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CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS

Lodi Unified School District parents and teachers voiced a number of concerns about starting the 2020-21 year Wednesday night, wondering how rooms will be cleaned and what happens when teachers or students are exposed to COVID-19 if school returns to a regular five-day schedule.

The board has been discussing how to reopen campuses for the past few weeks, debating whether to continue with distance learning, return to campus full time, or have a mixed model in which some students are at school and some are being taught remotely.

During a special meeting, most members of the district’s board of education favored returning to school full time, as long as health and safety guidelines are followed.

Board member Susan McFarland said she’d like students to return to school full time, five days a week. However, she added that if the number of COVID-19 cases increases, or if many students don’t return to school out of fear for their health, she’d like the district to be able to change game plans before the end of the quarter or semester.

“I’d like us to open 100%,” MacFarlane said. “If we go back less than full, then I think we get into a daycare situation. We’re in the business of education and running a school, not a daycare. But whatever decision we make, we have to be flexible. We have to not be afraid to make a change if something is not working.”

Board member Ron Freitas said he did not favor a hybrid model in which 50% of students attend school twice a week and then participate in distance learning the other two days. He said the district should either be “all in” for going back to school full time, or continue with the distance learning model that was employed when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Freitas also wanted to start the school year later, such as Aug. 17 or Aug. 24 to give staff and students time to get used to safety measures and changes before instruction begins. School is scheduled to begin Aug. 3.

“I’d like students to come to campus for training on these new protocols and procedures recommended by the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) before moving forward,” he said. “There’s no better way to teach kids than to have them in the classroom with our amazing teachers, and they are learning.”

Parent Jennifer Spaletta has four children in the district, and supported a full-time return to school because she felt one of her elementary students didn’t learn as much as he or she should have through distance learning.

“It wasn’t because the teacher didn’t try. She really did,” Spaletta said. “But there’s something about knowing your child is in a classroom getting an education. And the three weeks you are considering for training ... that’s something teachers and students can do in a day or two. We don’t need three weeks of down time to figure out how to get kids in and out of a situation.”

Board member Courtney Porter was the lone member who wanted to open school with a limited number of students on campus, proposing the hybrid model of 50% of students on campus at a time.

He also wanted to start school at a later date so the district could fully prepare to follow CDC guidelines.

“It gives us lead time to prepare for so many different variables to take care of and allows lead individuals at schools to stagger attendance by (alphabet) and establish protocols set by the CDC,” he said. “If the (COVID) numbers climb, then we’ll know we’re doing this incorrectly if we need to shut down. If they stay at the status quo, then we can go to full reopening down the road.”

Other parents agreed with Porter’s suggestion to start small, as they worried their children could come into contact with asymptomatic students and bring COVID-19 home to families.

Parent Robin Young has a child attending Lodi High School and said there are many families in the district whose members have pre-existing conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus.

She said if all 2,200 Lodi High students return to campus in August, the district is putting the entire community in jeopardy.

“It scares me that the board is not listening to experts like virologists,” she said. “It has reported recently that a virologist got sick from COVID-19 because he was in a plane and was too close to other people. We have to make sure we protect the entire community, not just Lodi High. If we put 30,000 students together at once and a quarter or half of them get sick, where will they go? Do not put 30,000 students at school all at once.”

The board’s discussion lasted well into the evening, and a final decision to start the new year was not made before press time.

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