The Temecula Valley Unified School District’s board of education on Tuesday gave its superintendent the green light to move forward with tentative plans to restart classes for elementary school students in a modified format as soon as the end of next month, assuming Riverside County does not see an uptick in its coronavirus caseload — something that is less than certain at the moment.
Superintendent Jodi McClay requested the board’s permission to plan for sending most elementary students back to classrooms in part-time cohorts “no sooner than November 30,” with plenty of safety precautions such as masks and plexiglass barriers at desks.
McClay, balancing health guidelines with the wishes of parents who want their children to return to classrooms full-time, expressed that the situation is far from ideal.
“We would love nothing more than to be back to normal, with kids in school five days a week, experiencing schools as we all work so hard to create our schools to be,” McClay said. “Unfortunately, as a public school district, though, we must follow state and county directives. That is not a choice for us.”
There will be an option for parents to keep their children in an all-online learning format if they so desire, McClay said.
The potential return to classrooms is 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 on Sept. 22.
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, the same day as the meeting. However, based on health data released on Oct. 6, the county faces the risk of falling back into the purple tier next week.
Riverside County’s coronavirus positivity rate as of Oct. 6 of 5% falls in the red tier, but the county’s case rate has ticked up to 6.8 positive cases per 100,000 people, which the state adjusted to 7.6 cases per 100,000 due to the county’s lower-than-average rate of testing. Seven positive cases per 100,000 is the benchmark for moving back into the purple tier, and the county will be re-designated in that tier if it has similar numbers of positive cases by the time the state issues its next report on county case rates, which is scheduled for Oct. 13.
McClay acknowledged that uncertainty in presenting the district’s plans to prepare for a possible reopening on Nov. 30, even if students end up not being able to actually return to classrooms on that date.
“In other words, we will be ready instructionally as well as with safety and health protocols for a return on November 30,” McClay said.
That restart date is actually much earlier than other districts in Riverside County. Most districts are planning to send all students back to physical campuses in modified formats no earlier than January, McClay said. Riverside Unified, Desert Sands Unified and Murrieta Valley Unified are the only other districts planning to send elementary school students back in November — McClay said TVUSD is closely coordinating its reopening plans with Murrieta Valley.
Under the reopening plan presented by McClay, 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 in order to keep class sizes uniform. She said the district will do its best to group all siblings into the same schedules.
Under the plan presented by McClay, secondary school students will not return to classrooms until Jan. 5, the start of TVUSD’s spring semester.
She said while that may sound like a large gap between primary and secondary students’ return to campuses, it really is not much time. Secondary students will be returning in a cohort model in which they will only attend physical classes two days a week, and so they will only be missing out on six days of in-person learning between Nov. 30 and Jan. 5, McClay said.
It would be difficult to send secondary students back any earlier, she said, “primarily because of the master schedule and changing each student’s entire course load with their teacher assignments three weeks before the end of the semester is disastrous for our students, for our teachers, for everything.”
Over the nearly two months leading up to Nov. 30, the district will take steps such as conducting negotiations with labor associations, holding conferences with parents and creating informational videos for families to prepare for the return to classrooms.
While all five board members gave their approval to the timeline, two board members questioned some of the safety precautions McClay said would be implemented.
Board member Julie Farnbach said she was surprised to see that plexiglass barriers would be put in place in elementary classrooms.
“I think that’s overkill,” Farnbach said. “If they’re gonna have a mask on they shouldn’t need the plexiglass for every minute.”
And while the state mandates that students in third grade and up wear masks, McClay said it was district staff’s recommendation that TVUSD go a step farther and require masks for all students.
Farnbach and board member Barbara Brosch both were skeptical of the mask requirement for younger students.
“I would like to see TK through second grade not have masks on,” Brosch said. “I don’t know if you see them but especially with the standard masks covering, are practically covering their eyes. They’re small.”
Brosch also said she was concerned masks would make it difficult for younger students “to communicate if something’s wrong” by obscuring their facial expressions.
Farnbach said she worried masks for kindergarten through second grade students would impact their ability to learn language skills.
“My objection to plexiglass and masks I guess is the crossroads of mental health and language learning,” Farnbach said. “Once you learn to read and you read to learn, bring on the masks, that makes sense … I’m not saying we shouldn’t have any protection, but there are significant reasons for wanting flexibility there.”
However, the other three members, Sandy Hinkson, Kristi Rutz-Robbins and Lee Darling, said that if masks and plexiglass are necessary to make staff feel safe, they are worth it.
“On the plexiglass and the mask situation, I kind of look at both of these in the same vein in that a major component of us getting back to school is both our classified and certificated staff feeling safe coming back,” Darling said, “so while personally I don’t feel that they are necessary, if it is necessary to make somebody feel more comfortable and get our kids back to school, I certainly support that.”
All five board members agreed that staff safety is extremely important, and Hinkson suggested staff explore creating some exceptions for mask requirements for younger students to account for Farnbach’s and Brosch’s concerns while still ensuring masks would be worn in most circumstances.
“I think we’re all in support that masks are appropriate for TK through second, but maybe some consideration for certain times where we can add some flexibility to that,” Hinkson said.
McClay said she expects to release a full reopening guide online Friday, Oct. 9
Will Fritz can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.