These south Siskiyou schools opened classrooms during a pandemic. Here's how it's going

Skye Kinkade
Mount Shasta Herald
A Dunsmuir High School student gives in-person classes a thumbs up. DHS is the only south Siskiyou County high school that started the year in classrooms.

Jon Ray couldn’t have been hired as Weed Elementary School’s principal/superintendent at a more tumultuous time. The COVID-19 pandemic closed California schools in March, and when he took the reins from Alisa Cummings in July, the one thing he heard repeatedly was that the Weed community wanted students back in classrooms.

Since then, Ray has worked with his teaching staff, the school board, the county office and Siskiyou County Public Health to make that goal a reality.

In August, Weed Elementary was one of just three schools in south Siskiyou County to open for in-person instruction, with as close to “normal” operation as possible. Dunsmuir High School and McCloud Elementary School also opened classrooms to students, citing enrollments that are small enough to make social distancing possible.

Although things look a little different inside classrooms this year – masks on every face, frequent temperature screenings and distance between desks and bodies – Ray said things have been going well at WES.

Weed Elementary School students wear masks and remain at a respectful social distance.

And parents desperate for in-person learning are taking notice.

Last year WES had an enrollment of 250, Ray said. As of last week, they had 302 students enrolled – and they’re growing. Families who want their students at school during the day are requesting interdistrict transfers, Ray said, although WES may soon reach a point when they have to cap class sizes. Keeping class sizes, or “cohorts,” at or below 16 students would assist in isolation and contact tracing if there were a COVID-19 outbreak, Ray explained.

Heather Solus, who works as the community services director at Great Northern in Weed, moved her two sons from Mount Shasta Elementary to WES because they weren’t doing well with distance learning.

More:Here's how south Siskiyou schools plan to welcome students back to classrooms

The teachers were doing all the could to help, Solus said, but it became clear that her sons were distressed by a lack of in-person interaction with their teachers and other students. 

Online learning was especially difficult for her fifth grader, Oliver, who has a 504 education plan.  He began the year as a WES Cub in August while Titus, a second grader, stayed at MSE.

“He loves it in Weed,” said Solus. “He’s super happy and WES has been great working with him."

Titus made the transition to WES last week. He is also happy to be back around other students, said Heather.  

"I was scared to switch schools but it has been wonderful," she said.

Students wear masks and sit apart from one another at Dunsmuir High School.

Some schools losing kids, others growing

California schools are being funded this year at the same level as they were in the 2019/20 year, said Siskiyou County Superintendent of Schools Kermith Walters. Schools will likely be able to apply for “growth funding” from the state, which would allow them to address the costs associated with increased enrollment, although there is still some confusion and Walters isn’t sure how it will work.

Ray said funding isn’t an issue at WES, but a teacher shortage is. There’s currently one opening for a fifth grade teacher, and he had an interview with a candidate last week. But finding qualified teachers has been difficult, he said.

WES has three teachers that are dedicated solely to distance learning for the 70 students that chose not to return in person, said Ray. Those students can remain in the virtual learning program as long as they want. The district is also looking at options to make distance learning permanent for those who want that experience for their children.

More:Following pause, Yreka elementary schools return to in-person learning

More:South Siskiyou schools open with distance learning

Teaching during a pandemic

WES kindergarten teacher Danielle Dewhurst said the biggest hurdle of teaching during a pandemic is following all the state required mandates, although the kids have adapted well.

“Most of the time my students are playing together (in close proximity) throughout the day,” said Dewhurst. “A huge part of kindergarten is teaching kids how to share with one another, so the fact that they are not allowed to touch the same toys, art supplies, books, etc. without proper sanitation has made the transition somewhat difficult.”

Adjusting to the ‘new normal’

Dunsmuir High School principal Ray Kellar said COVID-19 “has obviously changed the dynamic of ... how we do things.” About two-thirds of DHS’s 60 students are on campus five days a week.

About a third of DHS’s students are distance learning, “with varying degrees of success,” said Kellar. He said virtual classes are tough since students need to be online daily.

“In other words, (they are) attending school ... from another location,” Kellar said. “Connectivity and individual responsibility play a big part in (their) success.”

Kellar admitted it’s a “difficult time,” but said he’s proud of the way DHS students have responded to the challenges the pandemic presents.

DHS’s Associated Student Body is working to make this school year more “normal,” and has put together themed weeks (similar to homecoming type activities) where classes compete for points and rewards, Kellar said. 

Students at Weed Elementary School have been good about wearing masks and the other safety precautions in place while the school is open during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition, the school put together a motivational series, offered through three different speakers, which will live and online presentations and activities, said Kellar. Student growth, values, and educational motivation are the target messages.

At WES, most students “haven’t skipped a beat,” said Ray, but others are having trouble readjusting to being back in the classroom. He worries that some were traumatized by the experience of being confined to their homes during the height of the pandemic during the spring and summer months.

Keeping the school safe

To accomplish reopening safely, WES implemented a new set of protocols for deep cleaning and screening for possible cases of the coronavirus

Last year, WES had two custodians; Ray hired three more. Classrooms are sanitized three times a day, Ray said. When students leave the room, custodians go in with atomizers to ensure surfaces are germ free. The cafeteria and other areas of the schools are cleaned often, as well.

Everyone entering the campus is screened for possible COVID-19 symptoms, Ray said, and students have temperature screenings three or four times a day. 

While there are differing symptoms of the coronavirus, the one “tell tale” symptom is a fever of 100.4 degrees, Ray said. So far, there have been no scares, and as far as he knows the student population and staff – who are tested monthly – have remained healthy.

While masks weren’t an issue for students at first, because they were just happy to be back at school, as the weeks have gone on, some kids are rebelling against wearing them, said Ray. Unfortunately, he added, wearing masks is non negotiable.

“It’s just something that we have to do,” he said.