Teachers and students wearing masks, desks spaced farther apart, and more frequent cleaning are some of the changes families can expect when Tracy Unified School District begins the new school year Aug. 11 with COVID-19 safety measures in place.
The chair of the 27-member Reopening Schools Task Force, Julianna Stocking, briefed the board of education on Tuesday about the plan to safely get the district’s 14,275 students and 1,584 staff back on campus.
“Our goal for the reopening task force and all of our districts in San Joaquin County is to bring kids back to school,” said Stocking, who is the new associate superintendent of educational services. “We are essential service members. We want to provide public education in the best way we can for our families, and that is really our goal.”
Schools in Tracy and across the county were ordered closed on March 13 by the San Joaquin County Board of Education and San Joaquin County Public Health Services. That closure, announced on a Friday afternoon, took effect the following Monday and was later extended through the remainder of the school year, which ended May 22.
The state and county offices of education published their guidance for reopening schools earlier this month. Tuesday’s presentation highlighted the safety guidelines TUSD has decided on in light of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
Stocking said the district’s guidelines could shift at a moment’s notice.
“We know those could change as we speak,” she said. “If and when that happens, then we will definitely, as guidance becomes either more restrictive or less, we will make those adjustments accordingly.”
The task force has planned for three possible scenarios — returning to campuses full time with COVID-19 precautions in place, adopting a hybrid schedule if the county issues a more restrictive order for how schools could reopen, and switching to distance learning in case of a new shelter-in-place order.
Under the hybrid plan, some students would be in the classroom on Mondays and Thursdays and the others on Tuesdays and Fridays, with distance learning lessons to work on at home on their off days. Wednesdays would be reserved for teachers to plan and prepare.
The district has negotiated all three scenarios with the Tracy Educators Association and California School Employees Association, and both unions agreed to the different schedules in case they have to be put in place.
Stocking said sending students back to schools across Tracy on a traditional five-days-a-week schedule was in line with the guidance from the county office of education.
Families that do not want to send students back to campus full time can choose an online alternative. Students from transitional kindergarten through 12th grade can enroll in independent study. Seventh graders through 12th graders also have the option to enroll in the district’s new independent study charter school.
Everyone will wear masks
One of the top safety concerns was the use of face masks.
Starting in May, the task force heard from school employees who wanted to know whether they and the students would be required to use face coverings during the school day.
“Literally in the last week, we have went from the guidance from our county and state saying ‘recommending masks for all’ to ‘strongly recommending’ to ‘requiring,’” Stocking said. “What I can share with you is that we are in alignment. We will be requiring masks for all students and staff, of course with the exception of individuals who have a medical or health condition that prohibits it.”
Families and school employees will get instructions on proper ways to wear, remove and wash cloth face coverings.
Any staff member or student who can’t wear a mask for medical or health reasons will need to get a note from a doctor.
“We will really want to emphasize to our families how important it is that their child come to school with a mask, wear the mask,” Stocking said.
She said the district had already bought masks for all school employees. The district will also buy face shields for those whose mouths need to be visible so they can model language for their students or whose ability to breathe would be impaired by wearing a mask all day.
Because masks are required, the district will also provide them for students.
Each student will receive two cloth masks and four paper masks from a supply disbursed from the state through the county office of education. Stocking said she expects the district will be sent more masks during the school year.
Students can wear their own masks from home, but they must follow the dress code.
Students who refuse to wear a mask will face disciplinary action, but schools will work with them to see why they won’t wear a mask.
Stocking said the guidance for social distancing from the state, county and Centers for Disease Control goes hand in hand with masks.
“It basically states that social distancing is recommended, masks are now required. It says masks are strongly required especially in cases where social distancing isn’t possible,” Stocking said. “We are now guaranteeing that all will wear masks, that’s required, and we will social distance to the best we can.”
Keeping distance will be a challenge
Space will be a concern in trying to keep students and teachers and other staff members apart.
“We know that we have a lot of students within our classrooms, and we also know that our goal is to bring our kids back to school and provide them an education,” Stocking said. “So with social distancing, we are going to be removing all excess furniture inside of classrooms so that we can make the most spaces possible.”
Classrooms with as many as 37 desks will be arranged in rows all facing the same direction with about 4 feet between rows and 3 feet of space to the left and right of each desk.
“We know that the social distancing has guidelines around 6 feet. We’ve also seen in other counties that they’re saying 3 to 6 feet,” Stocking said. “Again, we’re going to remove all excess furniture so we can meet that to the best of our ability.”
Each school will have a plan with new arrival and departure protocols to help keep students from congregating in one area. Walkways will be marked for one-way traffic so people won’t come face to face with each other.
Lunch will be set up as grab-and-go in the cafeteria. Seats will face only one direction, and students can choose to eat outdoors.
There will be hand sanitizer
Proper hygiene for both students and staff will be emphasized, including proper handwashing, covering coughs and sneezes, and avoiding touching one’s eyes and mouth.
Stocking acknowledged that people had been concerned about the supply of personal protection equipment for employees and the availability of cleaning materials and — especially in rooms without running water — hand sanitizer.
“Not only will we have it at various places in our facilities, we will have it in every single classroom, every single room, every office department area in which people have access to,” she said.
The district also plans to add lidless trash cans and stock up on tissue, soap and paper towels.
Schools and buses will be cleaned throughout the day by trained staff using cleaning products approved for COVID-19.
But some things are too difficult to keep clean, so shared playground equipment will be off limits.
“We know that this is very challenging. We’re going to do the best we can, but for the sake of little kids touching equipment and so forth and being able to maintain that, we will suspend the use until further notice,” Stocking said. “If our phase starts to decline and then we can open it up, we will definitely revisit that.”
Students also will not share textbooks, pens, pencils or other supplies, so the district is working on providing an adequate supply for everyone.
Stay home if you’re sick
Students and staff members will be asked to check their own health for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 before going to school. Anyone who is not feeling well or who has been in contact with a COVID-19 patient in the past 14 days will be asked to stay home.
Students or staff members who develop symptoms during the day will be taken to a sickroom away from others.
If a staff member or student is confirmed to have COVID-19, the district plans to rely on county health officials.
“They would then advise us depending on that person, their interaction with public school community — would that person be quarantined for 14 days, would we have to close just that classroom, or would we have to close an entire grade level and or school,” Stocking said. “That is something our county health department has advised us is really a case-by-case basis.”
This summer, school district employees are working on cleaning facilities, moving furniture to maximize social distancing, and making sure personal protective equipment is in place.
In July, the district will schedule information sessions about reopening where people can get answers about COVID-19 safety measures and ask other questions.
Superintendent Brian Stephens said conditions were fluid and the district’s plan could change in the future.
“When we closed school on March 13, we never thought the schools would be closed for the rest of the year. We don’t know what the future holds,” he said. “Julie has done a really good job explaining how flexible we’re going to have to be. We have about seven weeks to Aug. 11. The world could turn upside down in seven weeks. We’re going to have to be prepared for that.”
Parents who want to share their preferences with school district administrators can fill out a survey between now and July 3.