Many members of the Lodi Unified School District Board of Education on Tuesday night said while they support a complete return to campus as soon as possible, rapidly changing statistics and information regarding COVID-19 are cause for concern.
Board member George Neely said he would not support any plan in which students could not be properly spaced in a classroom, and said the district should either remain on distance learning, or modify the proposed phased-in approach to in-person instruction.
The district should look at which students need to be on campus the most, he said, suggesting only special education students return on the proposed date of Nov. 2. A week later, kindergarteners through third-graders would be able to return to campus, so long as classes are not so large that they do not provide for social distancing.
Neely suggested students in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades also return on Nov. 9, but with some sort of hybrid model in which students are only on campus limited days.
Seventh-graders through high schoolers should remain on distance learning until the next semester, he said.
Neely’s suggestions arose after superintendent Dr. Cathy Nichols Washer stated once again that there is no feasible way to keep students six feet apart in a classroom. The most distance that could be achieved would be a maximum of four feet, she said.
The district is in the process of ordering protective shields for each student, Washer said, but the plastic guards will be portable rather than permanently installed on the furniture.
Masks and face coverings will be mandatory for staff, and the county requires students in the third grade and higher to wear them as well, she added.
There will be disposable masks on campus for those who don’t have one or forget them at home, and If children aren’t wearing any then staff will contact their parents, she said. There is language from the state that says the district will need to exclude students who don’t wear masks, and offer them alternatives like independent study, Washer said.
Students, teachers and staff who have a medical condition preventing them from wearing masks must submit documentation from their doctor, she added.
Even with this new information regarding conduct and protocols on campus, board members said they were hesitant about sticking to last week’s proposed phase-in return to school this semester.
Board member Gary Knackstedt reached out to several principals in the North Stockton area he represents, and found they have concerns about adequately supplying students and staff with personal protective equipment, he said.
They were also concerned there was not enough custodial staff to clean rooms and that there hasn’t been discussion on hiring long-term substitutes for teachers who may have to take a leave of absence due to COVID-19, he said. They also need more time to prepare for changes to the district’s master schedule, he added.
“I would really prefer starting these classes in January, not necessarily as early November,” Knackstedt said. “Maybe the special day classes (could be) the first group (in November). But for most part, elementary and high schools would be better to start in January. If we look at this second (fall) quarter, there’s break after break after break. It’s pretty short and broken up. Plus, (postponing) would give us time to set up our scheduling. Whatever plan we decide, we have to be ready to return to distance learning. We have to be very nimble.”
Knackstedt suggested having the district return to a year-round schedule, with three different tracks, to ensure not all students would be on campuses at the same time.
Board member Ron Heberle favored keeping with last week’s proposal to have students return in early November. While he knew COVID-19 information changes every day, he said, the district and board should stick with the plan it has already developed.
“We have to somehow find the balance in where we want to go,” he said. “What makes it extremely difficult is that there are conflicting recommendations from different groups. They’re all pretty much together in talking about the damage being caused by kids not going to school and being social and having those interactions. Let’s not kid ourselves. This virus is a real thing. It’s not lessening that in any way shape for form. But we need to stay the course with the direction to go through the process, and get kids back as best as we can.”
Board president Joe Nava said he’d like to pursue the phased-in approach as discussed last week, but said after reading literature on the virus and seeing reports in the media, he wanted to move forward with caution.
He suggested the district survey both teachers and parents to gauge exactly how many favor or oppose reopening campuses.
“You can draft whatever you want to draft, but were in a crisis right now,” he said. “We’re in a crisis all over this world. I have a very big concern. I am for opening schools, no doubt about it. But I also respect the virus and respect people highly of whatever they think. This is deadly. It kills people.”
Parent Lisa Griffiths brought up earlier discussion in the meeting, that if a high school student tests positive for COVID-19 upon returning to class, they’d be quarantined for 14 days.
That student wouldn’t just potentially infect a teacher, she said, but the 30 other students in the room, as well as other classmates and teachers during a six-period day.
If that student has a sibling at the school, or another student tests positive at the same time, that’s the potential for 12 teachers and 300 students to quarantine for two weeks, she said.
“I feel that putting kids in classroom all at one time is a recipe for disaster,” she said. “The little children not wearing masks ... those children will walk up to and sneeze in your face. ... Even if children are not super-spreaders, there is still spread going on. I really am concerned about our staff, our students, and I would encourage you to look more at the hybrid model, like other districts are doing.”
Parent Deanna Morfield is a teacher in another district that has been open for kindergarten through sixth grade for two weeks. The plan put in place by that district’s school board and administration is working well, she said.
When personal protective equipment is used properly and guidelines are followed, reopening a district can work successfully, she argued.
“The matter of opening all schools for sake of our students in urgent,” she said. “They are suffering. Many students are having difficulty concentrating on their work because of long hours spent in front of the computer. My son is a straight-A student who spends six hours in his room because he’s either on Zoom or doing class assignments, then an additional three or four hours of homework each night. This causes physical cramping in his body and headaches.”
Board member Ron Freitas noted a list of districts that have reopened, but said no districts the size of Lodi Unified — or in a county in the state’s red or orange tiers — have opened to full in-person instruction.
He questioned how, if restaurants in the county are only allowed to accommodate 25% capacity indoors, the district wants to have 100% of students on campus. He also questioned how the board can hold socially distanced meetings, keeping six feet from each other, when the plan is to place 2,000 students on campuses where that isn’t possible.
“My vote last meeting was to support staff’s plan because it was the quickest way to move forward,” he said. “But I am never going to cut corners, I am never going to risk children’s lives. I’m not going to rush to move kids into classrooms until I’m convinced it’s (done) safely. I’m not satisfied with the plans we have going forward.”
Staff will continue to update the board with plans for returning to campus at future meetings.