Brett W. McFadden: The high school district’s response to the coronavirus outbreak
Due to concerns over the spread and broader health effects associated with the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, almost 6 million California students are suddenly not attending school. Right now, all Nevada County school districts and charter schools have closed their campuses until April 13. The probability that these closures will be extended is all but certain.
The Nevada Joint Union High School district has long had in place emergency preparedness plans so we could react quickly and effectively when “normal” emergencies occurred. What we are experiencing with the coronavirus is well outside the scope of what we have heretofore considered “normal” emergencies that last a few days or even a week.
As I write this, all Nevada County school districts are quickly transitioning to various forms of “distance learning.” All school districts in the county are coordinating together during this state of emergency. Within the NJUHSD, students are accessing online coursework, interfacing with teachers online or over the phone, and/or picking up printed instructional packets.
Distance learning, while our best option at this time, is not a panacea. Prior to outbreak, NJUHSD was fortunately already a “one-to-one” district. A majority of the district’s students are provided take home laptop devices for all four years. Students that were not previously provided a device are quickly being assigned them so they can start distance learning. Nevertheless, we recognize the learning field is not entirely level; we estimate approximately 15 to 20% of our students do not have reliable internet at home.
For those students that are experiencing internet challenges, school staff will be available to provide hard-copy printed versions of their curriculum, texts and materials. Another option is for students to come near their campus (maintaining six-foot social distancing), connect to the school’s Wi-Fi and download assignments, lectures and other necessities, then complete schoolwork offline at home.
Unfortunately, face-to-face instructional time with teachers is prohibited. Teachers can offer tutoring assistance over the telephone and online. Special needs of students will have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
Our district will be understanding and flexible when it comes to evaluating schoolwork and assigning grades. We understand that distance learning cannot take the place of actual on-campus instruction and experiences. All students will promote to the next grade. We have initiated steps to design supplemental curriculum next year to fill in any gaps in learning during this fourth quarter of the 2019-2020 school year.
I want to express my deepest sympathies to our high school seniors. You have worked 13 years to reach this pinnacle of your education. The sudden outbreak of this virus is denying you final proms and other rites of passage that come with being graduating seniors. We will be working hard to explore ways and options to provide you and your families the opportunities you deserve to celebrate your educational accomplishments.
We will also continue to offer twice-weekly food distribution at our two major high schools: Nevada Union and Bear River. Each bag contains three to four days’ worth of breakfast and lunch meals per student. Each container has been sanitized and the food prepared following the strictest federal, state and local health guidelines.
Among our safety protocols: parents are asked to drive to their respective high school, remain in the car, accept their food delivery and quickly return to the safe shelter of their homes.
We realize students and their families count on these meals. By providing this reliable food source, families can direct money on housing and other pressing bills that they might otherwise have had to spend on food. The district has also reached out to various community organizations to explore how we can collaborate with each other to help distribute food and other necessities to families in need. We hope to announce some of these additional services over the next couple of weeks.
The NJUHSD is also protecting our staff. The majority of our staff is working from home or under reduced hours. Employees age 65 and older are asked to remain at home, because that age bracket is most at-risk for COVID-19. All staff members have been directed to stay home if they feel ill or worry they may have been exposed to the coronavirus.
This school year has been an inconceivable struggle, marked by a series of hurdles. We lost six instructional days due to snow, smoke and Public Safety Power Shut-offs. Now we face the most formidable threat yet.
However, I remain optimistic that our community will get through this and quickly get back to normal. The NJUHSD is proving we can be adaptable and flexible. We are making adjustments daily, and tackling moment-by-moment obstacles created by the coronavirus pandemic.
I conclude with an inspiration oft quoted these days: we will meet the moment and together, we will get through this. If there is anything we can do for your families and students at this time, please do not hesitate to contact us via our district office or website contacts listed below:
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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