While some local schools have gradually returned to in-person learning, Mammoth Unified School District (MUSD) has, for the most part remained online with the exception of some small, highly focused student cohorts.
This is due to the fact that Mammoth Unified has created a list of specific criteria, ranging from community infection rates to adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) that must all be met before widespread in-person schooling can begin again. If just one of those criteria is not met, then students will continue to attend classes over Zoom until it can be met, all the while continuing to meet the other criteria.
At MUSD’s Board meeting on Thursday, November 19, Gary Taylor, Maintenance, Operations and Transportation outlined the plan for school reopening in the event that all criteria are met.
Taylor highlighted three areas: PPE, facilities and transportation.
For PPE, Taylor explained that the school district has stockpiled numerous supplies, including several thousand facemasks, both three-ply paper and cloth, for use by both staff and students, over 1,000 sanitizer bottles, thousands of pairs of gloves, and enough plastic face shields so that each staff member can have one.
In addition, MUSD has placed plexiglass dividers in public areas like libraries and offices. “Safety is a huge concern of all of ours,” Taylor said.
Although the district has 200 desk shields available for use at individual student desks, Taylor said that until a standard set is released, “I would advise against getting them for everybody.”
He explained that while they may be practical in a normal classroom setting, the additional cleaning time devoted to sanitizing the desk shields would exacerbate already lengthy clean times. At the middle school and high school, where students rotate through classrooms, they may have to be cleaned even more frequently. Taylor also cited the cost for providing the shields for each student, $25,000, is a relatively significant expense for the district.
MUSD is also holding back on a mass air purifier purchase until an opening date is more tangible. Taylor explained that there are currently three air purifiers, one in each “isolation” room on three campuses; the rooms are intended for those who may have been exposed to Covid-19.
Additional air purifiers would increase the air exchange rate per hour in rooms by one
exchange, adding to the 5-6 exchanges already performed by a school’s ventilation system. The air filters on the purifiers would filter out 99.9% of bacteria and other particles.
The full cost of air purifiers for the entire district would clock in between $50,000-$100,000, making that another significant cost. With sufficient lead time, Taylor explained, a full complement of purifiers would take about two weeks to ship.
For the facilities component of the reopening program, Taylor said that the classrooms are currently oriented for the small cohorts currently in session, and will look much the same when more students are able to return. This is because there isn’t space to move unoccupied desks and chairs within the school building, so red x’s will be taped on desks to let students know they cannot sit there. The goal, he explained, is to keep students at a safe distance from one another.
Taylor is also developing a cleaning checklist for each classroom that is less focused on more routine items like emptying the trash. “The things I want to have on are things that need to be done daily, things that are touched and will affect the safety and cleanliness of the room,” Taylor said. Those include student and teacher desks, as well as common surfaces like sinks, and doorknobs.
The most complicated topic was getting kids to school. “Transportation,” Taylor said, “is going to be a pretty big challenge.”
Up until March 2020, MUSD had three bus routes: a Mammoth Lakes route that picked up 45-60 students in grades K-5, a south county route that picked up 30 students K-12, and then an additional route in town that picks up 50-75 K-5 kids.
In addition, the district also operates a small bus route that picks up 9 students, one of whom uses a wheelchair.
“The maximum capacity for the bus has been knocked down to 15 kids and a driver,” Taylor said, “the small bus is knocked down to 4 kids, a chair and driver.”
Larger buses have an 84 occupant capacity.
“My recommendation would be, because of travel and the difficulty of getting southern [county] kids up here, I would have both busses possibly go that direction,” Taylor told the school board. The plan would be to have buses pick up the maximum allowed number of students, return to Mammoth Lakes to drop them off, and then head out again.
Students will be loaded back to front when they get on, loaded front to back when they arrive at school or at the bus stop, and red x’s would demarcate which seats must be left empty for the duration of the ride.
Taylor did not explain how the changes to seating capacity might affect the timing of routes both in the morning and at dismissal in the afternoon.
Superintendent Jennifer Wildman, discussing the MUSD reopening, explained that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has lifted much of its school guidance, “stating that they were both inaccurate and also politically motiviated.”
“The way that schools open require cohorting,” Wildman said, “It’s easier to put small groups of children with a single teacher and be able to tell when someone gets a case, when to shutdown a small cohort.”
She referenced a graphic depicting the potential spread of Covid-19 if cohorts are not employed in the high school and middle school.
“Unless we cohort in invididual classrooms, this is what we have in the middle school and high school reopenings,” Wildman said.
If the county is still in the purple tier by mid-January, the schools cannot reopen. If they are in red, the decision will be made by the school board.
“People are really sad and upset about not getting to come back to school,” said Wildman. On the reverse-side of things, “Is [reopening] worth risking the health and safety of our staff and students?”
She explained that most of the school districts with in-person learning that she had been keeping an eye on have closed and moved back to online learning.
The board agreed to hold a meeting in January prior to any reopening attempt.