For over nine months K-12 education has been turned upside down without a consistent plan to resume life with COVID-19. Schools pivoted with changing State guidelines and little federal support. Families, teachers, and administrators are working hard to make the best educational choices for their children utilizing plans created by incorporating current data known about this virus. Yet, with no consistent plan to eradicate it from our lives, these choices often lead to frustration and confusion. Even with viable vaccines on the horizon, relief is still months in the future, and with a wildly virulent and contagious virus coupled with the holiday season, people’s emotions feel more frayed than ever.
Each school district has local control to address its unique needs, but this benefit also adds to the confusion. Implementing different protocols to re-establish public and private education created a dynamic and polarizing atmosphere encouraging confusion and misinformation. There are a few differences between the Fullerton Elementary School District (FSD) and Fullerton Joint Union High School District (FJUHSD) re-opening plans.
Both school districts utilized Orange County Health guidelines and the Orange County Department of Education requirements as a foundation to their reopening plans that included safety protocols, testing for teachers and staff in direct contact with students, infection thresholds to revert back to distance learning, and implementation of at home technology available to all students.
These guidelines allowed leeway for district stakeholders to create modified classroom environment plans to reopen the schools. School boards tentatively approved the plans, then the different elementary and high school teacher and staff unions voted to amend or approve the plans before final trustee approval and implementation. Once a school district with an approved plan reopens, the State guidelines changing a community area from red back to purple will not automatically close schools. This is for the trustees and administrators to decide based on individual district situations. Schools must close if positivity rates rise to 5% in a school or 25% districtwide.
According to the Fullerton School District’s COVID-19 Dashboard, as of December 11, there are 36 student cases (.29% of the total population) and 18 staff cases (.77% of total staff) throughout the district.
According to the FJUHSD COVID-19 Dashboard, as of December 11, there are 27 student cases and 28 staff cases throuhgout the District (a .82% total test positivity rate).
Public schools are not proving to be areas of large COVID-19 virus outbreaks. Cases and absences pop up, but not at an alarming rate and parents at both districts have various choices to keep their students healthy and participating in the education process. Parents can choose between two main options in the high school district (distance or hybrid learning with the same teachers) and three options in the elementary district (distance learning with a new teacher, hybrid learning, or hybrid learning with on-campus care/tutoring for the alternate days). Teachers’ and support staffs’ working options are dictated by the individual union Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) that members voted on and agreed to honor.
In the FSD this means that teachers and staff can return to the classroom following new safety protocols, or, with a medical note verifying a health reason to stay distanced from school sites, there is an option to distance teach in the FSD Academy, or take a leave of absence. The FJUHSD teachers had the additional option of teaching in-person classes from home while having a long-term substitute teacher in the classroom. The live streaming set up by the high school district has allowed for this additional option. All choices require additional commitments compared to a normal teaching year. Between troubleshooting technology issues, working to engage a fatigued and traumatized group of students (many who refuse to turn on their cameras), and coping with in-person safety protocols, many teachers are exhausted and feel like they are working two full-time jobs.
The COVID-19 dashboards provided by the school districts are not foolproof, and both districts, like districts throughout the State, depend on timely parental reporting for updated case positivity rates. Schools do not pay for student testing and quarantined-but-not-tested students are not reported on the dashboards. There are no guarantees that in-person protocols will keep everyone safe or that the State, County, or District protocols will not change again in the near future. Both districts have presented the option of reopening plans in good faith and for the 30-40% of the student population who have chosen to return, the plans seem to be working so far.
Science and school often seem immutable, but neither entity is fixed and we have no choice but to keep moving back and forth until this virus is finally under control. Then the focus will shift to the monumental task of determining how to support and augment learning losses and mental health issues caused by this extensive disruption.