Despite purple tier slide, TVUSD hopes to reopen elementary schools in cohort model Nov. 30

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Jodi McClay, superintendent of Temecula Valley Unified School District, speaks to school board members Tuesday, Oct. 20. Valley News/TVUSD courtesy photo

What does Riverside County’s slide back into the “purple” tier of the state’s coronavirus reopening plan mean for Temecula schools?

Jodi McClay, superintendent of Temecula Valley Unified School District, told TVUSD’s board of education, along with community members watching the board’s Oct. 20 meeting, that for now, district staff believe they can continue with planning to reopen elementary schools in a part-time, cohort learning format at the end of November, although that will change if Riverside County does not return to the red tier for an extended period of time. She also said she expects the district should still be able to reopen middle and high schools in a part-time format after winter break, as had been previously planned.

McClay said if Riverside County remains in the purple tier, the district intends to “aggressively pursue” a waiver for elementary schools, though she made clear that is contingent on support from staff.

“I believe personally that we will likely have the support, again that’s just a prediction, I don’t want to put words into anybody’s mouths,” McClay said. “But in talking with teachers I am hopeful, and classified staff as well, I am very, very hopeful that we will have support for our waiver.”

Earlier in October, McClay got the green light from TVUSD’s board to plan for sending most elementary students back to classrooms in part-time cohorts “no sooner than Nov. 30,” with plenty of safety precautions such as masks and plexiglass barriers at desks.

That potential return to classrooms was made possible by the fact that Riverside County dropped from the most-restrictive purple tier in the state’s coronavirus reopening plan to the less-restrictive red tier, Sept. 22.

Under the plan presented by McClay, secondary school students are not expected to return to classrooms until Jan. 5, the start of TVUSD’s spring semester.

Schools in Riverside County were able to reopen with health restrictions after 14 days out of the purple tier, a milestone that came Oct. 6. based on health data released Oct. 20, however, the county ended up back in the purple tier, meaning schools will not be able to reopen again until it has been back in the red for 14 days, which is not something that is certain to happen soon.

However, McClay told the board Tuesday that there is still time for the county to get back into the red tier in time for TVUSD elementary schools to reopen Nov. 30, as planned, and if not, that’s when the district will seek a waiver.

“We fully intend and we hope to still be able to make this timeline from a colored tier perspective,” McClay said. “It will be tight, we’re not trying to sugarcoat that because there are requirements for how many days we will need to be back in the red tier, but with a little luck, and if you look at the calendar, we do have enough days to make that happen at this point, so we intend to be ready on those days that we published.”

California Department of Public Health administrators decided to reduce Riverside County to the purple tier for at least three weeks due to low testing volumes, Riverside University Health System staff told the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, also Tuesday.

The county has been in the red tier for a month, permitting many businesses to reopen with limited capacities.

Riverside County’s testing rate is currently 195.5 per 100,000 population.

The state’s threshold for large counties is 239.1 per 100,000. The other criterion for red tier status is a daily COVID-19 case rate of seven per 100,000 or less. The county is at 8.4 per 100,000, with an adjusted rate of 9.1 per 100,000, which was applied because the county testing threshold was deemed unsatisfactory.

McClay said while she accepts some criticism from the community for not reopening TVUSD schools sooner, no other school districts in Riverside County opened, either.

“No public school districts have done so in our county and very few in other counties,” McClay said. “Red still means substantial risk, and this is something that we must heed on behalf of our students. So the last thing any educator wants is to be toggling back and forth to be disrupting our students and staff and even more so to be risking their health by ignoring the public health experts.”

Under the elementary reopening plan presented by McClay Oct. 6 that the district hopes to have in effect Nov. 30, elementary school students will attend school in an “a.m./p.m.” format, with one-half of a teacher’s students attending class for two-and-a-half hours in the morning, and the other half attending class for the same period of time in the afternoon, with about 40 minutes in between the two groups to allow for cleaning.

Students would participate in virtual learning for the other half of the day, and Mondays would be an all-online day for all students, McClay said.

Children will be divided into their a.m./p.m. groups based on their last names in alphabetical order, McClay said – although the split between a.m. and p.m. will vary for each class to keep class sizes uniform. She said the district will do its best to group all siblings into the same schedules.

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.