The structure of the upcoming school year has turned out to be a moving target for those who have to plan on how best to educate students in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The latest direction from the San Joaquin County Office of Education, released in a joint statement with the county’s leading public health official, recommends that schools go to remote learning for the start of the 2020-21 school year.

Districts have complied, but the county’s new policy, announced on Monday, caused the Lammersville Unified School District Governing Board to shift gears on plans for the school year right in the middle of a special meeting on Monday, when members were set to decide on which style of hybrid school the district would use for nearly 6,000 students across seven K-8 schools and Mountain House High School.

The district’s online meeting started with Superintendent Kirk Nicholas reading comments from teachers and parents weighing in on whether the district should return to classrooms five days a week, go to completely remote online instruction, or adopt a hybrid of these methods.

By the time he read through the comments, Nicholas also had the statement from the county officials to read into the record. Nicholas told the board that he received the statement an hour before Monday’s meeting, and it appeared to set direction for the district before the board could even consider taking action.

“There are a lot of challenges which we are trying to address, and the first one I would like to share with the community is, as a governing agency, we answer to a number of different entities: the governor, the state legislature, California Public Health, San Joaquin Public Health, and the San Joaquin County Office of Education,” Nicholas told the board.

“As a member of a large functioning institution like K-12 education in California we are at the lower end of the … hierarchical structure. Over the past months we have received significant instruction from all of those entities, and each time we get or receive direction we are often moving in a new direction.”

In the statement, James Mousalimas, county superintendent of schools, and public health officer Dr. Maggie Park “strongly recommend” that schools teach exclusively through distance learning through the end of August.

Board president David Pombo said that the county direction actually made the district’s job easier.

“I for one was quite relieved when that press release came out. I feel it’s the right move for our district and our county with everything that’s going on,” Pombo said. “With that press release, it relieves some of the angst the board would have to deal with, because if we made that move on our own, we would potentially jeopardize some funding in an already inadequate budget.”

Board member Sharon Lampel agreed.

“These are strange times, but it’s refreshing to hear that the whole county is going to go in the same direction,” she said. “We should not as a district, nor should any other district, be expected to be making huge decisions like this on our own if it’s something different between Lammersville and Tracy. That would be even more confusing for the community.”

Board members went ahead with their review of hybrid models. Though distance learning begins Aug. 13, the district hopes that health officials will report that COVID-19 is on the decline again by the end of August.

The Lammersville board adopted a hybrid system that has the student population split in half at all schools, with each half on campus on alternating days. Students would attend school two days a week and have schoolwork to do at home for the other three days. Teachers would have one day a week for preparation and for “intervention,” where they would meet or consult with students who needed further interaction with the teacher.

Associate Superintendent Thorston Harrison told the board that students were presented with three options, distance learning, on-campus instruction and a hybrid model. About 41% of the K-8 students surveyed preferred an online model like the Lammersville Virtual Learning Academy, though that program requires enrollment for the entire year.

The hybrid system for those grades that the board selected has half the students on campus on Monday and Wednesday and the other half on Tuesday and Thursday, with Fridays set aside as a day when teachers can plan and consult with students.

About 43% of Mountain House High students taking a similar survey preferred a hybrid model. The high school’s hybrid schedule differs from the elementary schedule only in that seven class periods are spread out over two days of instruction, with Wednesday set aside as the teachers’ intervention day.

The school board considered another option that would have all students on campus four days a week, half of them for a morning session and the other half for an afternoon session, but the board preferred that each group be on campus for a full day, two days a week, to minimize contact between students. Otherwise, the custodial staff would spend more time cleaning and sanitizing classrooms during the day as the new group of students came on campus.

“My fear is that we have all of the kids on campus during that transition period, and I know that’s not how it is designed, but a lot of kids are going to go to school and walk home after the morning session, and a lot of other kids are going to be walking to school before the afternoon session,” Pombo said.

“I can see kids congregating during those times and mixing the cohorts, where if one cohort goes all day on a given day, the other kids aren’t going to show up to school to mingle with them if they don’t have to go to school that day.”

On Tuesday, Tracy Unified School District announced that it is also is going with distance learning through the end of August for nearly 14,300 students, with the details of that strategy to be spelled out at the district board of education’s next meeting.

The board will meet Tuesday at 7 p.m. A link to watch live can be found on the Board of Education Agenda & Minutes page of the school district's website. Information about comment policies can also be found there.

Tracy Unified first expected to have a traditional, five-day school week, as outlined at the TUSD Board of Education’s meeting June 23. That quickly changed. On Monday, Julianna Stocking, the district’s associate superintendent for educational services, outlined a new plan for a hybrid model that splits the student population in half at each school, with each group attending classes two days a week.

Even then, she acknowledged that an increase in local COVID-19 cases could force the district to change its plans between this week and Aug. 11, when classes are set to begin.

“We know that with the number of cases continuing to climb, it could very well be that our county health department says, ‘That’s it, we’re shutting schools,’ as they did in our last semester in the spring, and that we would then have to transfer to a distance learning model for all of our students, and we recognize that this is challenging in making plans,” Stocking said.

She went on to describe how plans for that transition were already in place.

“We are going to increase our access to technology for our families,” she said, adding that up to 4,000 digital devices were on order for kids whose families could not afford them.

“In order for us to provide a robust education that is related to distance learning, and that can be done virtually and remotely, technology access is certainly a barrier for quite a few of our families, so in order to do so, we have made that commitment,” she said.

Mary Petty, the district’s director of student services, said after the presentation that the transition to distance learning would be a short step.

“Since we have already built the distance learning framework, we are working on how we can improve this model for the fall for all of our students and staff,” she said.

Petty is also the principal for Tracy Independent Study Charter School, which requires students to commit to the program for the year regardless of whether on-campus instruction becomes available later. Interest in that program, originally designed for 64 students, continues to grow. Students can also sign up for independent study outside of the charter school if they commit to at least one semester in the program.

“TUSD realizes that education is not a ‘one program fits all’ model,” she said. “So our team has worked around the clock tailoring such diverse learning platforms to meet the needs of our individual students and/or families.”

Contact Bob Brownne at brownne@tracypress.com or 830-4227.

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