FORT BRAGG, 11/14/20 — With the reduction of COVID restrictions to the “red tier” in Mendocino County, the question of when students will return to the classrooms is being answered differently in each of the county’s public school districts. And unsurprisingly, the issue is sparking strong emotions and dividing parents all over the county. Teachers who have spoken out have mostly given a failing grade to the idea coming back to the classroom during the holidays.
The Ukiah Unified School District and Fort Bragg Unified School District boards met for a combined nine and a half hours Thursday night (via Zoom and YouTube) mostly talking over plans to reopen schools with a hybrid (mixed online and in person) model before Christmas. More than 100 people watched each meeting online and two dozen people provided comments in both Ukiah and Fort Bragg.
Local public schools were technically permitted to open last Thursday, pursuant to the state’s “tier” system — but none chose to open that early. Every school district in the county has a different plan and a different reopening date. Each district emphasized that all the plans depend entirely on what happens with the spread of COVID-19, in addition to the complexities of each school site and each district’s unique way of shuttling students between distance learning and campus learning.
As things stand today: Ukiah will open different grades on different dates beginning Dec. 7; Fort Bragg will be making a decision at their next school board meeting Tuesday, kicking off at 6 p.m.; the tiny rural district in Potter Valley has opted to begin classes for the youngest children this Monday, but start times for the other grades remain uncertain; Point Arena will be starting no earlier than Feb.; Round Valley will have optional pods beginning Nov. 30, followed by broader opening Jan. 4; Willits has no date but is leaning towards January; the rest of the county’s school districts either have no return to school date or are aiming for a date in January. Scroll down to see Anderson Valley, Town of Mendocino, Leggett, Laytonville, and Manchester.
Coren says no to in-person school board meetings — teachers oppose in-person class
The Ukiah and Fort Bragg districts both asked the county health officer whether school board meetings could once again be held in person. Dr. Coren advised both against this. Fort Bragg’s Superintendent Rebecca Walker said this is because COVID-19 spreads more easily from adult-to-adult — Walker is willing to hold in person board meetings with small numbers of people, while working with the board members and others remotely through an open laptop.
“If we are going to bring our kids back, I want to lead by example,” said Walker.
Parents who did not want students to return to campus can stick to distance learning, under the plans presented Thursday night in both districts — though teachers seemed mostly opposed coming back during the Holiday season.
“Although distance learning is not the most optimal learning environment, we have seen students establish routine, relationships, and structure during this time,” said a letter signed by more than 40 teachers in Fort Bragg.
“To begin in-person learning, within the next two weeks, would not only be disruptive but also not conducive of a secure and stable learning environment, which we know is in the best interest of students. Creating new norms, new relationships, and a new system of structure would require far more preparation and a more systematic approach, which we believe can be delivered with more time to prepare and without the onset of prolonged breaks that would only prove to be more disruptive.
“We understand that there are members of our student population that are vulnerable and need close contact with educators. We will continually strive to be proactive in establishing any support we can with these students,” the teachers wrote.
At the Zoom meetings, parents mostly wanted to get students back in class, although some agreed with teachers that doing so during the holidays would be too soon. Others opposed aspects of the specific plans presented, especially two hour blocks of campus time used in both districts, that working parents said would be too difficult for them to do.
“There is no valid reason that we should not open school at the earliest opportunity. The requested PPE, safety gear and safety protocols have been provided. The students and parents that chose in-person learning are ready to return. The state and county have given the green light,” said Fort Bragg parent Tina Rose.
“Of utmost importance is the mental health of the children; it is hanging in the balance. They are withering on the vine. I fear what the continued distance teaching will do. At this point it is not about teaching or learning, it is about saving the mental health of the children. Returning is not optional, it is necessary. Please weigh the dire needs of the children versus the ‘wants’[sic] of others when weighing this decision. The children should come first,” Rose commented.
Some parents said students must come for longer school days, not the shortened hours offered in the hybrid plans.
“I know you are at the hands of our health officer and I completely understand that, but we as parents, educators and administration have to be the voice for our children. If our community can allow our high school kids to work in our community then they should be allowed back in school. There is no difference in them working for hours vs. being in school for up to four hours. The exposure is the same. You just do it with all the safety precautions that are already in place,” said Fort Bragg parent Terrie Curti, who is also coach of the high school cheer squad.
Sarah Duckett, county public information officer, said the state allows schools to reopen after the county has been in the red tier for two weeks, which is how Thursday became the date that schools could open.
But everything depends on the rate of the spread of COVID-19.
“We are concerned we could go back to purple, we see a surge across the state and county. We haven’t been notified by the State of any changes to our tier at this time. Per the State, we would need two weeks in the purple for the State to move us back,” Duckett said.
Here are the specifics for each district
The Ukiah Unified School District is moving ahead with their own gradual reopening plan set to start on Dec. 7. No board vote was held in Ukiah, with the date for reopening set by Superintendent Debra Kubin, based on authorization to reopen given last summer by the board..
Ukiah trustees voted last July to start the school year with the hybrid model. Trustees faced far stronger and unified opposition from teachers and parents at the July meeting. Kubin explained that when the board met in July the county health officer was recommending the hybrid model. Cases of COVID-19 then shot up.
“Three days later the county health officer changed her recommendation to distance learning only,” Kubin said. The Ukiah meeting lasted until nearly 11:30 p.m, as the complex details of plans were spelled out and other matters dealt with. Ukiah schools now plan for a hybrid reopening on Dec. 7 of TK (transitional kindergarten) – first grade, special day classes, autism and community transition program students. The middle and high schools will continue to offer special learning pods. Students have been utilizing those small in person learning groups for as much as eight weeks. On Jan. 4, elementary grades through the 8th grade would reopen on a hybrid plan. On Jan. 19, Ukiah’s 9th – 12th grades would return.
Once again, COVID-19 cases are increasing just as the plans are being finalized. Kubin said she felt like she was “reliving July.”
“In order to reopen our schools on Dec. 7, we will need to be in the red tier. Unfortunately, Mendocino County is beginning to see increased COVID numbers, which may put us back to the purple tier. If we are in the purple tier when the state releases the updated county status on December 1, we will need to delay our reopening until sometime after winter break,” Kubin said.
The Fort Bragg Unified School District, which was considering a superintendent-recommended Nov. 30 start to phased hybrid reopening, voted to delay making a final decision until a special meeting Tuesday at 6 p.m, also to be held online.
The board wanted more time to consider the large volume of information presented, including a new recommendation letter from Dr. Andy Coren, Mendocino County’s public health officer, which arrived after the meeting had begun. That recommendation, now posted on the county website, details special rules for safety protocols. From the discussion, it was not clear whether a majority of the Fort Bragg Board would indeed support a Nov. 30 opening date or not.
Fort Bragg’s plans and dates won’t be finalized until Tuesday’s meeting, and could be affected by changes in the COVID-19 numbers.
The soonest a Mendocino County public school district plans to partly reopen is Monday, when the Potter Valley Community Unified School District plans to reopen kindergarten and first grade on the hybrid model. Those two cohorts of children will be coming back under a hybrid plan, said superintendent Holly McLaughlin. There is no return to school date for the rest of the students. That will be discussed at the next board meeting on Dec. 16.
The last projected reopening is Feb. 1 — at the earliest — in Point Arena.
Point Arena Joint Union High School and Arena School will wait at least until Feb. 1, said Warren Galletti, superintendent. Online classes resume after winter break Jan. 4. If three consecutive weeks go by with no new cases in the local community, there will be a meeting held the week of Jan. 25 to determine when hybrid classes might resume, with the earliest possible date being Feb. 1. “If we are going to err, it will be on the side of caution,” said Galletti.
The Round Valley Unified School District will return to the classroom Nov. 30 with optional student pods. Neither teachers nor parents and students are required to participate in the five-student tutorial pods, which can be in any grade level, said Superintendent Mike Gorman.
He said there are both teachers and students willing to participate. Round Valley will reopen to all students on a hybrid model for grades K – 2 on Jan. 4, with grades 3 – 5 returning on Jan. 19 and the middle and high school set to come back on Feb. 1.
“We are in a different community out here, where a lot of students don’t have access to the internet,” Gorman said. He said the hope is doing the pods through December will make it easier to ease into the hybrid model in January. “That way we won’t be going from zero to sixty right off the bat,” Gorman said.
The Willits Unified School District has no back to the classroom date, but it will likely be in January. “Currently Willits Unified School District is allowing students on campus to meet one on one with their teachers as needed, and providing direct services for our students with special needs,” said Superintendent Mark Westerburg. “After the holidays, in mid-January we will have data to determine if it is allowable to reopen,” he said in an announcement on the district website. Reopening will be discussed at a Nov. 18 school board meeting.
The Anderson Valley Unified School District has a tentative back to school date of Jan. 25 for a soft gradual reopening under a hybrid plan, but that will depend on a variety of factors, said Veronica Barragan, board of trustees secretary.
Town of Mendocino
In the Mendocino Unified School District, the board decided in October that the return to school would be no sooner than the start of the second semester, Jan. 25. Superintendent Jason Morse said that there was nothing concrete to release at this point. Some sort of hybrid plan would be used, with reopening committees at each school site involved.
Layonville Unified could go back to the classroom as soon as the start of the second semester on Jan. 19, but nothing has been finalized, said Shannon Ford, business manager.
A reopening proposal will be brought to the school board on Nov. 18 in the Leggett Valley Unified School District by superintendent Anthony Loumena. No date has yet been chosen for back to school.
Cindy Gonzalez, superintendent-principal at Manchester Union Elementary, said nothing had been decided about a date for back to the classroom. With three teachers and 42 students, the decision making process tries to be a collaborative one, she said.