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August 9, 2020

PVUSD delays decision on school opening plan

WATSONVILLE—The Pajaro Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees on Wednesday unanimously voted to delay a decision on how to resume classes in August, to give district officials time to investigate all of their options.

Still undetermined is which risk level the district will use when allowing students to return. The board was set to approve a plan under the “medium-risk” category, in which all students would come back to campus on a limited basis. That was after Santa Cruz County Health Officer Gail Newel said she would not approve a plan in which distance learning was the only option.

Newel’s declaration preempted PVUSD’s previous “high-risk” plan—announced on June 17—in which students in transitional kindergarten through third grade would attend classes for two days per week, while most other students would only engage in distance learning.

But during the Wednesday meeting, the trustees questioned Newel’s decision, expressing concern that the growing number of Covid-19 cases nationwide and in California makes it too dangerous to open campuses to all students.

“This virus is changing everything,” said Trustee Jennifer Schacher. “There are a lot of questions here, so I find it very unethical that our Health Department is telling us that we can’t do distance learning. I can’t vote on something I don’t think we have all the facts on.”

Trustee Jennifer Holm agreed.

“This planning is so incredibly important,” she said. “I am very concerned with the spikes we’re seeing. I am worried that if we jump right to this ‘medium risk,’ what impacts does it have on our community?’’

Trustee Maria Orozco made a motion—which was seconded by Schacher—to appeal Newel’s order to the California Department of Public Health. The issue will return to the board during a special meeting on July 29.

“At the end of the day, the safety of our students takes priority,” Orozco said.

The district will also contact other school districts that are also mulling distance-only models, as a strength-in-numbers way to bolster the appeal to the state agency.

“We want to limit in-person instruction as much as possible,” Orozco said. 

If students do attend in-person classes for the fall semester, the return will not be easy. Students will be required to have their temperature taken before they board school busses, and again before they are allowed onto campus. Masks will be required, and students will have to stay six feet away from each other at all times.

Under the “medium-risk” model that was under consideration, Mondays would be a distance-learning day for all students, and smaller groups would attend classes for two half days and get a “grab-and-go” lunch before leaving for the day. They would engage in distance learning for the other days.

That plan would also require hiring more staff, which would further strain a budget already wracked by fallout from the coronavirus, PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez said. 

The discussion was driven in part by a survey of 4,473 students and their families, nearly 85 percent of whom said they want a model in which students return to the classroom. Only 15.5 percent said they wanted distance-only instruction.

“We value the feedback of everyone, absolutely,” Orozco said. “We’re all very concerned. Our number-one priority is to make sure we keep everyone safe.”

This is why, Orozco said, the district is mulling the K–12 Virtual Academy, in which students could spend the entire academic year in an independent study, all-distance learning option.

Dozens of parents, teachers, students and community members sent emails to the board, which were read publicly for more than two hours, stating in nearly equal measure the desire to keep kids at home during the school year and send them back to the classroom.

Parent Martha Uribe said she wants her child, who needs extra help, to go back to class. But she pointed out that Covid-19 cases began to increase in states that relaxed their restrictions.

“At this time I do not feel safe thinking my child is going back to school,” she said. 

Mark Drury said he was skeptical of plans to reopen campuses. 

“Social distancing will never happen on school campuses,” he said. “Why pretend? Until there is a vaccine or a safe treatment, there is no way to do this safely.”

Former PVUSD Trustee Leslie DeRose said she supports a hybrid model, but stressed that safety must remain a priority.

“Do not let the federal government bully you into making a decision that is not in the best interest of staff, teachers and students,” she said.

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