Superintendents from Fresno County and the county’s largest school districts said Thursday they are following the directives issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office to cancel events with more than 250 people and postpone all nonessential school activities to slow the spread of COVID-19.
School itself is regarded as essential, and not just for the education provided to students and for the hardship that families would face if students had to stay home, said the superintendents. They took the almost unprecedented step of appearing side by side Thursday afternoon at a news conference at the Office of the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools in downtown Fresno to make clear they are unified in addressing coronavirus concerns and mitigations.
Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Jim Yovino said the five superintendents at the news conference — Bob Nelson of Fresno Unified, Eimear O’Farrell of Clovis Unified, Andy Alvarado of Central Unified, Adela Jones of Sanger Unified, and John Campbell of Kings Canyon Unified — plus assistant county superintendent Hank Gutierrez represent 160,000 of the county’s 210,000 schoolchildren.
“As we speak today, we want to speak in unison,” Yovino said. “The actions that we take today, we want to try to take together.”
Sharing The Same Message
Their common message was the following: They want to protect children and families as much as possible from the COVID-19 coronavirus, but also keep students in school as much as possible.
But, they cautioned that decisions about keeping schools open or closed could be altered depending on circumstances. As of now,the situation as of now is extremely fluid.
Their news conference came on the same day that San Francisco’s School Board decided to close the city’s schools for three weeks to slow the spread of the virus — only a day after saying it would not close schools because they provide much-needed social services.
San Francisco’s schools will be deep-cleaned during the hiatus.
Elk Grove Unified south of Sacramento was the state’s first large school district to close after a family was exposed to coronavirus.
Looking To Health Officials For Guidance
Fresno County schools officials are following the advice of state and local health officials in formulating decisions so they are responsive and not reactionary, O’Farrell said.
“I think it’s very critical that you all know that closing schools is a very serious decision, and we take it very seriously,” she said. “The governor … was very clear that schools are an essential function of society, and we don’t take lightly the fact that if we close schools, it has an enormous impact on our community.”
The superintendents said they are in almost constant contact with each other and health officials to stay on top of ongoing developments. Thus far in the central San Joaquin Valley, there have been only three confirmed cases of coronavirus — one each in Fresno, Madera, and Tulare counties.
Nelson said school officials are walking a fine line, needing to be responsive to a range of opinions from parents: Some feel that “this is all overblown, and you’re taking this way too seriously, and you’re over-reacting,” he said, while others contend “you should have shut everything six weeks ago, when you found out there was a problem in China.”
Schools Provide Much-Needed Services
The superintendents said they know that closing schools would create a great hardship for many families in providing child care during the closures.
And, they said, school is not just a place for academics. Thousands of low-income students depend on free meals at school to keep from going hungry, and depend on school staffers such as nurses and counselors to help with medical and social-emotional needs.
Schools provide preschools, before school and afterschool programs as well, and reach children from birth to age 22, Yovino said.
“When you think about, oh, let’s just close school, that burden is tremendous on the community, on families,” he said. “But we also need to understand that we’re going to follow the guidelines of our governor.”
Help Kids Handle Disappointment
Canceling school plays, field trips, a robotics competition, high school athletics and other extracurricular events is not a decision the school districts have made lightly, especially knowing how hard many of the students have worked to prepare for the events and how disappointed they are at the cancellations.
School meals apparently wouldn’t be an issue, however. The California Department of Education has obtained a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will allow districts to continue providing free meals to students in the event of closures.
Maintaining schools as healthy, safe places continues to be a top goal, Jones said.
To that end, districts are taking steps to make sure that medically fragile students, such as those at Addicott Elementary and Rata High School, are protected from the coronavirus, Nelson said. Public access to those schools is being restricted, he said.
Some Events Still Scheduled
Yovino said that some events, such as the Fresno County History Day on Saturday, were still scheduled while coordinators try to figure out if students can make their presentations safely, such as by changing the format and venue.
Meanwhile, State Center Community College District trustees will hold a special meeting at 5 p.m. Friday to consider a resolution putting an emergency plan into effect that would shift classes from in-person to online and arrange for employees to work remotely.
The district is following the governor’s directives to cancel or postpone events with 250 or more people through the end of March, spokeswoman Lucy Ruiz said.
The Renaissance Feast for Scholars that was scheduled Saturday at Fresno City College has been canceled, she said.