Visalia Unified board overwhelmingly approves for fifth and sixth grade students to return to in-person instruction on Feb. 22
VISALIA – Fifth and sixth graders in Visalia Unified are slated to return to in-person instruction this month for the first time in nearly a year.
On Feb. 9, the Visalia Unified School District board voted to reopen campus to fifth and sixth graders beginning Feb. 22. Superintendent Tamara Ravalin said the date would give teachers time to transition from on-line to in-person learning, the transportation and nutritional services departments time to prepare for the additional number of students riding the bus and taking home daily meals and hopefully enough time for the county’s daily new case rate to fall below 25 cases per 100,000 people, the threshold set by the governor for all elementary grades to return regardless of their status on the state’s color-coded, four-tier system. Tulare County is currently in the purple tier, the most restrictive of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy, with a case rate of 28.8 per 100,000 at the time of the vote. As of press time, the rate was standing at 26.6 per 100,000.
“We asked elementary principals to talk with teachers and most of them said their teachers want to go back,” Ravalin said. “They see their fifth and sixth grade students starting to check out a little bit.”
Alex Hofer, a fifth grade teacher at Denton Elementary, said her students are not just checking out, they are losing hope for a return to normalcy. During a recent Zoom class, Hofer said she asked her students “What is something that gives you hope?” Surprisingly, one student said it was the upcoming school board meeting because they might make a decision allowing her to come back to school. Hofer said the comment sparked excitement with the rest of the class and an engagement level Hofer had not seen for awhile.
“They continue to ask me when they will be back in class like the rest of the kids in their school and I don’t want them to lose hope,” Hofer said. “On behalf of students, please give them that assurance a return to class will happen.”
All elementary grades were eligible to open under the district’s school waiver approved by county and state health officials on Oct. 30. 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. Grades 3 to 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. The district did not allow third and fourth graders to return until Jan. 19. There are currently more than 6,000 students attending in-person classes between the return of transitional kindergarten (TK) through grade 4 are back, preschool and cohorts, groups of at-risk students, at every grade level.
Two parents of elementary students said they have noticed a huge difference between their younger children who have been allowed to return and their older children who remain on distance learning.
Amy Villegas said both her third and sixth graders were doing well academically prior to the start of this school year but steadily struggled as the pandemic languished through the fall semester. She said when her daughter returned to school on Jan. 19 she saw a “change overnight” in her student but her son continues to withdraw from school.
“My son, a sixth grader, he needs to come back,” Villegas said. “We have a waiver. I don’t understand why we’re still holding off.”
Ryan Sullivan said his third grader is happy after returning to school and his fifth grader is depressed. He said both of his children were struggling in the fall because they missed seeing their friends, were feeling cut off from the outside world and needed social interaction with people their own age.
“Regardless of what your personal happenings have been with this virus, you can’t utilize your experiences and apply them to a fifth grader,” he said. “We need to consider these effects on the kids and what it’s doing.”
Crestwood Elementary kindergarten teacher Raul Gonzalez, who has a master’s in multicultural and multilingual education, said the board’s decision was disappointing. He said the decision goes against the recommendations of the experts, county and state health officials, and only considers the students and not the teachers. He said infection rates are much higher in the Latino community, many of whom are teachers and classified staff within the district, and there is not currently enough vaccines to protect teachers who may be at a higher risk for COVID-19.
“This continues to be a pandemic that is greatly affecting my community,” Gonzalez said. “And while that may not be your experience, we need to take the experience of all of our community members when making decisions like this.”
Greg Price, president of Visalia Unified Teachers Association (VUTA), said he agreed most of the teachers want to return but not until they have been vaccinated. Piggybacking on the district’s initial reasoning for delaying the return of fifth and sixth graders, Price said no teachers or students in those grades should return without teachers being vaccinated because ages 11 to 17 make up nearly two-thirds (62%) of the cases among school-aged children on distance learning. The district has also 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.
“We need to put our resources to getting all staff vaccinated,” Price said.
Doses of the vaccine have been delayed across the country as pharmaceutical companies have been unable to keep up with the federal government’s aggressive timeline, creating frustration among states and their local jurisdictions. Ravalin said originally the district had thought all district employees were going to be vaccinated by mid-January.
“It’s a trickle coming in and we don’t know when everyone will be vaccinated,” Ravalin said.
Board member Megan Casebeer Soleno said she was concerned about teachers not being vaccinated but that she had to weigh those concerns with the social emotional well being of students and the difficult situation many parents have been put in, including women whose careers have been put on hold to stay home with their children.
“Each of us here has wrestled with decision we knew were going to have to make tonight,” Soleno said.
Later in the meeting, the board unanimously approved a resolution in support of expediting vaccinations for teachers and staff because a “substantial public purpose exists to request that Governor Newsom and state health officials prioritize … all public school district personnel.”
“This resolution shows teachers we are taking one more step to say that this is important,” board member Christopher Pope said, who noted many teachers had already been vaccinated on their own.
Pope joined six other board members in approving the return of fifth and sixth graders on Feb. 22. Jacqui Gaebe, Joy Naylor and John Crabtree all said they were “overwhelmingly” in support of reopening schools. Walta Gamoian said the emails and phone calls she has received from parents and staff are overwhelmingly in support of returning to school.
“Every fiber of my being is saying our kids need to be back,” Pope said.
The lone no vote was cast by board president Juan Guerrero who explained to the board and public he had recently lost a brother and a friend to COVID-19.
“I’m a little bit more cautious,” Guerrero said.