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BEA AHBECK/NEWS-SENTINEL Lodi Education Association members protest at the Lodi Unified School District office to show the board social distancing won't work if kids return to school, in Lodi Tuesday, July 14, 2020.

Following recommendations Monday from the San Joaquin County Office of Education and Public Health Services, Lodi school officials have opted to begin the 2020-21 school with distance learning.

While members did not take an official vote during the Tuesday night meeting, the Lodi Unified School District Board of Education directed staff to implement the distance learning model for the entire first quarter of instruction.

Teachers would be allowed to return to campus to teach remotely or perform other job duties, as recommended by the SJCOE in a Tuesday afternoon press release.

Only board member Ron Heberle objected to the model, stating that he didn’t think students would completely benefit from being taught through video conferencing on a computer.

“I see such a gap in learning,” he said. “I’ve always felt that computers are amazing as a supplement to giving kids more to work with. But different grade levels really have different requirements for learning from (this model).”

However, the other board members said full distance learning was the only way to keep both students and staff safe as the number of positive COVID-19 cases continues to rise in the county.

“Our number one priority should be student safety,” board member Gary Knackstedt. “I think we’d all love to send our students back to school, but that’s just not going to happen right now. The bigger districts are implementing this — (Los Angeles), San Diego, I think even Stockton is going this route. Our district is prepared to deliver quality education — remotely. This is not going to be like the last quarter, where we were in an emergency crisis.”

Board member Courtney Porter said he had faith that teachers at all school sites would be able to successfully implement lesson plans for all their students.

“The key to this is our teachers,” he said. “They’ve always been nimble, and have been able to turn on a dime and give you change back. They need our support, whether through a task force or simply giving the materials they need to teach our kids. This isn’t the best solution, but I have faith in their ability to pull this off.”

The board’s consensus was to reevaluate the distance learning option at the end of the quarter and decide whether to continue with that model for the remainder of the semester, or move into a hybrid learning model or complete return to school.

Heberle and board president Joe Nava supported a complete return to school if the COVID-19 situation improved by the end of the first quarter.

“I am totally against any kind of hybrid model,” Nava said. “There’s no evidence that it can work. And if we’re going to have students in school, we need to skip ‘Level 2’ and move right into ‘Level 3.’ The district was already working on this, to have all the safety measures in place.”

The district’s “Level 2” involved a hybrid of having half a school’s students on campus twice a week, while the other half participated in distance learning. All students would be taught remotely one day a week, and a complete distance learning would be available for those who did not want to return to campus at all.

The district’s “Level 3” is a complete return to campus, with distance learning as an option for families who do not feel comfortable returning to school. Health and safety protocols would be in place on campus for students and staff.

Debra Ladwig, the district’s assessment, research and evaluation analyst, said she was happy the board decided to implement distance learning for the first quarter. However, she hoped the district would continue to provide a safe environment for teachers and staff who choose to return to sites in the fall.

“I want the district to make sure when opening facilities (that) protocols are in place, either that masks must be worn, or there is consistent cleaning of high trafficked areas where adults may go,” she said. “Over the summer, I went to the district office, and there’s a sign on the door that masks must be worn inside or when standing in line. But then I go inside, and not everyone is wearing a mask. I would hope you make all staff wear them at all times to keep us safe.”

Mary Vallerga Hood, a fifth-grade teacher at Podesta Ranch Elementary School, said the board’s decision was a huge stress reliever for her colleagues throughout the district.

“I’m very thankful you’ve decided to listen to the advice of health officials,” she said. “It is the right thing to do. You couldn’t keep students safe with 24 in a classroom. I think teachers are ready to do distance learning, and we can make it work.”

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