East County School Update

On the heels of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement of a school reopening plan, East County superintendents weighed in on its feasibility.

The proposal, introduced by Newsom Dec. 30, has yet to gain the approval and funding from the state legislature. And school district officials were quick to point out that until that happens, they’re all playing the waiting game.

On its face, the plan outlines four pillars to facilitate school reopenings, including: funding; safety and mitigation measures for classrooms; oversight and assistance for schools; and transparency and accountability for families and staff. At a closer look, those proposed plan elements range from a $2 billion budget boost and weekly school-site testing to assisting districts with COVID-19 safety plans and a state dashboard for updated school information.

While Liberty Union High School District (LUHSD) Superintendent Eric Volta recognized Newsom’s plan was more focused on the younger grades and would only apply to his high school district later, he pointed out some logistical flaws.

“I believe the testing of all students and staff makes the plan prohibitive. The state currently can’t keep up with the demands to test all those that want to test now. How are they going to provide timely feedback on the additional collected specimens?” Volta said. “We are in the process of finalizing a contract with a testing lab for our employees. There is a great amount of data input and monitoring that is needed for just our staff. I can’t imagine adding 8,200 students to the process.”

His fellow officials from neighboring districts had similar concerns. Brentwood Union School District Superintendent Dana Eaton wondered who would conduct the testing or if it would be a requirement for student attendance. Oakley Union Elementary School District Superintendent Greg Hetrick agreed.

“We are all in need of the same things, and the manpower necessary to make it all happen in a timely manner is proving to be difficult,” Hetrick said.

Knightsen Elementary School District (KESD) Superintendent Harvey Yurkovich said that Newsom’s plan sounds great, but at present it’s all talk.

“Even at this point, schools are still left on their own to figure out testing and professional development for their staff with very little support from the state,” he said.

Part of Newsom’s plan also spells out a possible classroom return as early as February. The budget will propose for immediate action in January $2 billion for the safe reopening of schools beginning in February, with a priority for returning the youngest children (TK through second grade) and those who are most disproportionately impacted first.

Eaton and Hetrick noted that a final decision to return will fall on their respective district boards.

Volta’s high school district has a return-to-school plan in the hands of the county and said high schools in purple tier regions will not be able to open in the hybrid model under the governor’s plan; LUHSD’s plan all along has been to return to school once back in the red tier.

For the small, three-school Byron Union School District, which serves the rural population of Byron and Discovery Bay, Superintendent Reyes Guana said they’re ready to open but waiting for the county to return to the red tier. He stated he previously sent his district’s reopening plan to the county and public health department.

“However, we have updated the district’s plan, and we had each school develop a plan specific to their school. We will send all updated versions for review and approval once we get the green light to submit,” he said on Monday this week. “I did hear yesterday that the state may be adjusting the criteria for schools to reopen and will know more by the end of the week.”

Also a small district, KESD might have some reopening by February. Yurokovich felt a move to a full hybrid model would be unlikely, since the timeline around vaccines is unclear.

“I believe a February timeline to see students coming to school for special support services as well as students who are experiencing severe learning loss could happen,” he continued. “The needs for our district right now are shared across all schools. We need to have our staff vaccinated before we can begin bringing back large numbers of people to campus.”

Volta added that school districts in session are struggling to keep personnel on-site with the isolation and quarantine protocols during recent spikes.

“We had a shortage of subs prior to the pandemic. Waiting until our local transmission rates are lower helps with keeping teachers and students in class. The learning has to be better, not worse when we return,” Volta said. “In short, I appreciate that Sacramento is finally looking at schools and their reopening. However, adding to the list of hurdles — i.e. plans, guidelines, accountability measures, or orders we need to overcome to open — is not going to help the process.”