Co-hosted by Ceres Unified School District officials Scott Siegel and Denise Wickham, the first episode of Season 2 of the Ceres Learns podcast was released on Sept. 17 and focused on what it would take to reopen schools safely during the 2020-21 academic year.
“Our county has been among the top counties in California as far as case counts,” said Siegel, CUSD Superintendent. “That’s changing and the conditions are improving dramatically, but we have a long ways to go still. One concern is that the particular area that Ceres Unified School District serves is one of the hotspots in Stanislaus County. So not only are we in a hotspot in our county, but we’re in a hotspot in a hotspot, so it’s going to be some time before we get levels where we can take kids back to school safely. I expect perhaps by the end of October, if everything goes well, we may be talking about bringing elementary kids back to campuses.”
Ceres Unified would have the option to reopen its elementary schools through an extensive waiver process if COVID numbers improve in Stanislaus County.
Grades 7-12 can’t return to campus until the county is removed from the state monitoring list.
When asked by Deputy Supt. Wickham if Ceres Unified planned to apply for a waiver, Siegel said: “So I don't believe it’s in Ceres Unified’s best interest or the students and parents and relatives of the parents of Ceres Unified to actually open through a waiver at this time. That doesn’t mean we would never consider one. But the cases are still just too plentiful in this area for us to put the waiver in. What we’re waiting for is numbers to fall to a point that we can reopen without a waiver, and I do believe that that will happen. I’m guessing that numbers will start to come into that range sometime in early October. That’s again, I guess, at this point, just my best take on how the numbers are falling, but that would allow us to reopen by the end of October or earliest parts of November without a waiver. We’ll reevaluate that and if it ends up that the case counts stay high, we’ll think about whether it’s appropriate or not. I am really cautious about putting our families and our students and our staff at risk by putting a waiver in place and reopening before the numbers call for us to do so. And frankly right now the numbers do not yet call for us to do so.”
CUSD has a committee that’s currently working to determine the best format for reopening K-6 campuses.
“It’s not going to be where we have every student suddenly go back onto campus every day for the entire instructional day,” Siegel said. “Conditions are not safe for that and we will not be able to keep schools open; we’ll have infections spread. What we are thinking is that we may be able to have approximately half our elementary students on campus each day and maybe rotate either by the time of day or every other day – something to that effect – keeping about half the kids on campus which will reduce crowding in classrooms, it will reduce crowding in cafeterias, and reduce crowding in the playground areas, which will help keep our students and staff safe, and by extension, the families of our students and our staff.”
Siegel said he doesn’t expect secondary schools (7-12) to come back at the same time as elementaries.
“If we have an elementary student get COVID and come to school without knowing they have it and we find out later, we may have to shut down a classroom because that student will have potentially infected the other students and the teacher in that classroom,” he said. “If we have a secondary student in junior high or high school who have six or seven classes come to school not knowing they're sick and we find out later, not only will that student have infected all the students in their first period class, but all the students in their second and third and so on, which means that all of those students will then go out potentially and infect all the other students in their other classes, and to shut down a classroom isn’t possible – it would actually be the entire school. So at elementary, one student can shut down a classroom and, at worst, a grade level if grade levels do some sharing. At high school or junior high school, one student can shut down the whole campus. And one of the guiding principles for us on this is we want to be able to reopen, but we don't want to reopen and then have to close again. That may happen, but we’d really like to avoid that. So this is one of those things where we’d rather be cautious and slow to the table to get this done, but when we go, we stay.”
Once students return to school, various learning options will be offered.
“We're going to offer those parents who wish to have their students not come back on the campuses an independent study or distance learning type option, just as we were going to do in the summertime,” Siegel said. “We had parents signing up for that until we ended up not having any on-campus classes. So that will be available. I do want to clarify with the timing of this for high schools – I neglected to do that – that if we’re thinking that if everything goes well, we may be able to open elementaries at the end of October or early November, I’m hopeful that we might be looking at a target date at the beginning of the second semester. Now I want to make sure our listeners are clear, these are best guesses, and if conditions worsen or don’t improve at the correct rate, those dates won’t be met. But that’s currently what we’re planning for in terms of trying to get plans together and have our schools ready to go. Hopefully it will happen. In the worst-case scenario, it might not.”
Wickham emphasized CUSD staff have been doing the best they can to provide an education for students learning from home.
“They really can’t wait to have the opportunity to have kids back on campuses again, because we all know that this is not the ideal setting to provide the best education we can for kids,” Wickham said.
“Our teachers are working their rear ends off right now,” Siegel said. “It's like every teacher is a first year teacher learning how to teach again. We know that this is not the way kids learn best. We know this is an inferior product that we’re putting out, and it’s not for lack of effort on the parts of our staff. They are working very hard; it’s just not the right model. So we’re committed to getting our kids back just as soon as we can safely do so.”
There are many resources students can use to improve their learning according to Siegel.
“I’ll start by referencing parents to our distance learning website,” he said. “We’ve contracted for extra tutoring services. Every student has the ability to get four hours of free tutoring. We have staff that we’ve hired to help re-engage students, identify students who are struggling and get connected. Our teachers and the front line are doing a fantastic job contacting parents if there are issues with students being engaged and students learning. I would urge parents to reach out to the teachers if you have any concerns and get the help that you need to get. It is available. We have a lot of staff and a lot of resources ready to help your kids to the best that we can at a distance.”
The Ceres Learns podcast is a monthly Q&A with school district leaders on topics related to education and their impact on Ceres students, families, and staff. To listen to the podcast, visit www.ceres.k12.ca.us/news/what_s_new/ceres_learns_podcast.
Episodes are also available for download on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and iHeart Radio.
To ask a question for a future episode, send an email to communications.ceres.k12.ca.us.
The Ceres Learns podcast was launched near the end of the 2019-2020 school year to address families’ distance learning questions when campuses abruptly closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.