Thousands of students in Napa and American Canyon will begin the new school year as they ended the last – studying at home while waiting for the threat of the coronavirus pandemic to recede enough for their schools to reopen.
Late Thursday night, the Napa Valley Unified School District board unanimously approved an instruction plan that provides for distance learning when the 2020-21 academic year begins Aug. 20. The vote was the culmination of a week in which more than 100 new COVID-19 cases have been reported across Napa County, a development that officials said made a hoped-for reopening of schools impossible for now.
“We can all acknowledge that this situation is less than ideal, and any solution we come up with will have some consequences that are not the best,” said David Gracia, who joined five other trustees to support an internet-only opening (Icela Martin was absent). “But we have to do our best with what we’ve been given.”
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At mid-day Friday, Gov. Newsom issued rules that would have forced the NVUSD to postpone on-campus instruction if the school board hadn’t acted Thursday night.
Schools in any county on the state’s “watch list,” including Napa, will have to teach online until they meet certain public health thresholds, the governor announced.
While trustees reported wide support in a survey of school parents for restoring classroom teaching should conditions allow it, district officials cited a recent acceleration in local COVID-19 cases and recommendations by Napa County Public Health to push back a reopening.
Gracia also cited new guidance expected from Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday for the reopening of California schools, with many of the state’s 1,000 districts just weeks away from returning to school and still undecided on whether to allow students back in classrooms. Several metropolitan school districts already have opted to start the new term virtually, including those in San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento.
The decisions were made amid growing concern from teachers and parents over the state’s surge of coronavirus cases and uncertainty surrounding the safety of both students and staff on campuses. The state this week reported its second-highest one day totals in infection rates and deaths since the start of the pandemic and more than 7,500 have died.
State officials have placed at least 31 of California’s 58 counties, including Napa, on a watch list because of concerning coronavirus transmission and hospitalization rates. Being on the list puts restrictions on the ability to reopen various segments of the economy.
Earlier this week, Newsom said he had approved new rules on wearing masks, playing sports, singing, busing and “keeping our kids safe and furthering our efforts around distance learning.” His administration did not immediately make those rules public but his office said Newsom would “announce COVID-19 guidance for schools” on Friday.
NVUSD’s plan lays out four stages of gradual progress toward fully reopening campuses for more than 16,000 children and teenagers, including a transition period when students would come to school only for mornings or afternoons to prevent overcrowding that could raise the risk of spreading the coronavirus directly to classmates and teachers — or indirectly to their relatives at home. But board members and school district officials set no hard dates for any steps toward restoring a full in-person schedule, emphasizing that progress will be based solely on the approval of Napa County public health authorities and California officials.
The reopening plan, details of which were released earlier Thursday, also creates an online-only curriculum called the Virtual Learning Academy for families unwilling to bring their children back to campus even after classrooms reopen. Parents opting for the program will be asked to keep their children there for at least the first semester.
For students placed on the track toward an eventual reopening, attendance will be taken daily for online instruction, and students will receive grades and teacher feedback for their work. Teachers will report to their campuses and lead online classes at set times five days a week, and will be available to assist students on school grounds by appointment.
As public health conditions improve, NVUSD would move to a second phase in which students would spend two half-days in the classroom and continue distance learning on other days, then advance to a third stage of five-day-a-week on-campus instruction either in the morning or the afternoon.
The final phase would begin when Napa County public health authorities deem it safe for children and teenagers to return to a full-day schedule in the classroom.
No timeline was announced for any of the phases to begin and end. A presentation released before the meeting said the timing of a move to partial classroom schedules will depend not only on public health conditions but also on negotiations with employee unions over safety measures against COVID-19.
When the district’s schools eventually reopen their doors, children and faculty members will face a slew of safety rules and modifications.
NVUSD’s plan calls for a minimum of 6-foot spacing between teachers and students to lessen the risk of transmitting the virus. Staff members, and students from the third grade onward, will be required to wear face coverings. Climate-control systems in school buildings will be equipped with air filters and set to maximize the flow of air from the outside. Elementary school classes are slated to stay together with the same teacher throughout the day and not mingle with other class groups.
“It’s very apparent when we open up for staff and students, sites are going to look and feel much different,” said Mike Pearson, assistant superintendent of operations, before adding that any return to campus must be carefully planned in order to stick.
“The last thing we want is for schools to open and close, open and close,” he said. “That’s not helpful for the physical or emotional health of anybody, students and faculty.”
The push for increased physical distancing will extend beyond classrooms and into school buses, with increased sanitizing, schedule changes and the closing-off of seats. Pearson also predicted the schedule split between morning and afternoon sessions would require fewer children to be on the road at any one time.
More than 1,000 people logged onto the 4 1/2-hour Zoom videoconference of the school board meeting, which was conducted from trustees’ homes due to the county’s social distancing rules during the coronavirus emergency.
Numerous parents posed questions to the district about the details of running a school system with campuses still off limits – from how those attending academies like New Technology High and the Napa Valley Language Academy might continue receiving specialized instruction, to whether the district can allow students who bonded through informal study groups during the spring shutdown to stick together in the new school year. Others asked about NVUSD’s plans should a student or teacher test positive for COVID-19, including whether classmates or co-workers would be required to self-quarantine.
Weighing on the minds of many parents was the difficulty of guiding their children’s at-home learning while also holding down jobs, and especially of making child-care arrangements.
“I feel like working parents have not been represented well in the work that’s been done so far,” said Jason Parks, recalling the challenges he and his wife faced after NVUSD shut down all its campuses March 13. “We need help; we do not have resources or the means to help our kids at home and give them schooling. We went through the last part of the (past) school year and worked incredibly hard to provide teaching to our kids because we did have to become the teachers. I couldn’t work, and my wife couldn’t work, during the time when we had to do the instruction.”
A NVUSD teacher, Emily Bryden, worried that placing students into morning or afternoon groups would put those attending the later session at greater risk from viruses lingering in the air or settling on surfaces, and predicted that running ventilation systems to draw in outside air at full blast will require better filtration to cope with smoky air during the wildfire season. She also joined other speakers in urging schools to require face coverings for all children, including in the earliest grades.
Meanwhile, other teachers in the Napa school district urged the district to allow them to lead classes at home instead of school grounds, citing factors such as health issues for themselves or relatives or even spotty internet quality that could bog down online teaching.
Cramming instruction into half a school day threatens to become unmanageable for Napa’s special education students and those who work with them, according to Megan Mott, a NVUSD special-education employee who pointed to the much greater time demands of the children she and others work with.
“Two and a half hours of school is not long enough, in my professional opinion, to give them a good fruitful experience of a school day,” she told the board, suggesting that the district instead consider keeping students on campus for two full days a week until campuses reopen for full schedules.
Napa County has recorded 583 positive tests for COVID-19, including 106 this week, with four deaths since the pandemic began.
Ultimately, the ability of Napa schools to open again is inextricably tied with the ability of Napa County to put a lid on the coronavirus’ spread, said trustee Joe Schunk.
“Our kids bring their entire household to school today,” he said. “That was true pre-COVID but it’s especially true because of COVID. Their exposures become our exposures.”
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