Top education stories of 2020: Schools adapt amid the pandemic |

Top education stories of 2020: Schools adapt amid the pandemic


A Bear River High School graduate poses with the poster board picture of himself placed in the audience of Bear River's graduation ceremony.
Elias Funez

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students, school staff, administrators, and families overcame unexpected challenges at the end of one academic year and beginning of another. Decisions on distance learning and variations on this instructional model became some of the most newsworthy stories in education this year.

There were also some bright spots, including Class of 2020 high school graduation ceremonies, modified to fit the circumstances but allowing local schools and families to celebrate their graduates amid a difficult year.

These are the Top 5 education stories of 2020:


Following the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the pandemic took hold in the U.S., Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Scott Lay announced March 19 that all schools in the county would start distance learning the following week.

“Actions of this nature are being implemented across the country in order to slow the virus’ spread so as not to overwhelm public health facilities and put our most vulnerable community members at greater risk,” read the release.

At the time, due to the coronavirus, California’s four-year universities, 114 community colleges, and nearly all K-12 schools had closed, impacting over 6 million students.

“We decided as a county we cannot wait,” said Lay. Some schools, he said, were ready to begin distance learning right away, while others would need a short preparation period.


On April 2, the second week since distance learning went into effect in Nevada County schools, state officials told local superintendents the modifications would remain in place for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year.


Western Nevada County high school student Ella Lock focuses on her science work earlier this year from the new student work space set up inside the main building at the Nevada County Fairgrounds.
Elias Funez

“Our work is really just beginning as administrators to try to figure this out,” said Lay, on the uncertainties which remained at the time — whether schools could reopen in the summer if the statewide stay-at-home order was lifted, how to proceed with graduation ceremonies, and ensuring students intending to attend universities in the fall would complete courses required to do so.


Bear River High School Principal Chris Roberts sent out a message May 3 that Ralph Lewis, Bear River basketball coach of over six years, had died.

“He was a valued member of the Bear River staff, as well as our community, and built strong relationships with students and staff alike,” wrote Roberts. “He will be dearly missed.”

Days before his death the 52-year-old Lewis wrote a message on his Ralph Lewis Basketball Academy Facebook page, providing an update of his health. While he said he had tested positive for COVID-19 less than a month before the post, he also said he tested negative for the virus more recently.

“He’d push us in a good way,” said Bradley Smith, a Bear River senior and varsity basketball player. “You always had something to learn from him. The best two years of basketball, my entire life, were under him.”


In May, one of the questions many in the community had in mind was how, if at all, the Class of 2020 would celebrate its graduation.

With the approval of local health officials, the Nevada Joint Union High School District held staggered ceremonies for its seniors, assigning each a time slot to arrive with their families and receive their diplomas, stopping only briefly in order to avoid crowds.

“Our seniors have been robbed of their rights of passage — graduating is a major milestone,” said district Superintendent Brett McFadden at the time, later adding, “This is still an opportunity for us to celebrate our graduates’ accomplishments.”


After a summer of debate over whether schools should reopen campuses fully for in-person instruction in the fall, return to fully remote instruction as in the early months of the pandemic, or organize a hybrid approach, Nevada County districts each made their own decision.

Some districts, including Nevada City School District and Union Hill School District, opened their campuses for a hybrid instructional format as the 2020-21 academic year began in August, and as of December have remained in that format.

Others, including Nevada Joint Union High School District and Grass Valley School District, began the new school year in a distance learning format and opened campuses for hybrid instruction in October and November, respectively. These two districts have since returned to distance learning, each citing concern for community health and safety.

Victoria Penate is a staff writer for The Union. She can be reached at

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