Questions over social distancing, the future of career and technical education, and internet access for all students were among the concerns posed during a phone-in town hall meeting on reopening schools this week.

County Superintendent of Schools James Mousalimas and Rep. Josh Harder, who hosted the meeting, responded to questions from people who called in from across the 10th Congressional District, which includes southern San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties.

On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom cemented local districts’ plans to start the school year remotely by requiring distance learning in all counties that had been on the state’s watch list for heightened COVID-19 activity in the past 14 days. San Joaquin County has been on that list continuously since mid-June.

At Wednesday’s town hall meeting, Harder and Mousalimas both shared their thoughts about getting children back to school.

“We are in a very serious situation,” Harder said. “For many of us, it feels like a nightmare we haven’t woken up from. We’ve seen massive spikes in cases and deaths across the Central Valley.”

He said he had received thousands of calls, emails and social media comments about when and how schools would reopen.

“I think there is a lot of confusion out there,” he said. “It felt like whiplash. A few weeks ago, we were on track to open a lot of schools here in the valley, but then cases and fatalities shot up and, as a result, the state, local governments and school districts changed those plans. It’s hard to keep up. It’s a tough situation for any parent or any teacher.”

Mousalimas confirmed that plans for going back to school had taken a sudden turn, from full time on campus to part time to strictly at home, over a period of about a month.

“I can tell you this personally and as an organization: Educators in our county, and I know Stanislaus County is the same, we want children back in school,” Mousalimas said. “Children do best (with) in-person instruction with a teacher with other children. We know that. But we have to figure out how to do this safely, and the numbers you cited don’t allow us to do that currently.”

Local school districts are preparing to start classes with 100% of students at home full time, reminding many families of how they finished the 2019-20 school year.

“We need to do better job than we did the first time around,” Mousalimas said. “We need to ensure that we are doing the absolute best job possible providing effective, rigorous instruction for all children on a distance learning format until we can get them back in the classroom.

“We are working hard at that, I can tell you. I am confident that we are going to do a better job providing distance learning instruction when we reopen school in the 2020-21 school year.”

A caller who identified himself as Frank, a retired educator in Oakdale, suggested that school districts should switch to distance learning permanently to save on costs and ensure safety.

Mousalimas said that school districts had been learning to use technology to provide better public education during this crisis, but online classes and independent study weren’t for everyone.

“There are children who do not do well in distance learning and it would not benefit them in any way, shape or form,” he said.

Harder said it was important to make sure all students can participate in lessons this fall even when they can’t be on campus.

“We had a real issue with absenteeism. Some classrooms had as high as 70% of students that were not showing up at the end of last year,” he said.

He also wanted to make sure students had an opportunity to interact with other kids.

“So many of the best parts of school aren’t necessarily the academics that happen in the classroom. It’s all the other pieces. Playing on a sports team, playing in a band, getting to meet your peers, those are things that can’t always be prepared,” Harder said. “We’re going to be distance learning for now at the very beginning to make sure we keep students safe. Hopefully we can figure out what are the best parts of that so we can continue to do that that in the long term, but we also have to be cautious about making sure we’re providing the best holistic environment for students and teachers for the long term.”

Making sure all children would have equitable access to distance learning was also an issue. Andrew, a substitute teacher from Modesto, wanted to know how students would be able to get online for school if their families didn’t have and couldn’t afford internet access at home.

Many students who usually rely on computers at community libraries or Wi-Fi in school parking lots can’t do so now because of pandemic-related closures.

Harder said there was federal support to expand broadband access and add hot spots.

“It is really important that in a period of distance learning, that every kid has a laptop or tablet and also every kid has internet access, be that a hot spot that goes home with them or some other type of reliable internet access,” he said.

Individual school districts will also provide equipment.

“As we go into distance education, it is incumbent on us in public education to ensure that every child has full access and has the hardware and software they need to be successful,” Mousalimas said.

A Denair resident asked how certain career and technical elective classes, such as welding, agricultural science and automotive repair, would work under distance learning.

Mousalimas acknowledged that the options were few for classes that relied on hands-on learning.

“How do you build a house remotely from distance learning? You can’t. How do you weld remotely? You can’t do those things,” he said. “In the interim, you try and figure out, is there any kind of instruction that can be provided, but those sorts of skills and careers are about hands-on, so that’s why we have to get these schools back open as soon as we possibly can and it’s safe to do so.”

Nathan in Patterson wanted to know how disadvantaged students would receive help, including from social workers, while campuses were closed.

“It can be tough to identify issues of domestic violence or abuse if there’s not a place where students are coming in,” Harder said. “I think this is going to be something where our community is going to have to work together. If there is not going to be folks going in to school, we’re going to have to find other avenues to identify where there are challenges, and we’re deploying social workers throughout our community to make sure we can address those challenges.”

Mousalimas noted that the county office of education was responsible for educating the most at-risk youth and the children with the most severe disabilities.

“Distance learning does not serve them particularly well,” he said. “We are really struggling with what you brought up.”

He did say that regular home visits would continue and social services would still be provided to families.

Mousalimas also noted that reports of child abuse to Child Protective Services had gone down significantly during the pandemic, but it was unclear whether that meant that abuse had declined or just that the people who often report abuse — teachers and other school staff — were not there to help protect children.

A caller named Monica in Tracy was concerned about how school employees were being treated. She said she had heard that many school districts were going to have teachers report to their classrooms, potentially with their own children in tow, to give their distance learning instruction, and she wanted to know why those teachers couldn’t teach from a home office.

Mousalimas said those issues would have to be “discussed and negotiated at a local level between employee and management organizations.”

Amber, a parent in Ceres, wanted to discuss the feasibility of mask wearing and social distancing once schools reopened classrooms.

Mousalimas admitted that it would be hard, especially for younger students.

The latest guidelines from the California Department of Public Health say that students in third grade and up must wear face coverings, but they are optional in kindergarten, first grade and second grade.

“Getting a first grader, a kindergartner to wear a mask all day is going to be challenging,” Mousalimas said. “I go into a first grade classroom, those little guys are like magnets. They tend to go to each other and around the teacher and go up and hug the teacher. That’s how are primary classrooms are. So this idea of having to social distancing in a primary classroom is going to be very challenging.”

Mousalimas said the idea was to keep groups of students together, not intermingling with other groups, to limit their exposure.

Other school-related questions in the hourlong town hall touched on lunch arrangements, teacher contact for students with individualized education programs, and how schools would respond to a student’s or employee’s COVID-19 diagnosis after in-person education had resumed.

Contact Glenn Moore at gmoore@tracypress.com or 830-4252.

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