Mount Shasta school board votes to get students back in classrooms full time

Skye Kinkade
Mount Shasta Herald
Although they didn't know that students wouldn't be returning at the time, teachers and the custodial staff were hard at work at Mount Shasta's Sisson School were busy in March disinfecting every possible surface while students were at home to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Mount Shasta Elementary and Sisson students are headed back to classrooms full time, five days a week – perhaps as early as March 8 – trustees decided in a 3-2 decision Wednesday evening.

The decision allows families to continue distance learning, but the approximately 50 students who currently attend school from home would have to transfer to another teacher. The trustees also opted to hire an additional teacher if necessary, rather than make changes to Sisson's intervention program, which serves students in grades 4-8 with special needs of all kinds.

On Monday, district schools moved to a hybrid model which brings students on campus part time, two or three days a week. But many parents in the community have been pressuring trustees and administrators to open schools more fully, asserting that hybrid learning is not adequate.

During Wednesday's special meeting, conducted via Zoom, trustees were offered three scenarios to choose from, two of which would have moved teacher Liz Churchill out of the intervention program, called Bridges. Up until last year, Churchill was Sisson's music teacher, but she transferred to the Bridges program and has blossomed in that role, said teacher Cheryl Keiner.

During public comment, parents came out in force to support the Bridges program, saying it has done wonders for their children who struggle in traditional classrooms and they pleaded with trustees not to change it. 

On the other hand, parents who have been fighting for a "return to normal" said choosing a scenario because it keeps two teachers in the Bridges program rather than utilizing Churchill in eighth grade, where the classes are larger, puts the needs of Bridges' 18 students above hundreds of others.

Ultimately, the board opted to tweak one of the scenarios to allow in-person learning full time, five days a week, while also leaving Churchill in her current role, for this year only. This will likely mean an extra cost of about $22,000 to hire a new teacher.

"We did something really good tonight," said Gutierrez after the decision was made.

Trustee Nancy Swift, who casted a "no" vote along with Kay Scovill, said she was "not quite as joyful" as Gutierrez because she's concerned about distance learners and how the decision is going to "shift how school happens" for them. She said relationships are important and these students, who have been with the same teacher all year, may have a difficult time transitioning.

In a follow up phone call on Friday afternoon, Barnhart said March 8 is the target date to begin the expanded schedule, but "there may be circumstances beyond our control" that could delay its implementation.

He said the district is in the midst of hiring another teacher to help with the junior high classes, which are sizable. The district must ensure that students are, at minimum, four feet apart when inside classrooms, according to state guidelines.

"We're going for six feet ideally, but the minimum is four feet to keep everyone safe," Barnhart said.

Barnhart added that since Wednesday's meeting, teachers have been contacting the families of the 50 distance learners to find out if they'll continue with the online program, or return to classrooms.

"The numbers are trending down," Barnhart said. "It looks like quite a few families, rather than lose their students' current teacher, have decided to attend school in person."

Sports may be on the horizon, subs to be paid more

In other business, trustees authorized the hiring of Sisson athletic coaches, contingent on the board's approval of sports seasons and Siskiyou County moving from the state's most restrictive purple COVID-19 tier to the red tier, which would allow athletes to participate in conditioning and practices. Riccomini said in order to play competitve games with other schools, the county would need to be in the yellow tier, but he wants to have coaches in place to be prepared for whatever happens.

Riccomini said Sisson is tentatively planning to start intramurals on March 23, as long as the state's guidance allows for it. Coed track and field would tentatively begin on April 12. 

The decision was unanimous.

Also unanimous was a vote to temporarily increase the district's daily substitute rate from $120 to $150 for the remainder of the school year. In the meeting's agenda packet, Barnhart explained there are not many substitutes available and covering classes without them is difficult due to COVID-19 guidelines. 

The increase in pay may entice those who live elsewhere in the county to work in the district, Barnhart said. 

The financial impact would be less than $2,000 difference, Barnhart said in the packet, "but even this increase is less than what we budgeted for subs this year because we have used so few subs ... due to distance learning." 

Skye Kinkade is the editor of the Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers and the Siskiyou Daily News. She is a fourth generation Siskiyou County resident and has lived in Mount Shasta and Weed her entire life.