids back to campus right away.

“We have the ability, we’re allowed to go back right now, but just because we can doesn’t mean we can do it right away,” Schnurstein said on Tuesday.

“We have some training to do. Just because we’re going to be back on campus doesn’t mean it’s going to look exactly like it did a year ago. There are some measures that we have to put in place.”

That means it will take another month before classes reopen. Schnurstein said part of the delay has to do with training teachers how to manage their classrooms in a new, socially distanced and disinfected environment. The academy also regularly schedules “intersession,” a two-week break at the start of October in the middle of the fall semester.

That didn’t leave many days for in-person instruction between now and mid-October, so the school set Oct. 19 as the target date for reopening.

“Technically we could bring them back sooner, but with all of the training we thought this would be the wise thing to do,” he said. Schnurstein said the school had surveyed parents, and found that some wanted to get kids back in class right away, some liked the Oct. 19 start date, and some were willing to wait until the new semester starts in January.

“The initial feedback is they just are really happy to know there’s a date.”

The waiver is a form that school officials fill out – detailing health screening procedures, social distancing and sanitation, and how the school will react if there is a COVID-positive student or staff member on campus – and submit that application to their county health officials, in this case, Dr. Maggie Park, San Joaquin County’s public health officer.

Schnurstein said the school created its own task force to develop a COVID-19 strategy for the campus.

“It’s a big part of what we sent to the county. Dr. Park was wonderful to work with. She was a good friend to us and helped us out in a lot of ways.”

Bella Vista Christian Academy already has some students who are allowed on campus, based on the state allowing small cohorts if they were approved by county health officials. The state and county also allowed exemptions for preschools, and Schnurstein said that Bella Vista’s preschool has been open since early August.

“We’ve got 60-some kids there and we’ve gone six weeks with no issues, and we’d like to see that continue when we bring the elementary kids back on campus.”

The small cohort model, which allows groups of up to 14 to gather with state and county approval, has also allowed Delta Charter High School to bring some students back to campus. Steve Payne, New Jerusalem School District’s deputy superintendent for student services, said it has allowed up to 30 students to return to campus as of Monday.

“Actually we have three cohorts, and those are for students that meet certain criteria that the state laid out,” Payne said, noting that students in special education, English language learners, those in foster homes, homeless students, and those who don’t have reliable internet access for online classes, were allowed to come in under that cohort model.

“It’s intended to meet the needs of the students that are the most vulnerable in our student population,” Payne said.

“The model that they’re using is still accessing that distance learning curriculum, but they’re doing it on campus, so there is a connection between what they’re doing on campus and what the kids at home are working on,” he said.

“The difference is, obviously for students with connectivity issues and students that have other factors that are making it difficult to learn at home, they’re in a school environment where there are adults that can assist them if they need that extra help along the way.”

New Jerusalem superintendent David Thoming added that he plans to submit a waiver application next week in order to get K-6 students back on campus, with a target date of Oct. 12 to reopen those classrooms.

“This isn’t something you can mess around with and learn on the fly. We really want to make sure that we all of our processes are iron-clad and laid out to students and the staff,” Thoming said. “We know there are some groups out there throwing waivers together slap-dash. We’re not doing that. We want to make sure we’re doing this thing right.”

Tracy Unified School District is also planning to submit a waiver application. This week Julianna Stocking, TUSD’s associate superintendent for educational services, held a couple of online meetings to explain the process to parents. She hopes to get approval from the district’s board of education on Tuesday to submit the application to the county health department, and then it would take about two weeks to hear back.

Stocking expects the district will move into the less restrictive “red,” or “substantial” tier before students get back to the classroom.

“We will not look to recommend actually utilizing that waiver, once it’s been approved, until it is safe to do so,” Stocking said.

Once they do get back to class, students will return under the hybrid model that the district had planned to use at the start of the school year, before the state and county announced stricter COVID-19 quarantine measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in schools, effectively shutting down in-person instruction.

That hybrid model has the student population split in half at each school, with each group of students on campus for two days each week and three days of remote learning each week. Those students will be further divided into cohorts.

“We are proposing that our students will come to school in the morning from 8:15 to 11:30, as they have been logging on during distance learning,” Stocking said. “This will help us with a soft start, to get re-adjusted and re-engaged with school.”

Schnustein said that while students, teachers and parents at Bella Vista Christian Academy are ready to put distance learning behind them, he counts the past six weeks of remote instruction as a success. He noted that in addition to the basic curriculum, teachers and students have participated in online classes in music, art and physical education.

The school will take the next four weeks to decide if it will retain its distance learning model as an option for students.

“Our teachers have been doing an amazing job of distance learning, but they will tell you that: A, it’s a lot more work, and B, it will never replace in-person learning,” he said. “We want to get them on campus as soon as we can do it right. We’re looking forward to getting them back here and getting some sense of normalcy back.”

“We’ve been very pleased with what we’ve been able to accomplish with online learning. We, academically, are pretty much exactly where we expected to be at this time of the year. We haven’t had to hold back or scale it down,” he said. “It’s still going to be a better situation when we get them back on campus.”

• Contact Bob Brownne at brownne@tracypress.com, or call 209-830-4227.

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