Despite 3-foot ruling by Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Visalia Unified students aren’t any closer to full-day instruction
VISALIA – With grades 7 to 12 returning to school last week, Tulare County is getting closer to normal, but schools aren’t quite ready to allow students, teachers and staff to get physically closer.
At its March 23 meeting, Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) addressed questions from the public over why more students couldn’t return to school given the Centers for Disease Control’s recent announcement social distancing requirements have been reduced from six feet apart to three feet.
Megan Cook, a mother of four VUSD students, said her children were excited to return to school but as a parent she realizes they are only attending half days four days a week, or about 40% of a traditional school week. She said the CDC’s reduction of social distancing guidelines makes a typical schedule more feasible for students, who will still be required to wear masks, and for teachers, many of whom have been vaccinated. She asked the board to consider a return to full-day instruction for students.
“An assignment that is only 40% complete is considered well below failing,” Cook said. “And we are failing in our efforts to provide adequate education for our children.”
Superintendent Tamara Ravalin told the board the new three-foot guideline is only recommended for areas with low to moderate risk of transmission but classrooms are still considered high risk due to the number of people inside a shared space. She said the rule could allow more students to return in some classes but not in others.
“We are not ready to spring into action and do anything quite yet,” Ravalin said. “We don’t want to throw a monkey wrench into that now.”
Shortening the distance between students and teachers would increase the likelihood of someone being exposed to COVID and the same rules for quarantine remain in effect. Contracts with unions were also negotiated on the grounds of 6 feet of social distancing, meaning adults on campus are required to be six feet apart even if students are not.
“Adults appear to be more infectious overall than children, making staff-to-staff transmission an important focus for safety efforts,” Ravalin read from the CDC’s update on March 20.
“The fact we might quarantine one classroom is going to harm potentially 599 other classrooms?” board member Jacqui Gaebe asked.
Gaebe also said not every student who wants to return to school can because of the hybrid schedule. Under the schedule, students either attend a morning session from about 8:20 to 11 a.m. or an afternoon session from about 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m., making it difficult for working parents to drop off and pick up within a few hours. She said she wanted to see more urgency in moving back to a full day of instruction.
“We have students that parents can’t get them there but they want to come back,” Gaebe said. “We should try to move on it as soon as possible.”
Ravalin said about 55% of the district’s students have returned to in-person learning, but that number varies from school to school.
“Fall has to be traditional,” board member Walta Gamoian said. “I cannot fathom an A/B schedule in the fall.”
Brittany Christenson, who led a recall effort of board member John Crabtree over citizen complaints, said she and other families want a return to full day instruction as soon as possible. She said the CDC’s recent announcement, Tulare County moving into the red tier, and millions in funding to change spaces or use alternative spaces help make that possible.
“It’s extremely disheartening to think how our students will be doing in the fall,” Christenson said. “Why isn’t VUSD expressing its intent for a full return in the fall.”
At this meeting, Crabtree was in complete agreement with Christenson. He said he wanted to get students back to school full time at least by the fall, but hopefully sooner.
“They have suffered far too long and I am impressed with how many parents have stepped up and willing to bring this fight at least to us,” Crabtree said. “They feel we are the only ones who can help them, but in reality this goes all the way up to Sacramento, and we are constantly dealing with them.”
Board member Joy Naylor asked if the district’s goal was still to return all students to a full schedule in fall. Ravalin said that has always been the goal, but the district must continue to offer full-time distancing learning for students in the fall under Assembly Bill 86. The bill was signed by the governor on March 5 and included billions for districts to reopen schools to in-person instruction, at least a hybrid model, by May 15 but also required districts to offer expanded learning opportunities, such as extended instructional time and support for credit deficient students as well as continuing to offer distance learning for those who still do not feel comfortable returning to school.
Ravalin said there are others hurdles to reopening full time, including transportation and nutrition. Currently campuses cannot accommodate enough social distancing for students to eat lunch on site. Currently school sites provide grab-n-go lunches when students leave campus for the day. Students are not allowed to eat on campus and must bring their own water bottles from home.
Megan Casebeer Soleno asked if administration might have an update on the three-foot distancing at the board’s April meeting after students return from spring break on April 6.
“There will be an update, but I can’t say it will be 100% solved by then,” Ravalin said.
The most socially inclusive news Ravalin provided to the board was that the district will be allowing up to 10 people per family to attend a walk-up graduation at VUSD stadiums. She said small groups students will be scheduled for specific time slots and can walk along the track up to the podium with their family for photo opportunities in front of displays along the way. She said the commencement ceremonies will be ticketed with the student’s name, time and date, and will be numbered by the district to ensure the 10-person limit.
“The tickets will be on thick, shiny silver paper and will act as a keepsake memento,” Ravalin said.
Board member Christopher Pope asked why the district couldn’t use more of the stadium seating and the field to allow for a more traditional ceremony but limit the number of family members to two or three. He said students on distance learning might not want to attend an in-person graduation at all, which could get the district closer to having all students and parents at a single ceremony.
“Students were very excited to bring up to 10 family members,” Ravalin said. “There are trade offs … and it might be hard for families to choose two or three instead of 10.”
The CDC’s ruling didn’t improve things for student musicians either.
Ravalin said band and chorus are still high-risk activities and are require to have 10 feet of space between them. As of March 12, the California Department of Public Health’s guidance for the use of brass and woodwind instruments was that they “continues to be specifically not advised…” but promised to provide expanded guidance for band and drumline in the coming weeks.
Parent Dorise Fiera said the last two weeks were “quite unbelievable” for VUSD band students who are constantly fighting to recapture the waning moments of their school year. Visual and performing arts (VAPA) programs have been hit especially hard by the pandemic as rules have prohibited band and choir from performing in groups and have tried to piece together online videos and live streamed performances without in-person practices.
Fiera said Tulare County Public Health had left the decision up to the districts and band parents had to fight them to allow them to have band, to reduce the distance from 30 feet to 10 feet and now to use personal protective equipment (PPE) already purchased for the band.
“All of those were long fought battles,” Fiera said. “Why is everything a battle for some kids? It’s time for VUSD to treat VAPA with the same respect other student groups have received.”
The PPE for band she is referring to are bell covers, a thin fabric that slips over where sound exits from brass and woodwinds where air is forced through the instrument. The cover prevent saliva droplets, where the virus lives, from leaving the instrument. Ravalin said there is no proof that bell covers work on instruments as there have only been preliminary studies on their effectiveness.
“What we do know is they become saturated with saliva, and saliva carries the COVID virus and becomes a bio-hazardous waste and requires special sanitation, gloves, disposals and things like that,” Ravalin said.
She said maintaining the 10 feet rule allows for more than 6 feet of spray from instruments so that bell covers would not be needed. VUSD Director Health Services Susie Skadan, a registered nurse, said there are instrumental masks with a slit for the mouth to blow into the instrument but they don’t stop the saliva from spraying from the instrument.
“It’s not proven to be effective and we don’t want to make something that might be more hazardous,” Skadan said.
When Board member John Crabtree asked how much spit comes out of a tuba during a performance, Skadan said she didn’t know.
“Probably nobody does,” Crabtree scoffed. “This whole things sounds so ridiculous to me. Give me a break!”