It was not a decision which was taken lightly or made in haste, yet Wednesday, March 18 marks the last day of school for the Oakdale Joint Unified School District until Monday, April 20.
As COVID-19 began gaining more national attention, late last week Superintendent Marc Malone and his team continued assessment of what was best for the students, as well as the community.
“Keeping schools open was not a default. It was an actual strategic, mitigation plan to limit the virus,” Malone stated of the district’s initial decision to remain open last week as schools throughout the country were closing. “By keeping schools open we limited social mixing, which is scientific fact.”
It was a decision based on findings and opinion shared with district staff by Stanislaus County Public Health Officer Dr. Julie Vaishampayan who stated keeping students in school was believed to be safer due to a controlled environment. Also important to note, students were/are not considered high risk for contracting the virus.
Another fact Malone felt important at the time was that the county only had two known cases. He also believed that people lumped all the counties together versus just looking at Stanislaus County and the two confirmed cases.
“In this process we have to trust the eminent experts,” Malone stated of the weekend decision to close schools. “We have one eminent expert in this county on the spread of infectious disease and that’s out of our Public Health Office. That’s why that office is established in the first place. If we weren’t going to recognize that person as an eminent expert why did we even establish that job and that office.”
The superintendent shared that as the week’s events unfolded, district staff began working and developing a district online platform for students to continue to engage with their teachers through “supplemental” and “enrichment” activities.
“We’re going to provide initial supplemental, suggested enrichment activities,” he stated. “It’s not going to be graded and it’s not going to be homework. It’s supplemental. It’s enrichment. It’s not homework.”
The superintendent shared that packets will be sent home with students in grades K-8, while upper level grades will be able to access at the OJUSD website. Students who were absent from their respective campuses March 16 and on will have their packets mailed to them.
Formal learning will not be hosted during this time as it cannot be equally offered to students of all learning levels, most specifically students with special needs or disabilities. Teachers, however, will remain accessible by e-mail to offer feedback, guidance or help for students engaging in the supplemental and enrichment offerings.
“Teachers are responsible to monitor that e-mail during the regular business hours of school,” Malone said, adding that e-mails during non-work hours won’t be replied to until the following day.
The superintendent shared that the 30 day closure will also serve as a test of how effective distant learning can be when implemented during a school closure. Malone does not believe this will be the last closure. He sees this as using it for an opportunity to test the platform and the effectiveness, efficiency. Teachers can communicate with students via email.
“The reason we’re doing that is because we want to monitor our success going forward,” he shared.
None of the work is mandatory, but rather suggested.
“The platform is not web based,” Malone said. “That’s really the thoughtful part of what we’re trying to put out as a district. Everybody has a cell phone. Everybody can go to OJUSD, click on the school site, the teacher and follow the prompts.”
As he looks to the remainder of the year, the superintendent understands the concern of parents as well as students regarding a number of things. A fact he addressed as well as wants families to feel reassured about.
“It’s our plan to do all of the essential activities of the district moving forward. We still plan to execute those,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is cancel a graduation for any of those kids.”
As for student grades, Malone said as of March 18 all grades are locked and the grades will remain the same until the return of school on April 20.
As for the actual closure and the manner/decision for which it played out, it was indicated that the district staff continued to work throughout the weekend as COVID-19 continued to alter much about the way of life throughout the state as well as the country. Malone chose to follow the recommendation of a Thursday close date as released by Stanislaus County of Education, noting allowance of time for families to make plans and recognizing not all students returned to school.
“As you look at the way the thing played out, it’s not officially being called a state closure, but that’s what it is,” he said. “So it became apparent that we were not going to be able to stay open.
“I think there is a level of awareness that everyone needs to have that while we navigated, this is unprecedented in modern times that we would close schools,” Malone continued. “My hope is that we really do analyze the effectiveness of the school closure and if the school closure is proven effective, then obviously we’ll find ways to make it better moving forward. It’s been really clear that we needed to develop plans. We had to have a plan, but that plan needed to be agile.”
As the weeks unfold and facts continue to be shared via mass media and other forums, Malone encourages the community and parents to read more critically and decipher the difference between recommendation versus mandate. Words which are not only drastically different but implicate a different outcome.
“I think our community needs to rest assured we have a team and when I say team, I’m talking about the whole Oakdale Joint Unified School District … We have a team in place that are truly professional, that truly embrace the idea that we want to teach, learn, every day. Not make any excuses. They truly embody that and with that we also want to make sure our kids and our community are safe.”