Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) leaders are not sure when the city’s schools will reopen, and a continuation of distance learning remains a distinct possibility.
Waiting for Guidance
With schools on a state-issued order to close their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Tamara Ravalin says district administrators around the state are waiting for word from on high, but it has been slow in coming.
“We as school folks in the state are waiting,” she said. “We were hoping we’d get guidelines. The governor, today, indicated those would be a little bit later in the week. Maybe this weekend.”
Word, however, has yet to arrive. In the meantime, Ravalin and the rest of the VUSD administrators are planning for several eventualities, ranging from business as usual to maintaining instruction entirely through online and other distance learning means.
Planning for Next Term
“We’re going ahead and planning (the next school year), then we’ll adjust to the modifications as needed,” Ravalin said. “But we’re waiting and seeing and hoping that as time goes on through the summer that this will change and that we can have a full return to school.”
With the state, and even Tulare County, moving into Phase 3 of the governor’s reopening plan that allows higher-risk businesses to reopen with modifications in place, it seems likely VUSD schools will be at least partially open for the next term. The final decision will depend on what state and county health officials declare is safest, Ravalin said.
“I don’t know what independent businesses will do and such, but for us, as a public school entity, we will follow the directions of the governor, the California Department of Public Health, and our local health officer,” she said.
City Council Wants Schools Open
During an update on the county’s COVID-19 situation given by Tulare County Health and Human Services (TCHHS) public health director Dr. Karen Elliot to the Visalia City Council, Councilman Brian Poochigian pressed for word on when students would be back in class in full force, tying the issue to the city’s economic recovery.
“We probably can’t really open until the schools are back,” he said. “What do you think the chances are the kids will be back to school in the fall? In the grand scheme of things, it’s 1% of the population (who are infected with COVID-19). We have to start the road back to reality.”
Elliot responded that the city and county have been fortunate in not seeing an outbreak at a public school, and that state and county health officials are still weighing how best to reopen the state’s campuses and when.
“We don’t have the metric yet,” she said.
Councilman Restless to Reopen
Poochigian responded to Elliot’s explanation with an assertion the state isn’t operating in good faith and that he was glad the county supervisors had defied the governor’s shelter-in-place orders.
“I feel like the finish line keeps getting pushed back by the state,” he said. “I’m glad the county did what it did.”
Councilman Steve Nelsen called for restraint as the city returns to normal.
“We cannot go any faster than what the state says,” he said. “It’s truly not in our hands.”
Mayor Bob Link questioned Elliot about how the county became a hot spot for infections.
“Why did Tulare County have a large number of deaths in nursing homes?” he asked.
Elliot said Tulare County tested patients in long-term nursing facilities aggressively, perhaps more than other counties, yet it remains unclear why there have been a greater number of fatalities here than elsewhere. She maintains there must be some causal element at work.
“The death number doesn’t lie,” Elliot said.
COVID Fears at Grad Ceremonies
Fear of infections and possible fatalities–and possible legal fallout–were what kept the VUSD trustees from allowing a more traditional set of commencement ceremonies at the end of the school year.
“If one student gets sick, we will be sued for our back teeth,” said Trustee Bill Fulmer. “We have to follow state guidelines. If we get creative, we’re going to be in court in a heartbeat.”
While Trustee Dr. Lucia Vazquez pointed out students and parents were not included on the committee that decided what form graduation ceremonies would take during the partial shutdown due to COVID-19, Ravalin countered that the committee did include input, despite having to act quickly to salvage any form of recognition for graduating seniors.
“As they moved along, they reached out to students and parents so they could do something special,” Ravalin said. “That is the point, to do something special.”
2020-21 School Year Plans
In the meantime, while VUSD admins hope students will return to campus next school year, doing what’s in the best interest of everyone will be the factor by which their decision is made.
“Our No 1 principle is to protect the health of our students, staff and community,’ Ravalin said. “We hope that we’ll have a full return to a traditional school setting.”
Essentially, like most of America, the VUSD is hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.
“We have to be able to toggle, as the governor says,” said Ravalin. “If there’s a second outbreak, we have to be able to go full distance (learning).”
Economic Impact of Closure
With VUSD campuses closed, parents are discovering how much they rely on the district for their own economic welfare. Chris Crawford, a father with three children attending three different grades in VUSD schools, says a partial return to class to foster social distancing makes planning for child care difficult for working parents.
“For next year, a lot of us who are parents, we’re working full-time,” he said.
Having to supervise three students on top of working is too great a burden on parents, he added.
“Working with three different kids for three different classes doesn’t work,” Crawford said. “It’s not a practical option for a lot of us.”
He called for the VUSD to work out an arrangement with local child care providers.
Former teacher and VUSD parent Danielle Griffiths worried that repeatedly changing educational formats would hinder student development.
“I’m getting extremely nervous about the rumors that are going around,” she said. “The amount of time it takes to get the kids used to a new system and getting the teachers used to the new system, we don’t have that kind of time.”
Board President John Crabtree was sympathetic with the many complaints about the unusual situation and the limited options available to everyone involved at all levels.
“Please understand that we care,” Crabtree said. “We’d do more if we could.”