More than 67,000 students will return to school next month in the Elk Grove Unified School District (EGUSD).

Their parents will face the choices of either keeping them at home to take online classes, or to have them attend class at their campus only a few days a week and continue their classes online when they’re off-campus.

The district’s 67 campuses have been closed since March 7 after the relatives of a few students tested positive for COVID-19. Elk Grove Unified was one of California’s earliest school districts to close all of their schools in response to COVID-19 exposure. Their schools then finished the rest of the 2019-20 school year by remaining at home and “distance learning” or taking online classes until late May.

There are now plans to offer a “transitional” education model in the new school year, which combines in-person learning at school and online learning at home. This measure is designed to practice social distancing at campuses where desks will be placed six feet apart and no more than 20 people will be in a classroom. Students and staff would also be required to wear face coverings if they cannot stay more than six feet apart.

EGUSD staff members presented this hybrid model to the district’s school board during their online meeting on June 30.

Superintendent Christopher Hoffman told the trustees about work ahead for schools this summer.

“We have theories about what (the education plan) would look like with social distancing,” he said. “We need to be able to test our systems and make sure they work.”

Current plans are to have elementary school students on tracks B, C, and D begin their new school year on Aug. 3, while the district’s remaining elementary students will start on Aug. 24. Middle and high school students will start school on Aug. 13. 

Hoffman warned the school board that Sacramento County’s public health services must have adequate COVID-19 testing and contact tracing in place in order for Elk Grove Unified’s education plan to be successful.

He noted the district’s experience in March when COVID-19 testing was scarce in Sacramento County.

“If we’re back to where we were in March and we can’t test or we can’t contact trace, then whatever system we put into place isn’t going to work,” the superintendent said. “We have to put pressure on our medical partners to be able to test, and be able to test quickly.”

The district’s options for parents

At the center of Elk Grove Unified’s education plan is the transitional model that aims to bring as many students back to their campuses, as allowed under public health guidelines.

“Bringing everyone back to school at this time simply isn’t possible under the current health conditions, and in adhering to the health guidelines,” said Mark Cerutti, the district’s deputy superintendent of education services and schools.

Of the district staff’s options presented to the board, a plan for returning students to school full-time for all five weekdays was not included.

Instead of having all students at their campus on the same day, the district plans to instead organize students into “cohorts” and have each group only attend school at certain times.

One example given by the district staff is that one cohort at an elementary school would attend class two mornings a week and then engage in online learning with their teachers on afternoons and Mondays.

As for middle and high school students, they could have a staggered “4x4 block” system where they would attend school four mornings a week and then have online classes or independent learning with their teachers on afternoons. Mondays would be dedicated to online classes or independent leaning with teachers, the district staff presented. This model intends to reduce the student population by half on school days and to keep cohorts isolated.

Another district plan is the “six period plan” for secondary education students, which would to have a student cohort attend school twice a week in addition to two days of online learning per week, and then spend Mondays to have either online education, independent study or academic intervention from teachers.

Tami Elmatari, a health services coordinator for Elk Grove Unified, told the school board about the district’s plans for addressing a situation where a student or a school employee tests positive for COVID-19.

She presented three scenarios, ranging from “low risk” where an infected person briefly visits a campus, to “high risk” situation where a campus could be closed for a few days of cleaning and county health investigating if several infected students and employees remain at the school for a long time.

Elmatari said that students will be asked to wash their hands before they enter or exit a classroom if it has a sink, or they will be provided hand sanitizer.

Parents who prefer to not send their children to school will have a few options. They can arrange to have their children stay home and take online classes throughout the school year. Parents can also enroll them in an independent study program via Las Flores High School or the Elk Grove Virtual Academy that serves students in grades K-8.

Middle and high school students can also enroll in Elk Grove Charter School where they can have classroom learning as well as individualized study plans.

Education plan draws divided opinions

The school board’s meeting lasted eight hours and ended in the early morning of July 1. They spent much of that time listening to more than 200 comments submitted by parents, teachers, and other community members who were sharply divided on the proposed “transitional” model and the alternatives of online learning. Each comment was read out loud by a district staff member.

Many parents were concerned about the burdens of working while also taking their children home during short school days and making sure they are taking their online classes at home.

The school board earlier heard protests from parents over the online classes that were given after the campus shutdown this spring. They raised issues over a lack of teacher interaction with students and the challenge of helping their students with their online schoolwork while also dealing with their full-time jobs.

On June 30, parent Lisa McClintock told trustees that the transitional plan’s weekly eight hours of classroom instruction is not enough for a quality education.

“Two half-days will not provide the quality instruction (my child) needs or deserves,” she said. “As a working parent who has been expected to be back full-time since the beginning of May, transportation for a half-day instruction is nearly impossible.”

Another parent argued that the transitional model favors households that have one working parent and one stay-at-home parent.

On June 30, the school board heard from parents and teachers who urged them to keep the schools closed and to continue offering online classes only. They said that the health risks are too great for in-person learning at campuses.

Zach Manzanetti, an English teacher at Franklin High School, said that the transitional plan does not protect school staff and students from COVID-19 exposure, and said that the in-person time with students is insufficient.

“It’s all but certain there will be an outbreak at school and school will be shut down at least for some time and will return to distance (learning) only,” he said. “This plan can only be temporary and puts thousands at risk and inevitably leads to more people becoming sick and dying.”

One parent who did not identify his or herself noted the 70 COVID-related deaths of teachers and school staff in New York City that occurred this spring.

“Which 70 employees are you willing to sacrifice? These are people, not numbers – people who loved their lives,” the parent said. “There’s no reason to believe that schools in the EGUSD would be affected any differently.”

The Elk Grove school board’s trustees did not vote on the district’s education plan that night; they instead shared their responses. Opinions were mixed – a few favored the hybrid model while others criticized the plan as flawed.

Trustee Tony Perez argued that it’s unsafe for campuses to reopen during the pandemic.

“Our number one job is the health and safety of our students and staff,” he said. “Now we want to let our students back in the classrooms and the community spread (of COVID-19).”

Trustee Carmine Forcina has been an outspoken proponent of returning students to school full-time. Forcina argued that the district staff’s process of creating an education plan was not inclusive of all stakeholders. He said the message was clear from hundreds of parents and teachers who communicated with him.

“(They) overwhelmingly say they have not been heard and they want a full return to school," he said.

The trustee mentioned that he submitted 29 questions to the district staff about the education plan and were not answered before the June 30 school board meeting.

Forcina also stated that the transitional plan will be burdensome for many parents.

“What about parents who scramble to meet childcare, especially low-income parents who will undoubtedly leave children at home?” he said. “The most vulnerable will have the most to lose.”

In contrast, a few trustees leaned in favor of the transitional education plan.

“I feel that the transitional plan has a lot of flexibility to it, it’s certainly not etched in stone, we’re working on it every day,” Trustee Chet Madison said. “Tomorrow, we can wake up and something drastic can happen – maybe we might not even open up school again.”

Trustee Bobbie Singh-Allen said that the transitional model is the “responsible” choice. “We do have to get our kids back in school but we have to do it in a thoughtful and a methodical way,” she said.

Singh-Allen mentioned a survey of teachers represented by the Elk Grove Education Association and noted that 63% of them preferred the transitional model.

Rick Stancil, the president of the Elk Grove Education Association, could not be reached for comment, as of press time.

As part of the district’s new education plan, schools will spend July engaged in tasks such as creating student schedules, refining operational plans, and communicating with parents about the new school system. The district staff is still negotiating agreements with the labor organizations that represent Elk Grove Unified employees.

Near end of the board meeting, Perez remained skeptical that it was safe enough for campuses to reopen. Hoffman then spoke about the uncertain future ahead for Elk Grove Unified during the unpredictable COVID-19 pandemic. He stressed that the district still needs to be prepared with a plan to return students to school.

“I can’t tell you what’s going to be in place a month from now, but at some point we have to be ready to do a transitional model,” the superintendent told Perez. “It could be Aug. 3 when the transitional model goes into place; it could be Nov. 1 – I can’t predict that right now, but we have to build a plan and we have to be ready.”

The Elk Grove school board’s next meeting will be held online at 6 p.m. on July 21. This session can be viewed by visiting their district’s website, www.EGUSD.net.