‘Difficult decision’: Nevada County schools set to reopen in classroom, online and hybrid of both
For schools in the 38 monitored counties across California, the decision to begin the academic year via distance education was not their own.
In Nevada County, however, administrators navigated charged waters in order to meet the needs of their student body and its supporters.
“If you’re not on the monitoring list and you meet the safety requirements, you get the green light,” said Nevada City School District Superintendent Monica Daugherty.
The green light might mean go, but it does not necessarily indicate which way.
Nevada City School District, which includes Deer Creek Elementary School and Seven Hills Middle School, will commence the 2020-21 school year Monday with an option for hybrid learning and another for purely distance education.
The hybrid model is geared to minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure by reducing the number of people on campus and keeping A/B — or a.m./p.m. — student cohorts separate, Daugherty said.
The approach was partly influenced by a district survey Daugherty conducted three weeks before the school year started.
“I waited to do the survey because opinions were changing and I wanted to get the most current pulse on my families,” Daugherty said.
Over half of the parents polled said they preferred a hybrid model, 30% wanted distance learning and 20% were undecided. Ultimately, 40% of the district’s families enrolled in distance education, Daugherty said.
Students will wear masks, respect physical distancing and “minimize sharing.”
Per reopening guidelines issued by California’s Department of Health in July, each campus must have a site protection plan which includes access to necessary protective equipment, safety signage in and out of the classroom and procedures for student drop-offs and pick-ups. The guidelines also state schools should be prepared to re-close if the transmission rate in their county increases.
Daugherty said although her survey results ran the gamut, the board of the Nevada City School District made the most of observable trends in need in short time.
“Families in the younger cohort wanted more frequent contact, so we changed our model last minute,” Daugherty said. “It was a really difficult decision because there are pros and cons on either side.”
Deer Creek Elementary School kindergarten teacher Vanessa Lackey said the foundation of kindergarten is “learning social skills and playing,” activities that posed particular challenges when replicated virtually.
Lackey expressed appreciation for technology and for the supportive parents who helped make the most of their child’s remote learning experience when the pandemic first began.
“Because it was in March back then, I already had relationships not only with the parents, but obviously with the kids, and so it was easier to teach them,” Lackey said. “This year, it was kind of like, ‘I don’t even know these kids. How am I going to teach them over a computer?’”
Lackey said she is grateful the county is healthy enough to open schools, if only temporarily, so she might cultivate the trust needed to teach remotely if necessary again.
“That’s the key, is building relationships,” Lackey said. “If you build relationships with these kids and they trust you, they’ll learn anything from you … instead of thinking ‘Who is this random lady talking to me?’”
Lackey said she is grateful for the hybrid model as not only a working parent of two, but as an essential worker as well.
“Distance education isn’t a choice for my child because she would be left alone,” Lackey said. “She will be going to school two days a week. Then, our district, which has been really awesome in supporting teachers, is offering child care, because we’re essential workers, for the other days I’m in the classroom.”
Lackey’s daughter, Marin, is entering fifth grade at Seven Hills Middle School. Marin said “it’s kinda weird” to be a student right now, but she is excited to see her friends face-to-face next week for the first time in months.
“I really missed them,” Marin Lackey said.
Medical professionals in the Nevada County Health Department and district superintendents in the region make up the task force Daugherty has leaned on to help create a comprehensive understanding of the cost-benefit of school’s reopening amidst the pandemic.
To simplify the mounting pressures on teachers in and out of the classroom, Daugherty said her district opted to designate one of the three teachers allocated to each grade level to distance education.
“It makes it easier for staff and it makes it easier for students,” Daugherty said.
IN THE CLASSROOM
While a report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows a 90% increase in pediatric cases of COVID-19 nationwide in a four-week period ending Aug. 6, two schools in the region have opted to reopen entirely in-person.
According to a Facebook video promoting enrollment — up by 30% this year — at Forest Lake Christian School, its academic year will commence in the classroom on Sept. 8.
Principal Richard Andujo said the impetus to provide an entirely in-person learning environment amidst a pandemic is not unlike neighboring schools in that it comes from parental demand.
“The students, the parents and the teachers are exhausted of Zoom meetings,” Andujo said in a video on the school’s Facebook page.
The school’s safety measures include cleaning surfaces throughout the day and hiring a professional janitorial service to deep clean overnight.
Another promotional post the school made July 8 reads: “Trust Jesus as much as people trust hand sanitizer.”
The Union couldn’t reach Forest Lake Christian School officials for comment.
The other campus opening its doors full-on is also small and religious. Prior to the pandemic, Mount St. Mary’s Academy boasted a 13:1 student-to-teacher ratio. Now the Catholic School will commence the 2020 school year on Monday, on campus, five days a week.
“One of the advantages we have here is our classroom size. Public school, obviously it varies, but it’s not uncommon to find a classroom of over 30 kids,” said Dave Pistone, a middle school math teacher at Mount St. Mary’s Academy.
Pistone said public schools might have been able to more realistically consider returning to school entirely in person if they had a higher teacher-student ratio. Pistone said the school is minimizing the risk by taking necessary safety precautions and maximizing the reward — a quality education.
“General consensus was that it was not very well done,” Pistone said. “Not to say that everyone did a bad job. Everyone was blind-sided by this.”
Pistone said the school is prepared to return to distance education if it needs to, but until then the academy will focus on offering quality education in-person to its students.
“If you look at feedback from parents, students, but probably more importantly looking at reports throughout the country and state about distance learning and the disadvantages to children, whether it be social, academic, mental, whatever it is, there’s definitely some risk there,” Pistone said. “The feeling was that there’s a lot of disadvantages and risks to children if they’re not in the classroom.”
“I would suspect throughout the state that there are parents who have to work and they have no option other than to leave their child at home,” Pistone said. “We felt the risks of staying home were higher than the risks of coming to school.”
Pistone said the school has set up thorough COVID-19 protocol. He said the age of the school — 160 years old — also gives it an advantage allowing for an in-person education.
“A lot of newer schools don’t have windows that open,” Pistone said.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer for The Union. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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