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Navigating distance: Local school districts work to continue educating their students safely

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Since March, San Luis Obispo County school districts have been challenged to continue educating while keeping their students, staff, and community safe during the ever-changing nature of the global pandemic.

The largest hurdle for school administrators was understanding the guidance coming out of the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department, the California Department of Public Health, the California Department of Education, and the Centers for Disease Control and making decisions for their respective districts.

VIRTUAL LEARNING SLO County school districts follow state guidance to continue educating their students from a distance. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSOM MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jaysom Mellom
  • VIRTUAL LEARNING SLO County school districts follow state guidance to continue educating their students from a distance.

Lucia Mar Unified School District Superintendent Andy Stenson told New Times that the advice and guidance from the four entities hasn't always been consistent, but it's not their fault.

"They all work somewhat independently of each other at times, so it's hard to sort of coalesce the guidance and suggestions of those four and then turn it into our guidance," Stenson said.

In all fairness, he said, the local, state, and national impacts caused by the novel coronavirus change weekly or daily. On July 17, Gov. Gavin Newsom, in alignment with the California Department of Public Health, released his plan for when and how schools can reopen for in-person instruction for the 2020-21 school year.

Newsom's plan focuses on five areas. The first is whether a county is on the state's COVID-19 watchlist. The state public health department's guidance for schools in counties on the watchlist is that they can't physically open for in-person instruction until their county has come off the list for 14 consecutive days.

San Luis Obispo County is currently on the watchlist.

The plan also highlights guidance for face mask requirements, physical distancing between staff and students, health screening upon entering a school, staff undergoing periodic testing based on local disease trends, and a $5.3 billion state budget to support schools during this time.

Before the state's guidance, Lucia Mar had adopted a split-schedule plan for its 2020-21 academic year, which can't be carried out as long as the county maintains its spot on the watchlist.

The plan would have led to half of the student population entering their classes in the morning and the other half in the afternoon, allowing time for staff to sanitize and clean the classrooms before the next batch of students came in.

"The challenge for all staff, all students, and all parents has been, I think, we are all optimistic about being back full session, but it seems like every time we turn the corner our optimism is swept away with new information," Lucia Mar Superintendent Stenson said.

As a former teacher, Stenson said he acknowledges the struggle that teachers are facing with distance education and seeing their students through a computer screen.

In person, teachers and students can exchange energy, he said. The teacher gets energy from the enthusiasm of the class, and the class gains energy from the enthusiasm of the teacher. That energy exchange, Stenson said, is a little harder to pull off when it's screen to screen.

School districts have come a long way since March—when the virus started to have local impacts. On March 13, a Friday, school districts notified staff and students' guardians that classrooms would be closed the following Monday.

"Instead of a weekend to get ready for it, we've had a summer to get ready for it. And I will say that the source of optimism at this point is around structure," Stenson said.

For Lucia Mar that structure will be going back to the grading system and a regular bell schedule, virtually. Students will log on to their virtual classes starting at 8 a.m., have their second-period class at 10:10 a.m., and then their third-period class after lunch.

"The source for optimism now is the distance learning we're setting up now much more closely resembles normalcy than what we were able to pull off last spring," Stenson said.

Lucia Mar and Cayucos Elementary School District are both optimistic that when it's safe for students and staff, they can resume in-person learning. Both districts have adopted distance learning for the fall but have not committed to the program for the entirety of the school year in the event they get the opportunity to reopen physical classrooms.

Cayucos Superintendent Scott Smith said the feedback he's hearing from parents is divided between those who want in-person classes to resume and those who favor distance education. The parents who want in-person education, he said, tend to have kids who depend on services such as school-provided meals, being at school all day, and extracurricular activities.

Smith said the district can't set artificial dates at this time because it all boils down to the guidance the district is receiving and taking parents' needs into account.

"It's been challenging to be an administrator through this because the ground keeps shifting and the goalposts move," he said. "Every day is a wild adventure, and there are no days off anymore. The line between work and home has been blurred."

In the last 153 days, San Luis Obispo County Office of Education Superintendent James Brescia hasn't slept well.

Since March, the county superintendent has regularly met with local education agencies, private schools, and parochial schools to disseminate information, provide time for questions, and communicate with local legislators and public health officials.

Brescia said he's getting a lot of inquiries asking for direct guidance or information, but he can't always help.

"I don't have an MD behind my name. I can advise you on educational practices, policies, and the law. But as far as medical advice, we have to do our best to interpret what's coming from the medical professionals," he said.

The county Office of Education is a local representative of the Governor's Office and only becomes involved in daily governance and management if granted/assigned such responsibility by the state or a local governing board of trustees.

Parents are looking for clear information and understanding about what's coming, according to Lisa McCracken a local California State PTA member.

"We just got thrown into this all-around—parents and teachers," McCracken said.

Schools are getting information out to parents, she said, but at times it feels slow because everything is constantly changing.

"The information is there—I mean you're hearing it in the news and getting it in your email," she said. "But as a parent, you know, you need to advocate for your child and sometimes you shouldn't wait for the information to come to you." Δ

Reach New Times staff writers through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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