Parents call for VUSD reopening in the fall

Visalia Unified superintendent says district hopes to return to in-person learning but must also explore distance learning and hybrid options

VISALIA – Now that graduations are over, Visalia Unified and parents of students have turned their attention to the fall.

Superintendent Tamara Ravalin told school board members on May 26 that the district is considering several options for what a return to school will look like for the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. She said the goal is to resume in-person instruction district wide but said it is more likely that the district will have to begin school with a hybrid model where half of the class attends class two days per week and then shifts to the other half. Another possibility would be a system were parents can elect for distance learning options while those who want to attend can do so.

“We’re told we need to be thinking about a hybrid model right now,” she said.

Ravalin said in addition to a full return to classroom learning and continued distance learning for all, hybrid models could include half of the class attending school Monday and Tuesday, the other half attending Thursday and Friday with Wednesday serving as a teacher work day and a day for intense sanitization of the rooms. There was also discussion of having students whose families were uncomfortable with returning to class with other students opt out and elect to continue learning from home.

“In planning for these scenarios, we have many things to consider, such as avoiding large groups and mixing students in common areas, reducing congestion in offices and smaller spaces, limiting non-essential visitors, and teaching students and staff to maintain distance from others while increasing hand washing and hygiene practices,” Ravalin said.

Brittany Christenson, one of the founders of the Facebook page “Parents of Visalia Unified Students,” said 460 of the social media page’s 1,700 members took a survey about what they would like to see in the fall semester. She said 84% of those who responded said they wanted a full return to classroom learning with an option for those who wish to remain at home to continue distance learning. She suggested providing parents with a waiver to legally decline a return to the classroom.

“Students have been deprived of social emotional and mental growth opportunities that only a classroom can provide,” Christenson said. “They have been separated from their teachers and their peers for two and a half months. I have watched my usually outgoing, happy [child] become moody and frustrated. Learning at home can never be the same as learning from school.”

Other parents also asked for a full return to traditional classrooms. Rebecca Abbott said she was a parent of four VUSD students and one preschooler who were missing out on more than just instruction.

“Parents need to return to work and children need emotional, social and mental benefits that comes with interacting with teachers and classmates,” Abbott said. “All students deserve to be in classroom with a teacher if they choose to.”

She said if a full return was not possible due to state regulations, she would prefer a hybrid to distance learning only.

“If we have to do some form of distance learning again, please allow our talented teachers the opportunity to directly teach our children,” she said. “What we are doing now, it’s not working. They need to have answers, diagrams, modeling and teaching.”

Chris Crawford has three students at a Visalia Unified elementary school and said distant learning is not practical for working parents, especially once their workplace reopens, and isn’t working for students, especially young students who need more direction when it comes to assignments.

“A lot of online stuff doesn’t work for elementary kids,” Crawford said.

In almost every scenario barring a return to traditional classrooms, Ravalin said the district would be better prepared for distance learning in the fall. She said VUSD has finished cataloguing more than 27,000 Chromebooks and they will be available for checkout prior to the fall semester. She also said there has been a delay in VUSD’s effort to provide district-wide wifi to all students to use the Chromebooks at home due to manufacturing and shipping delays. If the wifi broadcasting equipment does not arrive in time, Ravalin said the district is prepared to purchase more hotspots that can be used at individual homes until the entire system is online.

“I have three normally peppy kids really struggled with online learning,” said Danielle Griffin, a VUSD teacher and mother of three children in elementary, middle and high schools within the district. “I’m getting extremely nervous about going to an online learning platform. I feel like my kids are being left behind.”

Griffin said working and teaching her own kids has been a difficult balance, and she can’t imagine how hard it must be for those who have no training or experience as a teacher. She also noted that there is not enough time over the summer for the district to get every household and every teacher in a district of 29,000 students and 3,200 staff members completely ready for a full semester of distance learning.

“A lot of parents are biding their time, to be good parents, good teachers and still work full time jobs,” Griffin said. “Consider what’s best for the students and what’s best is being in classroom with teachers.”

The school board spent most of its time addressing emails and phone calls into the meeting regarding graduation, but board President John Crabtree attempted to rein in the conversation to what was on the agenda.

“Please understand that board and staff are very sympathetic to all of the issues that you brought up today,” Crabtree said. “We want to make all these things happen as well but we want to do it in a healthy way.”

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