Tulare County school districts announce reopening plans

Woodlake Unified plans to return to daily, in-person instruction; most districts will have students split time between on-campus and online instruction

WOODLAKE – If any district was built for online learning, it’s Woodlake Unified. They have a device for every child, free district-wide Wi-Fi for all students from those devices and they have the smallest enrollment of any unified district in Tulare County, with the exception of Alpaugh. Yet, Woodlake became one of the only school districts to plan for a daily return to in-person instruction. At its July 8 meeting, the school board gave Superintendent Laura Gonzalez full authority to impelement the plan, or a variation of the plan. The district will not make a final decision until July 29 but is leaning toward students being on campus five days per week.

“What we learned, is that it is difficult, especially in the lower grades, to do distance learning,” Superintendent Laura Gonzalez said. “All virtual learning scenarios require parents to do their part. It is not truly independent.”

Gonzalez said the shift to online learning was a steep curve for students in pre-K through third grade. She said many of their parents are farm laborers who were not home during the day and may be too tired to help their children with homework once they return home. Young students had trouble navigating Google Docs for assignments and paper packets were insufficient for first-time instruction. While children may be familiar with a computer at that age, their parents might not be, leaving teachers to communicate with parents through apps. Most 5- and 6-year-olds don’t have a cell phone without their parent, and that phone is with the parent at their workplace or being used by the parent for work at home.

“It’s also a lot of screen time for young kids which most of us agree is not a good thing,” Gonzalez said.

Instruction in reading and writing has to be a lesson that is taught in-person rather than by navigating through software. Similarly, the districts high school students may be trying to work through more complicated math that, even if their parents were home, wouldn’t be much help with trigonometry.

“There is a point where it is too complicated for parents to help,” Gonzalez said. “I have experienced that myself.”

Space and time are working against schools attempting to return to daily attendance. At its K-2 school, Woodlake has eliminated carpet space for “rug time” to spread out tables and chairs across a larger area. The school is taking its intervention teachers, such as reading specialists, who did not have their own classroom, and assigning them a classroom to lower class sizes. Instead of having 23 students in a classroom, there will be 20 or less.

“All of these teachers have credentials and many have taught in the classroom before,” she said. “We will do everything we can to keep people employed.”

In grades 6 to 12, where students are larger and have larger desk spaces, WUSD will not allow personal belongings in the classroom and remove sparsely used furniture to make room. Gonzalez said the district is analyzing what single subject credentials their middle and high school teachers have to see if they can be assigned their own classrooms to lower class sizes.

Another wrinkle in the jostling of positions is child care, not just for parents but for teachers. Like most districts, WUSD had many teachers who live in other communities and whose children attend school in other districts. With Woodlake being one of the few to return to five day per week instruction in the classroom, the district will have to consider the variations of hybrid models where their teachers’ students attend school.

“Districts in Tulare County are all over the map,” Gonzalez said. “Now we are turning our attention to how can we help teachers with young kids? Maybe pop up child cares open up.”

Maintaining daily learning will require changes to transportation as well. In order to maintain social distancing, WUSD school buses will only be able to transport a third of their capacity. The district has increased the distance for students to be eligible to take the bus. Students in grades 6 to 12 living within two miles of the middle and high school are not eligible to use the school bus.

The exception is for grades K to 5 where kindergarten to third grade students living within three-fourths of a mile from their school will walk, fourth to fifth grade students saw their distance decrease from a mile to three-fourths of a mile.

“It’s not going to be ‘normal’, like it was,” Gonzalez said. “We are encouraging parents to drop off and pick up their students as much as possible. There is no way to pack those buses in the same way we used to.”

Parents will also need to take on larger roles in transportation. Gonzalez said bus drivers will be instructed to not pick up any students that are sick, but they are also not allowed to leave a child unattended at a bus stop. If that happens, the bus driver will contact the school, who will contact the parent and the bus will wait for the parent to pick up the child before departing.

bus stop. Likewise, children who begin coughing or sneezing during the school day will immediately be quarantined and required to be picked up by parents immediately.

“The partnership with parents is going to be critical for all of us,” Gonzalez said.

Farmersville Unified

Farmersville Unified was one of the first districts to approve its reopening plan and will go with a hybrid model. On June 22, the school board approved the district task force recommendation for a hybrid schedule with students going to campus four days per week for grades pre-K to 3 and high needs students and two days per week for grades 4 to 12. Junior high and high school students will be split into an A group (periods 1, 3, 5) and a B group (periods 2, 4, 6). The days students are learning at home will focus on review and practice of lessons taught in class and intervention support for struggling students.

Superintendent Paul Sevillano said the district will be shifting intervention teachers, certificated teachers who work with small groups of students struggling in subject areas, to classroom teachers for grades pre-K to 3 to help reduce class sizes.

FUSD will be bolstered by two “tremendous” donations from the California Department of Education (CDE). Farmersville was one of the first districts in the state to receive devices through CDE’s initiative to close the digital divide. According to a June 26 EdSource article, FUSD only had 1,300 devices for 2,500 students before the first donation doubled that with 1,500 Chromebooks worth an estimated $375,000. The second donation from T-mobile was for 200 Wi-Fi hotspots for students without internet access, worth an estimated $40,000. The district also spent $34,000 for two years of free, unlimited internet access.

Sevillano said 80% of students had access to a device but 30% had no internet service. A little less than two-thirds of Farmersville’s students were able to participate in distance learning while the rest turned in paper packets and printed assignments. By identifying which households have multiple students, Sevillano said the district should be able to provide internet access for almost all of its students.

“We are targeting families with three or more students in a household and we have many of those in or district,” Sevillano said.

The devices not only mean every student will have access to distance learning, but students will also have access to social-emotional support during the school years, especially if they have underlying health conditions that put them at risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Exeter Unified

Exeter Unified will be among the first to go back to school for this fall on Aug. 6. The district solidified its reopening plan on July 8 when the school board unanimously approved the fall schedule via a Zoom meeting with more than 100 parents and community members in attendance.

The tiered scheduled involves giving students who need the most face time (elementary and alternative education) the option of attending school every day and having middle and high school students attend two days per week. Students in grades TK to 2 will attend school from 8 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. every day and grades 3 to 5 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. every day. Students at the district’s continuation high school and community day school can attend from 8 a.m. to noon every day. Students in grades 6 to 12 will attend school two days per week and learn from home the other three. Those grades will be split into two groups attending school on either Tuesday-Wednesday or Thursday-Friday to avoid Monday holidays. Every student in every grade level will have the option to do distance learning only for the semester.

Superintendent George Eddy said he is still unsure how the schedule will change to accommodate career and technical education, music and agriculture classes how it could be modified to support students who are foster children, special needs or English learners.

In a July 9 message to parents, Eddy said the district still has much to consider including special education, avoiding large groups and mixing students in common areas, transportation, reducing congestion in offices, limiting non-essential visitors, training staff on maintaining social distancing, and improve ways to increase hand washing and other hygiene practices, especially for students. Eddy said parents can expect another district-wide message on July 23 with more detailed information on reopening plans.

Porterville Unified

Porterville Unified is giving parents the choice of either on-campus or online instruction. Superintendent Nate Nelson announced on Monday the district had sent parents a questionnaire to indicate if their student would be returning to class or distance learning.

“We recognize this decision is very personal and everyone finds themselves in different circumstances with varying needs and challenges,” Nelson wrote to parents in an email. “While conditions have changed several times over the past couple of months and will continue to evolve up to the day school begins, we must build flexible plans using the best information we have available now, with the health and safety of everyone as the first priority.”

Their system will be a hybrid of a hybrid model, meaning that on-campus instruction will be offered five days per week with an early release schedule, just not right away. In a released statement, Nelson said the district will welcome students back in smaller groups on assigned days for the first several weeks. This period will allow the district to monitor and make the necessary adjustments to bring back as many students as possible every day.

“We understand this period of time will be a hardship for our working families and we thank you for your support during that time in our efforts to address items such as transportation, meals, and childcare while keeping our students and staff safe,” Nelson stated.

The district is also offering what it is calling a “comprehensive and rigorous” distance learning program. Students choosing to learn from home and their parents will be required to sign a learning contract that outlines the responsibilities and expectations of all parties to ensure students are successful in completing schoolwork from home.

Distance learning students may not be assigned to a teacher from their home school site but they will be provided a district laptop, Chromebook or iPad. Additionally, for those families in need, PUSD is currently in the midst of building its own wireless cell phone network that will provide home Internet access free of charge with the same content filtering and online protections used at school.

“The new school year will bring many challenges and our students will need all of us working together at our best to support them in their learning,” Nelson concluded.

Visalia Unified

The county’s largest school district may be the last to decide what its schedule will be when students begin the 2020-21 school year on Aug. 13. Last night at its July 14 meeting, the school board was set to review results of surveys asking students and staff which option it will choose for the fall semester. An initial survey of parents and students in grades 5 to 12 showed that 44% were in favor of returning to school full-time with safety measures while just 17% said they would prefer distance learning. The remaining 39% being unsure on which schedule worked best.

Superintendent Tamara Ravalin had all but ruled out a full return to in-person learning as well as a full shift to distance learning for all students. Instead, the board was considering one of three options for a hybrid schedule.

Option A included a quarter of students at each site attending school each day and learning from home the rest of the week. Teachers would be in the classroom with students for four days and use the fifth day to do intervention for students falling behind, either in person or via video conferencing on Zoom, which the district signed a use agreement with last month. Principals will also be reaching out to parents to gauge how distance learning is going, Ravalin said at the board’s June 23 meeting.

Option B had half of the students at each site attending school each day with teachers on campus two to three days per week, a day of intervention and a day of deep cleaning. Option C was similar but brought each student onto campus two days per week. Option D would have teachers in the classroom almost every day teaching two sessions per day. Different teachers would be teaching the distance learning. In other words, there would be three different groups of students, those in class that day, those at home that day and those that are home every day for personal or health reasons.

Dedi Somavia, assistant superintendent of human resources, said teachers with underlying health issues would be assigned to teach distance learning as much as possible. She said the district is working on plans for teachers to create video lessons and some teachers will record all of their in-class instruction for students to watch. If students are home sick, they can watch those recorded videos or join a the distance learning class that day.

Lindsay Unified

Lindsay Unified is one of the district’s best suited to accommodate distance learning. The district has spent the last 15 years building up its technology and its student body has been using online learning tools to support in-class lessons or advance past the teacher’s pace in an individualized learning environment. When schools initially closed in May, LUSD offered teachers the option to reaching out to students on at least six different video conferencing platforms. In May, the district reported that three-quarters of learners, Lindsay’s vernacular for students, chatted with a teacher via online video at twice per week.

The survey of nearly 1,000 students in May reported nearly two-thirds of learners spent at least three to four hours per day doing homework and almost three-quarters said they were achieving at least a moderate amount of learning from home. The majority of students said they were interested in the school work they do at home and are always trying to do better at school when they are at home.

Parents were equally impressed with distance learning this spring. A May survey of over 700 parents showed reported 91% were satisfied or very satisfied with the amount of instruction being offered, their child’s motivation to learn, quality of technology, and communication and support from teachers.

The district is considering allowing students and parents to choose if they will be in-person, at home or a combination of both. The board was expected to solidify its reopening plan and schedule on Monday night, July 13. The district did not return calls as of press time. Lindsay Unified’s fall semester begins on Aug. 13.

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