With San Joaquin County on the verge of moving back into tighter COVID-19 restrictions, school districts in Tracy deliberated on Tuesday on what this could mean for the instruction of their students.

In a 4-1 vote, the Jefferson School District board of education voted to tentatively bring students back for full in-person class instruction Jan. 4, pending any new guidelines set forth by the county. The board also voted to hold a special meeting in early December to reevaluate any new COVID-19 data that may force them to modify reopening plans.

At the moment, the County sits on a borderline between California's red tier indicating a "substantial" amount of positive COVID-19 cases and its purple tier indicating a "widespread" amount of positive cases. If numbers don't improve in the next few days, San Joaquin County will officially move back to purple, which consequently means more restrictions for businesses and public facilities — including schools.

After giving his presentation of school reopening options to JSD's board of education on Tuesday, Superintendent James Bridges briefed the board on San Joaquin County's current COVID-19 numbers and referenced Stanislaus County's recent recession back into the purple tier. He explained that there was some confusion among the county on what exactly this mean for schools that were not fully open.

"We’ve gotten conflicting information on this," said Bridges.

Initially state guidelines granted schools to return to in-person instruction, regardless of what tier the county was in as long as they were at least partially reopen while the county was in the red tier.

“We now have gotten new guidance from the state. A different attorney from the state has responded to the county public health officers in the state of California. And the newest guidance says that being open for small cohorts does not constitute being open. School districts either have to be open in a hybrid or full opening to be considered open, and if you aren’t —— if the county goes back to purple —— the district would not be allowed to open until we return to red,” said Bridges.

JSD has been partially reopen since the county first returned to red from purple, having slowly been bringing back small cohorts of students with special needs and those struggling with distance learning to campus. He told the board that he was currently seeking clarification on whether or not JSD’s current situation counts as being reopen under the new guidelines.

Bridges presented two potential reopening steps for the board to vote on: return to school using the A/B hybrid model or return to school for full class instruction with safety modifications put in place. Both choices included independent study options for students wishing to stay in distance learning for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.

The board acknowledged that any decision they made that Tuesday night would probably be altered based on any new County guidelines and decided to base their school reopening decisions on the likeliness of moving back into the purple tier.

From observing private schools in Tracy successfully implementing in-person instruction for its students and referencing studies that showed ineffectiveness of the hybrid learning model, the JSD board decided that bringing students back for full socially distanced in-person instruction was the most beneficial option.

Board member Dan Wells was the only dissenting vote, citing that he wished to make a final decision with the board after Bridges received more clarity from the County's board of education.

"The mere fact that in two different sessions we’ve had two different interpretations by two different lawyers from the state, in terms of defining whether we’re open or not," said Wells. “My concern is making a decision without knowing. It’s a difficult situation, that we don’t really know what’s happening, and we don’t know what interpretations there are.”

JSD will hold its special meeting on Dec. 1 at 6:30 p.m. to finalize its reopening plans.

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

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