Keeping kids safe in the fall

Temp screenings, face masks, room dividers, individually wrapped meals are part of state mandates to reopen campuses in August

VISALIA – Visalia Unified won’t decide whether or not they are returning to classroom instruction for another month, but one thing is certain, students will experience school very differently than previous semesters.

On June 9, Superintendent Tamara Ravalin presented the Visalia Unified school board with an outline of the California Department of Public Health’s “Industry Guidance: Schools and School-Based Programs” and the California Department of Education’s “Stronger Together: A Guidebook for the Safe Reopening of California’s Public Schools.”

She said the district would have to go to great lengths to keep children six feet apart in the classroom, through the hallways and on the playground. When students, staff and teachers arrive at school each morning they will have to be scanned for symptoms and have their temperature taken. Staff who have a high temperature or respiratory symptoms will be sent home. Students who have symptoms such as fever or shortness of breath, will be sent to a separate health office/waiting room where they will wait to be picked up by their parents.

Cloth face coverings are strongly recommended for everyone on campus but face shields will be utilized by staff who need students to see their mouth move, such as K-2 teachers working on phonics or speech therapists.

As students enter the front office they will see staff separated by plexiglass shields or room dividers. Students will not be allowed to congregate with groups in the hallways before or between class. Once inside the class, desks will be spaced six feet apart and classrooms will be devoid of things that are not easily sanitized, such as stuffed animals, beanbags and pillows. The hallways will echo with the sound of children during classes as doors and windows will be open to allow outside air to ventilate. Lunch in the cafeteria will feature sneeze guards and students will not receive a “hot lunch” but rather individually packaged food. Throughout the day, custodial staff will be moving throughout the school cleaning doorknobs, restrooms and drinking fountains. 

Parents were unfazed by the post-apocalyptic picture of schools during a pandemic. Will Hobbs, a longtime coach and school volunteer, said he wasn’t worried about students being exposed to the virus because it doesn’t really affect those under the age of 24. As of press time, the Centers for Disease Control reported there have been a total of 137 COVID-related deaths in the United States since Feb. 1. 

“It’s more dangerous for students to drive in a car to school than to go to school and contract a virus,” Hobbs said. “I don’t know anyone who would affirm a stay-at-home model for instruction.”

Juliana Mathias said she was a single mother and did not have anyone to watch her child during the day. She said the hybrid model was a “disservice” to her, her children and their teachers, many of whom are single parents and working parents. 

Ravalin agreed that child care would be a huge concern for staff and parents whether or not students return to class because many parents have already returned to work or their workplaces may be opening in the coming weeks. 

Coughlin Moore, a 26-year education veterans, said he realized there were challenges to returning children to a traditional classroom this fall, but said “There is no substitute for class instruction” for both personal and socio-emotional growth. 

Ravalin said part of the state mandates include building time into the school day to debrief students and staff about how they are feeling.

“Teachers and schools had a large chunk of time to build a community before schools closed,” Ravalin said. “Starting off the school year and not having everyone together makes it a little difficult to do that.”

If Visalia schools do return to in-person instruction, Ravalin said there is the possibility schools may experience an outbreak of cases, forcing the district to close down some campuses. In fact, the Department of Public Health is mandating that schools develop a plan for repeat infections.

“We may have to shut down a classroom, a grade level, a wing of a school, an entire school or a grouping of schools in a part of town,” Ravalin said. “Outbreaks can happen and we might have to go in another direction.”

In addition to a return to a traditional school setting, Ravalin said the district is considering five other scenarios:

  • Full distance learning instruction model
  • Full distance learning with limited in-person supports at the school site
  • A hybrid model where some students are at school on a given day with limits and restrictions, and others are learning at home
  • A hybrid model where some student groups are at school and others are learning at home
  • Different models for elementary and secondary sites

The district will not make a decision for another five weeks, in order to receive and review thousands of surveys sent to parents and students in grades 5 and above. As of June 9, only 5,000 of the 35,000 surveys had been returned. The survey asks parents to rank their answers on a scale from 1-5 with 5 being the most comfortable and 1 the least comfortable regarding a full return to school, splitting the week between in classroom and online instruction, attending school every day for the half the day, or full-time distance learning.

Ravalin said the most likely scenario will be a hybrid model where some students are at school on a given day with limits and restrictions, and others are learning at home. She said any distance learning model will differ from the distance learning parents saw at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. The school district has catalogued 29,000 Chromebooks that are ready for check-out for the fall semester and they have already ordered 7,000 touchscreen models for use in grades K-1. The district has formed an Instructional Technology Integration Committee that is evaluating different learning management software systems. A dozen summer school teachers are piloting the use of Zoom Pro software to allow two-communication with students via video chat. The district is also setting up a support hotline for parents and students struggling with distance learning technologies.

“Moving forward, we will remain optimistic that the situation will improve in such a manner that will allow us to return to school in the fall; but we will continue to plan and prepare for the various scenarios that may occur, and we will continue to provide you with ongoing updates,” Ravalin wrote in a message to parents on June 11. “Our commitment remains to return to school in a safe and responsible manner.”

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