Lodi Unified School District students will be returning to class in a phased approach, but a timeline has yet to be determined.

During its special meeting Tuesday night, the Lodi Unified Board of Education gave staff direction to meet with the district’s labor groups as soon as possible after the current break to discuss a proper way to return to campus safely.

The district returns to instruction on Monday.

“I think once we sit down with our teachers group and other bargaining groups, that they might have some suggestions they bring to the table that might alter the look of this,” Trustee Susan Macfarlane said. “It doesn’t change my opinion of going back to school. It might change the approach we take. I think our unions need to have the opportunity to present and give us their suggestions of what they would like to see.”

Macfarlane’s comments came after district staff suggested the option of having students in different grade levels return to campus for in-person instruction at different times in the coming weeks.

It was suggested that all special day classes, such as special education, continuation high schools and the Valley Robotics Academy, return to campus on Nov. 2.

Under the suggested proposal, all elementary schools might return to full, in-person instruction on Nov. 9, while middle schools could return Nov. 16.

All comprehensive high schools — Bear Creek, Lodi, McNair and Tokay — could return to campus at the beginning of the spring semester, as well as Lincoln Technical Academy.

Distance learning would still be an option for families who do not feel comfortable sending their students to campus.

With consensus to now meet with labor groups, those suggested dates remain up in the air.

While Trustee George Neely supported returning full-time to class, he said, the district’s one-size-fits-all approach proposal to reopening was not going to work for all teachers and principals.

In recent weeks, Neely visited several campuses and found that each principal had a different plan for allowing students back on campus, he said. The district should provide more leeway to principals, he said, given that they know their teachers, staff and students better than the board or district administration.

“I do support going back. I think we need to go back full-time, but I think we need to make an exception where it doesn’t work, where you’ve got too big if classes to accommodate some type of social distancing,” he said. “I’m not sure that going into (the red tier) allows us to abandon social distancing. As a matter of fact, if we’re going to open this thing up, then we need to show even more caution then just saying, ‘We’re back.’”

San Joaquin County has completed two weeks in the red tier of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s latest blueprint for a safer economy, which gave school districts the greenlight to consider reopening for on-campus instruction.

Board member Ron Heberle has been in favor of a complete return to campus as soon as possible, supporting the Nov. 2, 9 and 16 dates as targets for doing so. He also favored having high school students return to campus on Nov. 16, just to give them contact with classmates and teachers.

With the district’s next meeting with the Lodi Education Association not scheduled until Oct. 27, Heberle favored expediting a discussion with all labor groups.

“I suggest that as soon as our current break is over we make contact and start getting things together with our labor groups because ... they have a lot of great ideas,” he said. “They’re the people in the trenches, they’re the ones doing the work. It is our decision, however, with input and perspective from other groups coming in. I don’t want to wait on anything, I want us to get moving as quickly as possible, but we do have to give them the consideration that they’re on break.”

Trustee Courtney Porter was the lone voice who supported waiting until January to return to campus, stating that states like Wisconsin, Montana and the Dakotas are seeing spikes in COVID-19 cases, and that 30 states are reporting more cases this week than during the entire pandemic.

There has been a 13% increase in child COVID-19 cases across the country the past two weeks, he added, and cited a University of Washington prediction that there could be another 135,000 deaths in the next three months.

“I don’t know if we have all the information,” he said. “What if somebody has long-term effects from this? What if our students have long-term effects from this? Maybe not at the young grades — we don’t know yet. But at the older levels, it’s a possibility. Some people say this has killed as many people as the flu. There are many types of flu, but only one type of COVID and right now it’s on track to do much more damage the flu has ever done in one year.”

District staff is expected to return to the board’s Oct. 20 meeting with more information.

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