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Parental panic: Will Siskiyou County kids return to classrooms next month?

Skye Kinkade
Mount Shasta Herald
A Dunsmuir Elementary School student works on class assignments from home in April when the COVID-19 pandemic closed California schools. South Siskiyou County school districts are now hashing out plans to open for the 2020/21 school year in August, balancing safety with the need to get children back in classrooms.

Parents are beginning to panic. Unlike most years, when they’re thinking about school shopping so their children will be prepared to return to classrooms next month, they’re wondering if there will be classrooms at all.

Siskiyou County school officials are hard at work making difficult decisions. Should they welcome children back with COVID-19 safety precautions in place, continue online learning, or work out a hybrid that takes advantage of both?

Mount Shasta Union School District is erring on the side of caution. Students at Mount Shasta Elementary and Sisson will begin the year online, with potential for in-person “learning hubs.”

Although its board hasn’t taken official action, Weed Elementary School’s goal is to come back in August “as close to normal as (the county) will allow,” said new superintendent Jon Ray.

“What the community of Weed wants and needs is to have children in school,” said Ray. “Being open is critical ... I'm committed to doing whatever it takes to have face-to-face learning. It's my number one mission."

He added that WES, which has an enrollment of about 290 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, will offer an online learning option for families who don’t yet feel comfortable with face-to-face learning.

On Tuesday evening, at the culmination of a well-attended online meeting, MSUSD board members decided unanimously to approve a four-step matrix that outlines how its schools can return to pre-coronavirus operation. The matrix can be viewed online here.

To get all the way “back to normal,” there must be no new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Siskiyou County for 30 consecutive days. The last time this occurred was between April 10 and May 18, when the number of confirmed cases countywide stalled at five.

The matrix outlines four steps that will be moved through according to specific indicators. Step 1, which will be used if the COVID-19 pandemic worsens in Siskiyou County, is completely online with no face-to-face contact whatsoever. The second step – which is where students will begin when they return to school Aug. 24 – is online, with “learning hubs” for students with special needs, English learners, Title 1 students, and those struggling with distance learning. Step 3 is a hybrid option with students on campus half the time, and Step 4 is “back to normal.”

Specific criteria must be met to move forward through the steps, and the schools may also move back in the matrix if necessary, explained superintendent Barry Barnhart.

California school districts are able to create their own plans for reopening, as long as their county is not on the Governor’s “watch list.” Counties that develop high COVID-19 testing positivity rates or those that have a high percentage of COVID-19 patients who are in the Intensive Care Unit land on the list, and when that happens, restrictions kick in. One of those restrictions is that schools can’t teach in person.

Other south Siskiyou County schools are still working on their plans for the upcoming year and deciding when full time, face-to-face instruction will be possible.

Dunsmuir Elementary

Dunsmuir Union Elementary School will discuss the topic at their next staff meeting on Friday and their board will decide on a plan of attack when their trustees meet next month.

“We are looking at a hybrid learning plan, but depending on surveys and changing conditions, that (could) change to fully virtual,” said DES principal/superintendent Susan Keeler in an email to the newspaper Wednesday afternoon.

“We have our plan for what our school will look like when students do return to campus in regard to cleaning, face coverings and social distancing,” Keeler said. They’ve purchased five cloth face coverings per student so kids will have a fresh one daily. The used masks will be washed at the school on Fridays.

“Students will be responsible for having their own face covering for riding the bus, arriving at school, and going home,” said Keeler.

To facilitate distance learning, DES purchased enough devices for every student to be able to take them back and forth to school, Keeler added.

Butteville Elementary

The governing board of Butteville Elementary School in Edgewood is meeting Wednesday evening, July 22, with its reopening plan on the agenda as a discussion item.

McCloud Elementary

McCloud Elementary School is still working on their official plan, said principal/superintendent Shelley Cain, although they’re planning to begin the year with in-person instruction with safety protocols in place as recommended by the CDC and the Siskiyou County Public Health Department.

“We are fortunate that we only have 50 students which makes it easier for us to practice social distancing and provide masks,” Cain said in an email. “We will also have sneeze guards in place,” which are costly to purchase and install.

Cain said there is always the chance that something could change and derail their plans before Aug. 24, when school is set to begin.

“There are so many considerations to factor in to reopening and I’m grateful that being a very small school will be somewhat beneficial in this stressful situation,” said Cain.

Parents speak up in Mount Shasta

During Tuesday evening’s board meeting, which at times had more than 80 participants in the Google Meet forum, several MSUSD parents expressed concern that their children will suffer academically with online learning and a lack of face-to-face instruction.

Many parents said they don’t want to home school their children and feel unequipped to do so – particularly after a rocky end to the last school year, when the pandemic hit Siskiyou County and online learning was the only option. Those with multiple children in different grades worry they’ll be unable to provide support or appropriate internet access for their children, and those who work full time worry about where their children will go during the day.

The majority of parents who spoke at the meeting supported getting “back to normal” as quickly as possible.

Superintendent Barnhart said the district is making the safety of its students, teachers, staff, and students’ families its first priority.

“We don’t want to jump into a plan that we can’t maintain,” he said. “We’re focusing on safety ... and this is where the rubber meets the road.”

Some parents asked why the schools couldn’t begin the year at Step 3 of the matrix, which allows half of the student population to be on campus at any given time, with the balance of their work being done at home. Face coverings – either masks or face shields – will be required for all students and staff as part of Step 3, except during nap time for kindergarteners and while eating, snacking or during outdoor recess.

Once in Step 3, if one or more cases of COVID-19 are confirmed among the school community (children or adults in the immediate household), the schools would move back to Step 2, according to the matrix. And once Step 4 is achieved and full time, face-to-face learning is achieved, schools would slide back to the hybrid model of one or more students or staff is infected with COVID-19.

Barnhart said a few more things need to fall into place before the schools are ready for Step 3 – he’s still waiting on personal protective equipment from the Siskiyou County Office of Education, which will provide hand sanitizer, masks and gloves to the schools. Handwashing stations are also necessary before so many students can be on campus, he said.

MSUSD board member Kay Scovill lamented that the Siskiyou County Public Health Department is not providing more guidance for schools, nor information about where COVID-19 cases are being confirmed in the county. She said that information would be valuable to board members like herself, who are making tough, perhaps life and death decisions for members of her community.

Ultimately, board members Scovill, Mona Gutierrez, Nancy Swift, Robert Winston and John Duncan voted to approve the matrix as it was presented, and to begin the year on Step 2.