Fifth and sixth graders will remain on distance learning as studies show children ages 10 and older transmit disease at a higher rate than younger students; middle, high school bell schedule changes
VISALIA – Visalia Unified is moving forward with its staggered return to school next week when third and fourth graders begin returning to campus.
Superintendent Tamara Ravalin made the announcement in a Jan. 6 Community Alert issued to parents on the district’s website as well as through text messaging and voicemail. “The current plan is for third and fourth grade students whose parents selected in-person learning to receive distance learning instruction the week of January 11, 2021, and return to campus on January 19, 2021. Third and fourth grade students whose parents chose full distance learning will continue with full distance learning.” Students will not return on Monday, Jan. 18 in observance of the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Third and fourth grade students attending classes in person will receive take-home meals on campus beginning on Jan. 19. Until then, families can pick up their students’ meal packs at any middle or high school this Thursday, Jan. 14. Students on full distance learning will continue to pick up meals at any middle or high school every Thursday.
At the Jan. 12 school board meeting, which happened after press time, Ravalin’s presentation explained students ages 11-17 make up nearly two-thirds (62%) of the cases among school-aged children on distance learning, which is why the district is not letting fifth and sixth grade students return. Ravalin has repeatedly cited scientific studies showing pre-pubescent children spread the virus at a slower rate than those who have reached puberty, which generally happens between the ages of 10 and 12.
“All students in fifth and sixth grade will continue on distance learning until further notice,” Ravalin wrote. “VUSD administration continues to meet with leaders of the Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency to ensure the District is moving forward safely with the staggered reopening plans.”
Preschool through second grade students, who initially returned to school on Dec. 7, resumed in-person instruction on Jan. 11 following the three-week winter break. All elementary grades were eligible to open under the district’s school waiver approved by county and state health officials on Oct. 30. Grades 3-6 were initially scheduled to return to in-person instruction on Dec. 7 before district administration pushed the date back a week and then indefinitely on guidance from Tulare County Public Health after cases in the county began to spike to record levels following the Thanksgiving holiday.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced during a mid-year budget talk on Dec. 30 he was pushing to reopen schools statewide for TK-2 grade as early as Feb. 15 and grades 3-6 by March 15 while keeping the option for parents who want full time distance learning. Newsom again proposed a new matrix, casting aside the color coded system in favor of a new one setting 28 cases per 100,000 people as the new threshold for reopening elementary schools. Tulare County’s new case rate stood at 87 per 100,000 as of press time.
VUSD is not able to return to in-person learning for grades 7 to 12 until Tulare County moves to and remains in the red tier for two weeks. Tulare County would need to get to below 7 cases per 100,000 people for 14 days before being allowed to move into the red tier. Since Christmas, the county has toggled between 83 and 93 cases per 100,000 and has not seen case rates below 7 since May.
Middle and high school student cohorts, academically at-risk youth meeting in groups of 16 or less, that met previously resumed in-person instruction on Jan. 11. Monday also marked the first day of a new bell schedule for middle and high schools. Previously, seventh to 12th grade students were attending classes online in an A/B schedule, where teachers hold Zoom meetings with half of their class in the morning and the other half in the afternoon four days per week with a mid-week break where teachers hold office hours and students work independently unless they request help from their teacher.
Visalia Unified Teachers Association has voiced concerns since September that the schedule is unnecessarily difficult on both teachers and students. VUTA argued throughout the fall semester the split schedule required teachers to do twice the prep work but gave them half the time with each student.
“To better serve and support our students as we approach Spring Semester in January, teachers and administrators have partnered to create a full distance learning schedule that provides students more time with their teachers, up to seventy-five minutes per class period,” the district announced on Jan. 8.
The new schedule for middle school holds a zero period, or home room, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday from 7:20 to 8:10 a.m. for the entire class. First period will meet with the entire class four days per week while periods 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 will meet twice per week. Students will attend class via Zoom from 8:20 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. with a lunch break from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. and a teacher office hour from 11:55 a.m. to 12:55 p.m. Wednesday will remain an independent work day that includes an advisory period and time for tutoring and student support.
Similarly, high school students will have a zero period three days per week and attend each period twice per week with independent work and support on Wednesdays. Grades 9 to 12 will attend class from 9:05 a.m. to 2:55 p.m. with a lunch from 10:30 to 11:55 a.m. and a break from 1:20 to 1:30 p.m. Teachers will hold office hours four days per week from 8:20 to 9:05 a.m. and again from 2:55 to 3:30 p.m.
Administrators said the new schedule provides students with more time with teachers, less independent work time, more opportunities to get help during and after class. The district office also pointed out middle and high schools would return to the split A/B schedule when those campuses are allowed to reopen in order to maintain social distancing.