Brett W. McFadden: Seizing opportunities and coming back better
Despite a year of extraordinary challenges, I am proud to say that the Nevada Joint Union High School District is poised to come back better and stronger than before the pandemic hit. Here are a few examples why:
Nevada County was one of first counties in the nation to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to all its school personnel. At our recent vaccination clinics (hosted in partnership with Nevada County Superintendent of Schools office and Nevada County Public Health Department), over 75% of high school teachers and staff received the vaccine. Since then, that number has increased closer to perhaps 80% as personnel received shots at other venues.
With the vaccination of a majority of district staff, along with updated public health and school reopening guidelines, we believe we can safely bring back students into classrooms more often each week.
When classes resume April 5 after Spring Break, in-class education will transition from two days per week per cohort to a four-day per week hybrid model for all students who chose in-person instruction. We are eliminating student cohorts A and B. All students who previously opted for on-campus, in-person instruction will assume the new schedule of classes Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will continue to be asynchronous instruction with no students on campus.
Students who earlier chose Distance Education will remain in the Distance Education model.
All district health and safety protocols will remain in effect and continue to be strictly enforced. Everyone on campus, anyone attending activities, and students taking district transportation must continue to wear appropriate face coverings. Classroom seating will be adjusted in compliance with the latest state and federal spacing guidelines.
District indoor facilities are cleaned and disinfected twice each day; meticulous deep cleaning and disinfecting of school facilities occurs weekly.
Despite all these protocols and efforts, high school students are and may still test positive for COVID-19. We are excited to be headed in the right direction, but there is also apprehension. It is imperative that we continue to adhere to public health and safety directives. It only takes one or two instances of poor judgment to send us backward.
Recall that the March 12 junior varsity football game between Nevada Union and Bear River had to be canceled after several players tested positive for the coronavirus.
Despite that setback, sports programs are a bright spot in this challenging school year. After the state issued updated guidelines for high school athletics, on a dime we initiated all major athletic programs. We will conduct a year’s worth of athletic programs with modified competition schedules in just a four-month period.
Another silver lining of the pandemic has been the district’s realization that we can tackle problems that heretofore seemed overwhelming. As innocuous as it sounds, one of those challenges has been adopting and implementing a new bell schedule.
This has been a topic of on-again, off-again consideration for over 20 years. However, if NJUHSD is to ascend and truly be “California’s district of choice,” we cannot continue to operate on an outdated bell schedule from the 1980’s.
The current six-period schedule was popular among most high schools in the 80’s and 90’s. In 1998, the district convened a committee to evaluate and recommend a new bell schedule. Yet our students still attend the same six classes every day. It is time to take action.
While there is no perfect schedule, the district has researched and now recommends the 4×8 bell schedule. Instead of six, students take eight classes per semester. In the 4×8 model, students spend 30 minutes in all eight classes on Mondays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, students attend four 81-minute classes. On Wednesdays and Fridays, they attend their other four classes for 81 minutes apiece. The overall length of the school day does not change.
The district is advocating for the 4×8 bell schedule for three reasons.
First, we want to offer more course offerings such as expanded visual and performing arts, languages, and career technical education. A wider array of courses, including electives, will provide a more robust and comprehensive high school experience for all students. Students will have more options to learn and have increased opportunities to explore a variety of academic and hands-on learning. Ultimately, it will make them more competitive after they graduate and go on to careers and/or college.
Secondly, we want to embed academic intervention in the schedule to assist students who are struggling. This is especially important in the wake of the dramatic learning loss experienced during the pandemic.
Finally, we want to establish a common bell schedule among the majority of district high schools.
NU and BR now have significantly different bell schedules. Class periods among our high schools should be aligned so students can take advantage of dual enrollment or special programs at a different school or off campus. For example, students will need to be on the same schedule to participate in agricultural courses at the district’s new ranch or building / construction trades program at Silver Springs High School.
Yes, there are additional costs associated with a bell schedule change, up to $600,000 annually to fund additional course sections, staff, and classroom materials.
Fortunately, school districts are about to receive an influx of state and federal dollars to address pandemic learning loss and increase instructional services. The district plans to use this one-time infusion of monies to bring about sustained structural and cultural change. The money will fund costs associated with the new bell schedule for two years. The district will then make budgetary changes to carry those changes forward.
District officials are working with the Nevada Union High School Teachers’ Association, which is expected to schedule a vote on the proposed bell schedule in the next few weeks. To become a reality, the new schedule must be approved by 66% of certificated teachers. It’s a big ask. In exchange for teaching six sections instead of five, teachers will be allocated additional prep time.
More and longer classes enable deep dives into subject matter, facilitate group exercises and lab work, and create more opportunities for teacher and student interaction.
Despite significant challenges, NJUHSD fared better than most school districts during the pandemic. This was in large measure due to our dedicated and passionate teachers, staff and administrators. We learned to pivot fast, and find opportunities in the midst of great challenge. Hope is on the horizon. There has been a positive change in students’ and families’ attitudes and morale. We are once again seeing that familiar energy and joy on our campuses.
We wish our students, families, staff, and broader community a successful conclusion to what has been a very difficult and challenging 2020-21 school year. We thank you for your continued patience and support.
We’re not going back to normal.
We’re seizing opportunities and coming back better.
Nevada Joint Union High School District Superintendent Brett W. McFadden writes a monthly column for The Union. He has more than 29 years of education leadership and policy experience statewide. Freelance writer Lorraine Jewett contributed to this column.
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