One of the prevailing questions of the Covid-19 pandemic was how schools would look come fall. As local school districts came back in session after summer break, all did so with distanced learning, utilizing online platforms like Zoom to hold classes remotely.
But as has been the case throughout the pandemic, nothing has remained the same for very long. At first, counties that had been off the state monitoring list for two weeks would be able to reopen schools to in-person learning. When the monitoring list proved to be confusing and inconsistent, the state trashed the system and started over with a new classification system for Covid-19 presence within counties.
Under the new system, counties are ranked by four color categories: Widespread (Purple), Substantial (Red), Moderate (Orange), and Minimal (Yellow).
Once a county is downgraded to Substantial, schools may open after the county remains in that tier for 2 weeks. Those schools must follow 20-pages of state guidelines or risk being shutdown again.
As of Thursday afternoon, Mono County was reported as Moderate with low cases and positivity rates. Inyo County was reported as Substantial although that designation is likely to change as Covid-19 rates have dropped significantly throughout the county.
Eastern Sierra Unified School District (ESUSD) was one of the first school systems to reopen in-person learning anywhere in California, welcoming students back to classrooms on Wednesday, September 23.
A significant factor in ESUSD’s ability to begin in-person learning is the school district’s size: 400 students spread out among 6 schools from Coleville down to Benton.
Getting to the point of reopening in person was a team effort, ESUSD Superintendent Heidi Torix explained. The district employed not only the state guidance but also worked with Mono County Public Health and County Health Officer Tom Boo to establish an effective reopening plan.
“Any of the safety precautions
that are mandated or suggested, we have taken and then gone above and beyond that,” Torix said, giving examples like desk shields for every student, air purifiers in every space, and designated tools like scissors for each student.
Aside from the new physical mitigation measures, there are other changes to the school day. Students now arrive at very specific times and dismissal is structured to prevent large crowds of students congregating.
“How school looks is entirely different,” said Torix, “Kids aren’t allowed to play same recess games … and classroom setup looks very different.” Torix explained, referencing how traditionally elementary school classrooms are set up to encourage collaborative learning.
“The transition is hard because we’re dealing with children,” she added, “This has been socially and emotionally hard on students.”
Stacey Adler, Mono County Superintendent of Schools, told The Sheet that students would be returning to Mono County Office of Education (MCOE) schools on October 12. MCOE operates the Jan Work and Sawtooth Ridge Community Schools; Adler explained that small classes at both schools make the transition back to in-person learning much easier.
In addition, the Early Start program for children from newborn to 3 years old has started seeing kids in a one-on-one scenario. The county’s adult education programs will also begin to open up for in-person classes, although as Adler explained, “It’s another difficult situation because you’re dealing with adults and that program doesn’t fit under any reopening guidelines for the state.”
The exception is the Inclusion Pre-school, located on the Mammoth Elementary School campus which will remain distanced until Mammoth Unified campuses open.
Adler explained that one of the issues that had been worrying her earlier on in the school year was bandwidth. As more second homeowners and renters moved up to Mono County during the pandemic, local wireless connections became increasingly stressed.
“The whole thing is an issue of resources and living in a small rural county. We have limited resources here,” Adler explained, “people come here and try to jump in and take up those resources; that puts more pressure on everybody.”
Adler explained that MCOE’s experience in educating elite athletes contributed to their ability to hold classes online.
“We’re definitely more nimble with our platforms and we have to be because once we bring students back, if somebody develops a case of Covid at least in our classrooms, we have to quarantine everybody for at least two weeks,” Adler said.
“Our teachers throughout the county that have been doing the distanced learning, they are working harder than I’ve ever seen teachers work before,” Adler explained, “The hours that they’re putting in are incredible.”
For Mammoth Unified School District (MUSD), the answers aren’t as clear. The district is the largest in the county, serving over 1,000 students across three campuses. Superintendent Jennifer Wildman explained that the changing directives from the state have made opening schools up difficult. “Even though we came off the watchlist as a county, our town is really different from the rest of the county,” Wildman explained.
In response, MUSD created a set of criteria that have to be met before students can be back in classrooms; Wildman told The Sheet that two criteria, including a decline in the positive case rate, have not been met. She added that while in-person classes have yet to resume, some school activities have been allowed take place, including athletics and childcare programs. In addition, some small cohorts of students who have additional educational requirements have been allowed to return for specific classes.
“If that goes well and we’re not seeing the virus increase,” Wildman explained, “then we’ll go to our next step which is the hybrid opening for all grades.”
Wildman felt this was preferential to the alternative of opening and then closing right back up.
“If we could throw open our doors and everyone could come running back to school, I don’t think anyone would be upset, she noted, “but we’re not like a business, we can’t put in a handwashing station …”
Wildman also reported that there had been issues with statewide testing; MUSD attempted to have kids take state tests remotely and “very innocently some parents helped their kids with the test.” She made it clear that she wasn’t blaming parents for doing so, remarking that many parents aren’t used to giving tests, and adding “we know we have to support our parents more.”
Bishop Unified School District (BUSD) announced their own plans to reopen on Thursday afternoon, citing a reduction in local cases as reasoning for the move.
Grades TK-2 are scheduled to begin on October 5, with Grades 3-5 and both Bishop Union and Palisade Glacier High schools starting on October 12. Home Street Middle School will open on October 19.
“Thank you again to our community for the collaboration and support in creating safe learning environments for our students during what is likely the greatest challenge we’ll ever face in providing students with an equitable, rigorous, and comprehensive education,” BUSD Superintendent Katie Kolker wrote, “This pandemic has stretched each household in unique ways and it is our collective support of one another that will carry us through it to be stronger and more resilient than ever before.”
Student/Family handbooks featuring new Covid-19 guidelines for BUSD will be distributed to households in the coming week.
Adler summed up the effect of all the changes coming in the next weeks and months. “This experience has changed the face of public education forever,” she said, “we just don’t know exactly how.”