The Temecula Valley Unified School District board of education Tuesday, Sept. 1, gave district staff the green light to continue moving forward with plans to apply for a waiver to open up in-person learning for TK-6 students, although board members cautioned that the district is still only exploring this option and may ultimately choose to hold off on reopening.
And superintendent Jodi McClay also stressed that if the district does ultimately receive a waiver and reopen for TK-6 students, things will not return to the way they were at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.
“It’s not coming back to school five full days each week,” McClay said.
In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered that schools remain closed in all counties on the state’s coronavirus watch list until affected counties have been off the watch list for 14 days.
At the beginning of September, the state switched to a color-coded coronavirus map that serves much the same function with regard to education – schools in counties coded as “purple,” a category that applies to Riverside County – may not reopen until their county has been downgraded to “red” or lower for at least 14 days.
There is one exception – districts and private schools may reopen in-person for grades TK-6 if requested by a district’s superintendent, in consultation with labor organizations, parents and community organizations.
“When considering a waiver request, the local health officer must consider local data and consult with the California Department of Public Health,” according to information shared online by the governor’s office.
The Riverside County Department of Public Health in August released guidance to local schools on how to apply for a waiver.
Dr. Cameron Kaiser of Riverside County Public Health said schools interested in applying should be aware that the process for a waiver application requires “written proof of consultation with community organizations, teachers’ unions (if applicable) and parent organizations.”
Additionally, he said the county will require schools to prevent their response plan for an exposure to a coronavirus cases, their plan for assigning students to cohorts and maintaining them, as well as their plan for staff testing every two months, in accordance with state in-person instruction reopening framework.
At the Sept. 1 board meeting, McClay told board members that district staff were in the process of drafting plans for a potential waiver application and that their reopening plan will call for cohorts of students to stay together and implement a schedule in which students will attend in-person school two days per week and learn from home three days per week.
The plan calls for live instruction to half the class while the other half participates online with asynchronous or independent learning.
McClay said she acknowledged that were the district to move forward with the plan, asking primary teachers to work with multiple cohorts of students for the same class would require much effort.
“That is an incredible ask, I believe, of our teachers, because they’re already seeing and we’re living just how difficult it is to do one of those,” McClay said.
The plan would also require daily coronavirus screening; masks for grades 3-5, with masks strongly encouraged for lower grades and cohorts to quarantine for 14 days if a single student or staff member tests positive.
Board members indicated to McClay they were comfortable with continuing to draft plans even if they may not ultimately be comfortable with actually applying for a waiver.
Board president Sandy Hinkson said the eventual choice to reopen will be a heavy one, and she leaned toward caution.
“I empathize with every family, every child, every adult, every parent, really everyone who is dealing with this worldwide pandemic and how it has affected our lives,” Hinkson said. “But I also really, really struggle with being the first out of the gate.”
Hinkson said she thinks the district needs to move slowly and deliberately.
“To me, if the county is saying you shouldn’t send your kids back until you reach these numbers, but if you really want to, here you can get a waiver – why don’t we wait until we reach those numbers?” Hinkson said. “Why aren’t we erring on the side of protecting our kids, protecting our families?”
She said she isn’t certain 100%, though, which way she will lean in the end.
“There’s so many things to consider,” she said.
McClay said she understood the concern and that the district could not possibly submit a waiver application in the immediate short term because there are still many steps to take in reaching out to stakeholders.
“This doesn’t all happen overnight and that’s probably all well and good … by then we may be off the list, we may already be in the 14-day window to look at things, or maybe we won’t be, maybe we will have more data,” McClay said.
More information on a potential waiver application will be presented at the district’s Sept. 15 board meeting.
Will Fritz can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.