Updated, July 15: The Elk Grove Unified School District (EGUSD) board will decide this early summer whether to reopen their district’s campuses in August.
Their district’s campuses have been closed since March 7 when district officials announced that some students were exposed to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Elk Grove Unified’s 67 schools then moved their classes online in mid-April and 64,000 students finished their 2019-20 school year in late May.
During their June 9 meeting, the school board approved their district’s revised 2020-21 school calendar, which will have all schools start their new school year in August. Year-round elementary schools on tracks B, C, and D will begin on Aug. 3, and the remaining elementary students will start on Aug. 24. Middle and high school students will begin their school year on Aug. 13.
The district staff is now piecing together an educational plan that will be presented to the school board on June 30.
Trustees could then decide if they want to reopen the campuses, keep the schools closed and continue “distance learning” via online classes, or have a combination of both options where students will only attend school on certain days in order to avoid crowding on campuses.
More than 135 people, including school administrators and representatives from school employee unions, are involved in the planning process.
“We are working on it diligently,” Mark Cerutti, the district’s deputy superintendent of education services and schools, told the school board during their online meeting on June 9. “Quite frankly, we don’t have all of the answers yet.”
During the week before the school board meeting, the Sacramento County Office of Education released safety guidelines for reopening campuses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recommendations include spacing desks to be six feet apart, having students and staff wear facing coverings, changing school schedules to reduce the number of students on campus, and not having close-contact sports such as football and basketball.
Decisions for social distancing practices will be up to the school districts.
“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to reopening schools across our 13 districts,” the county education office’s guide stated.
Mixed opinions shared on online learning, reopening schools
On June 9, the Elk Grove school board reviewed their district’s development process for the district’s 2020-21 education plan.
They first heard from more than 150 public comments that were submitted online to the board. The public interest was so great that the school board meeting reached its limit of 500 viewers when the meeting began.
Public opinions varied – some parents and students called upon the district to reopen campuses in August. Others requested the district to keep students learning at home during the pandemic or to allow students to sign waivers that enable them to stay home.
Many parents were critical of the online classes that the district held after their schools were shut down this spring. They cited challenges such as helping their children learn at home and their children’s loss of regularly interacting with their teachers and peers at school.
Parent Nina Calderon described her household as “World War 3” in her challenge of being a medical worker while making sure her children did their schoolwork.
“It’s unreasonable to think that the younger age groups can complete all of their assignments on their own,” she said in a comment that was read to the school board.
On the opposite end, one parent wanted the district to keep online learning as an option for students from families that have ongoing health issues.
Dr. Patricia Tansey, a local pediatrician with Sutter Health, said that she heard from many patients who attend EGUSD schools and experienced anxiety and depression after their schools were closed. She said they learned little from their online classes and their parents are not prepared to help teach them at home.
Tansey said that students should return to their schools full-time in the new school year.
“This is the only way to meet the disparity and inequality among the EGUSD population,”
she said. “Distance learning has magnified that inequality.”
During his presentation, Cerutti shared results from surveys that collected feedback from 12,900 students, 4,900 parents, and about 50% of the district’s teachers. They shared their views on the positive aspects and the challenges from the district’s online learning system.
The district staff reported that students said they had the benefits of self-paced learning and reduced pressure, but they also cited difficulties in staying focused, understanding assignments, and using online technology.
Surveyed parents said the online classes increased their engagement in their children’s learning and their children also gained new skills. However, parents also said there was a lack of direct instruction from teachers. “Parents needing to be teachers,” was another challenge listed in the district survey.
Also in the survey, teachers said they saw students succeed in distance learning, but they also had troubles in connecting with unresponsive students, determining how well students are learning, and keeping students motivated.
Trustee Bobbie Singh-Allen found the feedback from the district’s surveys to be “quite alarming.” She also expressed concerns over the impacts on students such as English language learners and foster youth.
“The reality is that we may not find a (COVID-19) vaccine for, who knows,” Singh-Allen said. “What if it’s a year or two years?…Are we going to continue this (distance learning) model?”
Her fellow trustee Carmine Forcina argued it is time to reopen the campuses. He mentioned the feedback that he heard from parents, teachers, and students.
“With all of those meetings and communications, the message was the same: we need to get back to school,” he said.
Forcina then criticized the district’s distance learning practices.
“In the opinions of many, many people – distance learning has been videos, self-teaching, and extended vacations,” he said. “That’s unacceptable.”
The trustee stressed that many students, such as special education students need to be in school in order to have daily contact with teachers.
A few trustees shared concerns about the uncertainties that remain over whether it’s safe to reopen campuses.
“If there is an outbreak in the community or a school, what do we do?” Trustee Tony Perez said. “(Do we) shutdown the classroom, the school, or the whole district?”
Trustee Chet Madison said that no education plan will be foolproof.
“We’re dealing with 64,000 students in this district and it’s an extreme challenge, and to say we’re going to have a perfect path – I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said.