School reopening

Sean Mitchell of the EGUSD Parent Coalition speaks to the Feb. 2 protest rally outside the Elk Grove Unified School District headquarters.

More than 80 students and parents on Feb. 2 gathered outside the headquarters of the Elk Grove Unified School District (EGUSD) and called upon district officials to reopen their schools for in-person learning.

They chanted messages such as “schools are safe” and “distance learning is not working.” One demonstrator shouted to the crowd that if people can shop at a Walmart store, then students should be able to return to school.

The district’s 67 campuses have been closed for regular in-person instruction since last March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Elk Grove Unified’s 63,000 students have been taking online classes or other forms of distance learning since last spring.

Trinity Mitchell, a sixth grade student, told the rally about how internet connection problems and other technical issues have hindered her learning experience.

“If you’re just going to sit on a computer for six hours…how is that school?” she asked. “It sounds more like a job, but I’m not getting paid.”

Members of the EGUSD Parent Coalition, a nonprofit, organized the rally. Their speakers raised concerns about learning loss and mental health issues for students involved in distance learning.  

Sean Mitchell, an organizer of the coalition, recalled how teachers helped him escape homelessness when he was a high school student.

“I’m here for that other kid who was me,” he said about struggling students who need help.

Elk Grove Unified’s current reopening plan

The Elk Grove school district’s current plan is to reopen schools after Sacramento County advances to the less restrictive Red Tier 2 status under the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy plan. They would then wait for county public health officials to approve a waiver for them to reopen schools.  Several private Elk Grove schools received waivers to reopen last September when the county’s COVID-19 cases were declining.

Last October, the school board voted, 5-2, to adopt a “concurrent” learning model for schools when in-person instruction is allowed again.

Under this model, teachers would simultaneously instruct online students and in-person students in the classroom. Those who come to school would attend class twice a week and use laptop computers at their desks, and then continue their classes online at home.

This plan was approved by the labor organizations that represent the district’s employees.

Elk Grove Unified officials postponed their school reopening plan last November when Sacramento County’s COVID cases rose after Halloween.

As of Feb. 9, Purple Tier-status Sacramento County had a COVID-19 case rate of 19.2 new cases per 100,000 residents in a seven-day average, according to county public health data. That’s a decrease from the Feb. 4 case rate of 21.6 cases per 100,000 residents. The county reportedly had a test positivity rate of 7.2%.

In order for Sacramento County to advance to the Red Tier 2, the COVID case rate must be between four to seven cases per 100,000 residents and the test positivity rate has to be less than 8%.

During the school board’s Jan. 22 workshop, Elk Grove School Superintendent Christopher Hoffman was optimistic that the county could reach the Red Tier this spring when he noted the trend of declining COVID-19 cases.

“The worst of the pandemic from the third wave and the holidays appears to be over, and we’re heading in that direction,” he said.

When the Citizen told Mitchell about Hoffman’s comments, he replied that it’s a case of “Groundhog Day,” or a repeat of history.

“We’ve been here before to ‘flatten the curve,’ we’ve been here recently to stop the second surge,” he said. “Now it’s vaccines.”

Mitchell added that there is a credibility issue at hand with district officials.

“We don’t know if it’s just another carrot dangling or if it’s real information we can count on,” he said.

Following the rally, Mitchell said that his coalition will organize volunteers to assist schools across the district.

“We want to work alongside the district for a full reopening plan,” he said. “What are the benchmark and timeframes that allow that? And what are the inhibitors?”

The state last month released a new guideline that would allow elementary schools in Purple Tier 1 counties to reopen if their county has a case rate of less than 25 new COVID cases per 100,000 residents on a seven-day average. A district would have to wait until their local county moves to the Red Tier 2 before they can reopen their middle and high schools.

At the Feb. 2 protest rally, Erin Summers of the EGUSD Parent Coalition announced that Elk Grove Unified does not have to wait for Sacramento County to reach the red tier before opening schools.

School board not opting for full-time student return

The protest rally was held a few hours before the Elk Grove school board started their online meeting.

Trustee Carmine Forcina requested that the board schedule a discussion of forming a committee to create a new reopening plan. He said this plan would allow students to return fulltime to school while also having a distance learning option for parents who don’t want to return their children to campus.

The trustee also noted that the committee would include stakeholders such as parents and “rank-and-file” teachers who are not union representatives. He said that he represents a large number of constituents who feel left out of the planning process.

“Their voices have not been heard,” Forcina said. “They do feel that their children’s learning has suffered, they do feel that their social and emotional growth has been damaged.”

The Area 7 trustee has been an outspoken advocate of reopening schools in the past year and he criticized the district’s concurrent learning plan as “Zoom in a Room,” and argued that it’s not true in-person learning.

Forcina earlier proposed forming a school reopening committee at the board’s Jan. 12 meeting, but none of his colleagues seconded his motion for a vote. He then made a second attempt a few weeks later.

“If we sit around and wait until everything is perfect, the kids are never going to go to school again,” he said on Feb. 2. “If we wait for kids to get vaccinated, when there is not a vaccine for children, then we’re not going to go back to school for a long time.”

Gina Jamerson, the school board’s new trustee, seconded Forcina’s Feb. 2 motion and said that parents should be included in the school reopening matter. However, she later voted against the motion and explained she doesn’t want to change the district’s current reopening plan.

“I respect there is a plan that has already been created,” Jamerson said. “I don’t want us to go backward and stop (the district) from implementing a plan.”

The board rejected Forcina’s motion in a 4-3 vote. Trustees Tony Perez and Sean Yang voted alongside him.

Yang said that he wanted the district to have a backup plan for reopening schools in case that Sacramento County does not advance to the red tier.  

“I would like to see another alternative solution to what we have in place,” Yang said. “What if we never meet the tier we’re supposed to be? We just don’t know; it’s a guessing game.”

On the other side of the debate, Trustee Nancy Chaires Espinoza stressed that the district does have a reopening plan in place.

“We have a plan, we know what going back is going to look like, and all we’re waiting for is the trigger,” Espinoza said.

Board President Beth Albiani argued that the district should stay with their current reopening plan and their October agreement with labor organizations.

“I think that opening a negotiation and changing a plan that we have planned on for this long is a horrible idea,” she said.

After the board meeting, the EGUSD Parent Coalition announced they are committed to the goal  of returning students to in-person learning at their schools.

“Our utmost gratitude is with those school board members who have and continue to fight for parents and students to have a seat at the table,” the coalition said in a Feb. 4 press statement.