Students in the Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) will attend class on a part-time basis when they return to campus next month during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
At a special meeting of the VUSD trustees held Tuesday, July 14, Dr. Tamara Ravalin presented the district’s best guess at what the class schedule for the 2020-21 school year will look like, but the plan could change at any time.
“We need to be sensitive we are living in unprecedented times,” Ravalin said. “Nobody in our generations, unless you’re close to 100, has dealt with anything close to this before.”
Hybrid Instruction Model
In order to maintain a physical distance of six feet between students during instruction, students will attend class in either morning or afternoon sessions when instruction resumes on August 13. In-person sessions will be held four days a week, with Wednesdays reserved for student interventions and staff development. Additional instruction will take place online.
That’s the plan, at least for now. It could change at any time as local school districts receive additional guidance from the state.
“We expect more changes, more guidance from the state. We don’t know exactly when, but we expect more,” Ravalin said. “We’re going to plan this way, but as we know we’re not 100% in charge of what occurs.”
The district’s plan for reopening is detailed in a planning guide, which is now in its final draft form and was presented to the trustees during the July 14 meeting. The guide represents the work of dozens of committees addressing all aspects of the VUSD’s operations, from administration to custodial work, and is intended to cover as many scenarios as possible.
“Overall, there are hundreds of people working on this,” Ravalin said.
VUSD Must Follow Orders
The VUSD, Ravalin said, is bound by law to follow local, state and federal guidelines as it reopens the city’s schools. It is, however, also listening to parents, students and staff.
“Executive orders are law,” Ravalin said. “When we make our decisions, we’re listening to our parents, community and staff. We have to follow orders.”
Megan Macy, the district’s legal counsel, reiterated that the VUSD must adhere to direction from higher authorities going forward. The VUSD finds itself as the last link of a long chain.
“The school district is under the auspices and really under control of the orders of the state. There has been some guidance from the Federal Department of Education,” Macy said. “We really need to do what the state is telling us. What the state is telling us is that we need to work in coordination with the local health department.”
Plans Based on Survey
Before it laid out plans to reopen, the district sent out some 29,000 surveys to families with children enrolled in VUSD schools. More than 10,000 of them responded, a remarkable response, well above the 10% mark normally considered “doing well,” according to Ravalin.
Nearly 5,200 parents–more than half of those who responded–said they were ready for their students to return to class full-time. Of the district’s 1,337 teachers, 927 also said they were ready to return to full-time instruction. About 2,300 parents said they would prefer the hybrid model the district will employ, and 2,500 said they’d prefer instruction take place online only. Fewer than 200 parents indicated they intend to homeschool their children.
Despite the clear preference for a full return to normalcy, the district simply cannot house all its students and properly observe the state’s mandates.
“We know at this time we can’t bring everybody back if we have to maintain 6 feet of social distance,” Ravalin said.
Distancing Forces Hybrid Model
Since the VUSD will be forced to use a hybrid model when classes resumed, it also asked parents which part-time schedules they preferred. The majority–60%–opted for half-days four days a week. About a third said they preferred two full days of instruction a week. A handful felt other options would be better.
The result is half-days with morning and afternoon sessions, and a break in between to avoid mixing of the two populations of students.
“That is especially important in the primary grades if you’re trying to teach children to read or in some subject areas it’s more difficult if you don’t have daily contact,” Ravalin said. “I think the social-emotional factor plays into it, connecting with students and their friends.”
To that end, the district will also work to put students from the same family on the same schedule.
“We’ve had strong indication from families they want their children on the same schedule,” Ravalin said.
All that said, what will actually happen when classes resume is still anyone’s guess.
“It’s fluid,” Ravalin said. “I wish we could say this is where we’re going.”
Ensuring Students Stay Healthy
Suzie Skaden, VUSD’s director of health services, will be in charge of preventing outbreaks of COVID-19 among students and staff, and she said the district will be much more inclined to send students home if they display any sign of infection.
“In this pandemic, we can’t ask them to tough it out with a headache or sore throat,” she said. “They will have an isolation room for students who are exhibiting signs of COVID.”
To enforce social distancing, groups will be limited in size, transition times will be staggered, water bottles will be used in place of drinking fountains, and each student will have their own supplies. Staff and students will also be doing a lot of hand washing and wiping down surfaces.
“We want teachers to establish a hand sanitizing routine before they use a keyboard or when they (students) come inside,” Skaden said.
The state will provide each student with two cloth masks, and staff members will receive one each. All people on campus, including visitors, will be required to wear masks. Visitors will be temperature screened before being allowed to enter. Gloves will not be required.
“Gloves are a false sense of security,” Skaden said.
Classrooms will be sanitized with foggers between classes and more thoroughly at night.
Many Details to Address
The district will also work to alleviate concerns over child care and lack of internet access. The district plans to establish WiFi hotspots in students’ homes, and will provide each student with a laptop computer. The VUSD is partnering with ProYouth HEART to provide daytime and after-school child care that will include tutoring and additional internet access.
Many of the parents who responded to the survey expressed a need for workshops that will help them help their children’s performance in school, and the district will be obliging them. Topics will include subjects such as using software for distance learning, math support, English as a second language support and social and emotional strategies for dealing with the impact of the pandemic.
“That’s just fabulous for us,” Ravalin said of the high level of parent interest.
Also up in the air is whether school sports will be cancelled for the school year. That decision will come from the California Interscholastic Federation on July 20.
Teachers Group Calls for Delay
Despite the plans laid out by the district, the majority of teachers would like to see a delay in reopening campuses until after Labor Day. Gary Price, who represents the Visalia Unified School Teachers Association, said the union voted to endorse waiting to return to in-person instruction, using distance learning in the interim.
“We as the grownups are tasked to make the tough decisions,” he said. “We have decided that the most prudent plan would be to wait to reopen schools until Labor Day.”
It was not immediately clear how this would affect the district’s plans.
Price said too many details of the plan to reopen remain unclear, and the fact the county has met none of the state’s standards for reopening is a source of concern for teachers. The delay will give students and staff time to learn how to learn online, as well as to hammer out the finer points.
“It gives our community time to address the hundreds of details that will have to be addressed,” he said.