Students in the Fresno and Clovis unified school districts will start the new school year next month with online learning, but it’s not due to school board decisions.
Because Fresno County is one of the California counties on a state watch list for rising COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, a mandate issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom Friday forbids schools from offering in-person instruction until cases are brought under control.
Counties will need to be off the watch list for 14 consecutive days before students can return to campuses.
“A lot of people have made this about schools. I’m telling you, this is a community health concern.” — Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson
It’s A Health Issue
Fresno Unified officials, who appeared in a livestreamed news conference to announce the district’s back-to-school plans, were blunt about what it will take to get kids back in schools: Wear a face mask. Wash your hands. Practice social distancing. Stop congregating with people who aren’t in your household.
Superintendent Bob Nelson said complaining on social media about schools being closed won’t get them open, but following the precautions recommended by health officials to slow the spread of the virus will unlock the school doors.
“A lot of people have made this about schools. I’m telling you, this is a community health concern,” he said.
Nelson said the county’s current COVID-19 conditions reminds him of what happens when a teacher promises students they can watch a movie if they complete their work. But with rising coronavirus cases in the county, “we didn’t get stuff done, so there’s no movie,” he said.
Clovis Unified Schools Will Stay Closed
The state mandate comes two days after Clovis Unified School District trustees voted unanimously to offer parents the options sending the children back to school for on- campus classes or registering for an online instruction program, both starting on Aug. 17.
On Friday, superintendent Eimear O’Farrell told reporters that district leaders were disappointed by the governor’s order because they had gotten a green light earlier from the Fresno County Department of Public Health to reopen. The district’s plan included mandatory face masks and using all parts of school campuses to ensure students and staff could maintain 6-foot distances.
With so many districts in Fresno County of all sizes and locations, including tiny Big Creek Elementary School District high in the Sierra where no cases of COVID-19 have occurred, “It does seem very challenging to be evaluated as a county when we’re such a large county,” O’Farrell said.
The governor’s mandate overturns a decision that the Clovis Unified trustees made, that weighed health risks against concerns from parents that isolating children is creating social-emotional issues for many of them, O’Farrell said.
“It takes away our local control, which is a source of frustration for us,” she said. “Also it means we are going to have to pivot — which is my new least-favorite word — and move toward a platform” for online instruction.
Teachers Union: More Time Needed to Prepare
The Fresno Teachers Association on Friday renewed its call for Fresno Unified to delay the start date for instruction to ensure that the distance learning curriculum is well planned, teachers are trained, and students have the devices they need to work online.
Fresno Unified still plans for children and teachers to start on Aug. 17, Nelson said.
The district this week was continuing to send out emails and notifications to parents that they can choose a 100% online instruction program for the entire 2020-21 school year for their children, which requires reserving a seat for them by July 31.
Even though all students will be learning online, the district still needs to plan for how many students may remain with the online instruction program once schools can reopen and assign staff accordingly, Nelson said.
The goal continues to be to return students to classroom instruction, which may be phased in with small groups once health conditions improve, he said. Those students can remain with online instruction even after the county meets the 14-day requirement, or transfer back to in-person instruction at the start of a quarter for elementary students or start of a semester for secondary students.
Teachers, Students Will Be Strangers
Fresno Unified is preparing for the challenges that students and teachers will face when they meet online instead of in the classroom for the first time.
When the schools were abruptly closed in mid-March, students already had had more than half a year with their teachers. Even so, distance learning and teaching was difficult, Nelson said.
“It’s hard to create a relationship when you don’t know each other.”
Focus Groups for At-Risk Students
Fresno Unified is taking particular pains to create target focus groups for seventh and ninth graders who will be moving on to new schools and having new teachers, and also for students who are in foster care, homeless, or living in shelters, to make sure they have effective support and counseling.
Special education students, for whom distance learning posed particular challenges, will continue to have their individualized education program and a case manager, and efforts will be made to mitigate the impacts of the virtual learning environment.
The district’s special education department plans to host a back-to-school livestreamed presentation next Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Parents will have the opportunity to pose questions or comment, just as they would at a regular School Board meeting, Nelson said.
The distance learning curriculum for Fresno and Clovis will be more rigorous than what was provided in the spring, officials said. When schools closed in mid-March because of the pandemic’s arrival, districts scrambled to provide an online curriculum that many thought might be a temporary fix until schools could reopen.
Parents Need Supports Too
Many students and their teachers struggled with technology and programs, and district officials said that preparing educators and students for how to teach and learn in a virtual setting will be part of the early educational program.
Fresno Unified trustee Terry Slatic asked how the district would evaluate the degree of learning loss that students experienced when the district shifted to distance learning. Students were told that their work would not count toward their grade except to raise it, and the curriculum was labeled “optional.”
The district will be able to use a variety of tools, including iReady, to determine where students have learning deficits, Nelson said.
And unlike the distance learning provided in the spring, attendance will be taken and work will be graded in the eLearn at My School program, and students will have daily contact with teachers, Nelson said.
Closing The Digital Divide
Fresno and Clovis district officials said efforts will be made to supply students who still lack access to a laptop or tablet and the internet.
In addition to distributing Wi-Fi hotspots, Fresno Unified is in the process of developing its own internet, EduNet, in collaboration with local service providers, which will help students stay on track with distance learning, said Kurt Madden, the district’s chief technology officer.