The Elk Grove Unified School District (EGUSD) board on Oct. 28 reviewed a plan for returning more than 64,000 students to school if their campuses are allowed to reopen this late fall or early winter as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.  

This “concurrent” education plan aims to continue the students’ instruction in the current school year while also preventing the spread of COVID-19 on campuses.

Elk Grove Unified’s campuses have been closed since March and its students have been taking online classes or other forms of distance learning since then.

The new education plan is a hybrid of distance and in-person learning. Most students who choose to return to their campuses would only attend two days a week and then continue their classes online at home. Different education options will be offered to special education students. Parents still have the option of keeping their children at home and having them take online classes five days a week.

At school, students and staff will be required to wear face coverings at all times, desks will be placed six feet apart, and hand sanitizer dispensers will be installed. Rob Pierce, the district’s deputy superintendent of business services and facilities, said that the school district has a large inventory of disposable masks, hand sanitizers, and face shields for students and staff.

If a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, then the district staff will notify  Sacramento County health officials and work with their medical response.

Tami Elamatari, the district’s health services coordinator, said that potentially exposed students could be asked to self-quarantine at home and switch to full distance learning. She mentioned that the school district is working with county staff and Elk Grove city staff to open a community testing site in Elk Grove where people can be tested for free.

This concurrent education plan drew mixed opinions from the school board who voted 5-2 to approve their district’s labor agreement with the Elk Grove Education Association, which represents the district’s teachers. Trustees Carmine Forcina and Tony Perez voted against the deal since they opposed the new education plan.

One point of contention is that students who return to the classrooms would still use laptop computers on their desks to continue their online classes. District staff said this practice would allow teachers to simultaneously teach students in their classrooms as well as students who are at home in an online session.

Forcina, an outspoken proponent of returning students to school, said the “in-person” learning plan is a misnomer since students would still be focused on their computer screens.  

“The proposed education plan is not an in-person, interactive, and challenging education as we know it; instead what is being proposed is, according to one of my constituents, is ‘Zoom in the Room,’” he said, referring to the Zoom teleconferencing that’s popular for online classes.

A parent submitted an anonymous comment to the board and shared the same view.

“Thank you for keeping our children in the classroom, but I do not see how teaching a computer in the classroom counts as in-person teaching – you are merely moving the location of the students into the classroom,” the parent said.

Perez argued that it’s premature to return students to school during the COVID-19 pandemic, and said that it’s unacceptable to have a plan that’s less than perfect if there could be health dangers on campus. He said that students could still get infected at school and bring the virus home to their families.

“A doctor will not go into an emergency room if there are not 100% perfect conditions,” Perez said. “It’s the same thing we have to do in the classrooms; we have to be 100% positive that no students will get sick, no staff person gets sick. We will be responsible for those individuals if they get sick.”

Elk Grove School Superintendent Christopher Hoffman stressed that the education plan is not perfect.

“It’s going to be more challenging than what we’re currently doing for our staff,” he said. “We thought that distance learning wasn’t possible, but our folks made it possible. “Many folks think that the concurrent model isn’t possible, but we will support it and get it done.”

Trustee Bobbie Singh-Allen said that she heard from parents who are pleased with the distance learning practices, but she also heard about students who experienced lost learning and mental health challenges.

 “We want our children in the classrooms where they learn the best and thrive, and hopefully we’ll get there sooner than later,” she said.

Potential campus reopenings in December, January

The Elk Grove school district may start reopening their campuses two weeks after Sacramento County reaches the less restrictive orange-tier status under the state’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” plan.

For example, if the county goes orange in mid-November, then the Elk Grove school district’s elementary schools could reopen next month, followed by middle and high schools reopening in early January.

In the state’s Nov. 4 update, Sacramento County remains at the “substantial” red-tier status since there were too many new daily infection cases per 100,000 residents. The county reportedly had 7.8 new daily cases per 100,000 residents.  However, the county’s test positivity rate dropped to 3.4%, which runs in the orange-tier range.

The Elk Grove school district staff previously announced on Oct. 26 they could reopen elementary schools this month if the county reached the orange-tier status by Nov. 3. They soon changed their plans and they announced during their board presentation on Oct. 28 they pushed the potential reopening timeline for elementary schools to December.  

District spokesperson Xanthi Pinkerton told the Citizen that other factors in deciding the reopening of schools include the new academic term that begins in January and the schools’ preparedness for reopening.  

Purchases of classroom equipment approved for school reopenings

During their Oct. 28 meeting, the school board also approved purchases of electronic equipment for classrooms when students return to their campuses.

Purchases include $7 million for 4,000 laptop computers and 4,000 laptop docking stations for teachers, $520,000 for headsets for teachers to use while they simultaneously teach students online and in-person, and $6.3 million for buying 20,000 Chromebook laptops that will replace obsolete Chromebooks being used by students.

Shannon Hayes, the district’s chief financial officer, told the school board that the purchases will be covered by the district’s CARES Act relief funds. Elk Grove Unified this year received $58 million in one-time state and federal funds to support the district during the COVID-19 pandemic.