MONTEREY — The Monterey Peninsula Unified School District plans on returning students to the classroom after it meets California’s reopening criteria, including a drop in Monterey County’s adjusted daily COVID-19 case rate to below 25 cases per 100,000.
The district sent a survey to TK-6 parents and guardians earlier this week asking them to commit their children to return to in-person learning or to remain in distance learning for the remainder of the school year, though students in transitional kindergarten through second grade would be first to return under the current proposal.
“Most likely it would be in a hybrid model because of the space requirements of social distancing but that’s partly why we need to get the survey back from parents because if enough parents communicate to us that they are going to stay in distance learning no matter what until their kids are vaccinated, then is there a possibility that for some grade levels we could come back if the class sizes are down to 14, for example, we could come back on a non-hybrid, more permanent basis,” district Superintendent PK Diffenbaugh said.
Diffenbaugh said school districts have been in a tough position during the pandemic because they are constantly shifting their plans to return students to campus-based on changing criteria from the state.
“Recently when the governor proposed a framework in which schools can return starting with transitional kindergarten through second grade when a county enters below 25 per 100,000 in terms of adjusted case rate, that really accelerated our thinking because prior to that the notion was you had to be out of the purple in order to consider reopening elementary schools and Monterey County hasn’t been out of the purple (COVID-19 tier) since June,” he said.
The district will use the data from the survey to draft a final education model, which will then be presented to parents in another survey. In a message to parents and guardians, the district stated possibilities for the model include a few days a week in person, am/pm cohorts or in-person instruction every day.
Monterey County’s adjusted COVID-19 daily case rate per 100,000 is at 38.9 in the state’s latest data this week. Since reaching a peak of 98.5 on Jan. 19, it has dropped each week. To reopen based on the state’s current criteria, the district must also submit a comprehensive COVID-19 safety plan with site-specific precautions to address considerations unique to specific school sites, as applicable. The district and school sites must implement all COVID-19 safety measures for in-person instruction including face coverings, stable groups, physical distancing, adequate ventilation, hand hygiene, symptom and close contact exposure screening, and surveillance or screen testing. Lastly, the district needs to consult with labor, parent and community organizations while developing and before submitting its safety plan.
Lauren Mauck, president of the Monterey Bay Teachers Association, said the teachers union previously negotiated the return to campus for special education teachers and agreed to a memorandum of understanding. Diffenbaugh said special education students will start returning to campus Feb. 22 in the small-cohort model. Mauck said the Monterey Bay Teachers Association has yet to enter negotiations for general education teachers returning to campus, but the return of special education teachers to campus may help guide the process. Once the district develops its final instruction model based on responses from parents and guardians, it will submit the plan to the union.
“We are all just chomping at the bit to get back,” Mauck said. “With in-person instruction, we know the challenges but we want to do it safely.”
Mauck said many teachers would like to be fully vaccinated before they return to school, while some teachers aren’t interested in getting vaccinated and others can’t get vaccinated due to health reasons.
“Over 650 people have very strong opinions in lots of ways,” Mauck said about the Monterey Bay Teachers Association.
Diffenbaugh said he will continue to advocate at the local and state level to get teachers and school staff prioritized in the vaccination process while acknowledging there are hard tradeoffs to be made with the current vaccine supply.
“I think there is a lot of talk about the health risks to older individuals, which absolutely should be considered. I think there’s a lot less talk around the long-term health effects of students being out of school,” he said. “I think that if we’re really concerned about public health, which I know everyone is, we need to be able to look both short and long term and there are some serious long-term implications in terms of studies around life expectancy of students because of this pandemic and their loss of educational opportunity.”
In terms of physical safety measures on campus, Diffenbaugh said MPUSD has been proactive and has all the masks, gloves and clear desk dividers that are needed.
“We already have the hand-washing stations set up at the high schools because we’ve been doing athletic conditioning and we have them ready to be installed at the elementary sites,” he said. “We’ve shifted many of our drinking fountains to touchless and have ensured that our ventilation has the MERV 13 filters for our (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems and we’ve ordered room-based air purifiers for sites where those are needed.”
Diffenbaugh said the district signed up to take advantage of the California Department of Public Health’s Valencia Branch Laboratory for COVID-19 testing, though it’s unclear at this point what the state’s testing requirements will be for the return to school.
Partnering with community organizations, the district has had small cohorts on some school campuses since September. Students who are homeless, in foster care or in other circumstances that make learning at home difficult have been participating in distance learning on campus.
“We’ve been able to work through a lot of the logistics of how you do this safely,” Diffenbaugh said. “We haven’t had instances of in-school exposure as we’ve been running these programs.”
The state’s current school reopening plans calls for bringing back students in transitional kindergarten through second grade and those who are most vulnerable first, then phasing in other grade levels through the spring. Diffenbaugh said the plan calls for students in second through fifth grade to return shortly after.
“In terms of middle and high schools, the current guidance from the state still maintains that you need to be in the red tier before you can start that,” Diffenbaugh said. “That would mean we’re down below (a daily case rate of) seven per 100,000 cases. So we’re still preparing as if that’s a possibility, we still want that to be a possibility, but the reality is in Monterey County we haven’t hit that since June.”
Because middle and high school students don’t stay in the same class with the same teacher all day, Diffenbaugh said it provides an additional challenge. And the California Department of Public Health states there is a growing body of evidence that elementary schools have a lower risk of transmission in its rationale for the state’s current plan to return students to the classroom.
“For example, a study analyzing elementary schools in a heavily impacted region of France found that the risks of transmission inside schools were approximately the same as outside schools,” the document states. “The lower risks associated with younger grades is likely due to, among other reasons, the fact that younger people produce fewer ACE-2 receptors — COVID’s doorway into human cells.”
The district will continue to monitor the state’s plans as Gov. Gavin Newsom negotiates a deal with the Legislature to fund safety measures at schools that welcome students back to campus.
“We maintain that having kids back is very important for their health, both physical and emotional as well as academic,” Diffenbaugh said. “We’re going to try to continue to (safely return all students to campus) as soon as the state says that we’re able to.”
Contributed by local news sources