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District Pursues Waiver For Elementary Sites
Currently empty playgrounds no longer echo with children’s laughter in the ongoing COVID-19 environment but if OJUSD is successful with its waiver request to the Stanislaus County Healthy Agency, elementary age children may return to campuses on a modified basis. KIM VAN METER/THE LEADER

The Oakdale Joint Unified School District was among the many school districts in the Central Valley to submit a waiver to the Stanislaus County Public Health Department with the hope of opening the elementary school sites with mitigating factors in place.

While the waiver must be approved by county health, it must also be forwarded to the California Department of Public Health for final approval, which makes for an uncertain timeline for reopening four OJUSD (grades TK-6) elementary campuses, representing 2,579 students.

A number of Central Valley private school waivers have already been rubber stamped for approval to reopen. As of press time there were no Oakdale private schools with pending school waivers.

In the waiver, Sept. 28 was the earliest the district could open safely and efficiently but OJUSD Superintendent Marc Malone said due to new state guidelines, that date was no longer feasible.

Malone said, “The very day that we submitted our waiver, the Governor without advanced notice, released his new ‘Blueprint for a Safer Economy,’ which includes schools. The new blueprint has a new virus tracking process which has been confusing to the public. Regardless of the status of the waiver, we want to ensure that the virus infection numbers are headed in the right direction.”

Malone was also quick to reassure parents, OJUSD wasn’t in a hurry to reopen just for the sake of opening. He added, “However, we do have a sense of urgency to be prepared to open when/if all the factors align. I believe our public expects that of us.”

It’s hard to say where the majority of public opinion lies. Many parents, particularly those with elementary age students, are struggling with the challenges inherent in trying to keep young minds engaged and focused on a computer screen while also trying to work from home.

However, another segment of parents are fearful of sending their children to school during a time when the question of how to keep students safe remains up in the air — particularly when young children are notorious for touching, roughhousing, hugging or trading personal items at school.

Within the waiver, OJUSD details a hybrid learning plan that involves a combination of distance learning, in-class instruction, and staggered student presence within the classroom.

In addition, OJUSD includes a rigorous cleaning regime, including hand sanitizer, washing stations, and mandatory face coverings.

Parents living in multi-generational homes have expressed grave concerns about exposed children bringing the virus home to the older generation, which can be deadly to those with compromised immune systems.

One such parent, Rebekah Remkiewicz, voiced her concerns, saying, “How can we allow our children to be guinea pigs like this? Their hybrid plan will come at the expense of continuity in our children’s education and potentially risk the health of parents and grandparents. Honestly, I don’t know why having students back at the schools two days a week is so attractive an option. It really won’t alleviate the concern of parents needing to be home with their kids. But, I do see that the Independent Study option is borderline ridiculous or unfathomable for some families.”

Remkiewicz hit the nail on the head — distance learning isn’t feasible for some parents who don’t have the option of sitting at home and monitoring their young child for the school day — but everyone seems to agree that finding a workable solution for everyone is still a long ways off.

Another parent, Lisa Morris, shared, “My biggest challenge is that I’m not qualified to be a teacher. I give it to these teachers doing their best with the situation we are in but my child needs more. My frustrations are felt by my child and that is not fair. Thankfully, I have an employer who lets me bring my child to work with me but then I feel like the line of personal and professional life is not separate anymore. My employer also deserves an employee who is 100 percent at work and not having to teach her first grader.”

Frustrations such as these are echoed by many parents, leading to the inevitable opinion that students should simply go back to school, period.

Morris said, “When this started my two oldest, who are only 14 and 15, were their little sister’s babysitter and teacher, while also trying to keep up with their own studies. I feel the biggest adjustments have had to be made by my children. The kids are losing in all of this and I think we need to figure it out for their sakes. As adults we need to adjust our lives for children, not them adjust for us. There is a way and as adults we need to work together and figure that out.”

As far as the junior high and high school campuses, it is estimated a similar hybrid plan will be implemented but there are far more challenges inherent to meeting the safety mitigations with the older students.

There is currently no official date for reopening the junior high and high school campuses at this time.

According to Malone, “The junior high and high school can only open when as a county we transition from the new Purple Tier to the new Red Tier.”

For a town known for its love of the “Friday Night Lights” fall without football has been a rough transition but the stands remain empty as officials try to determine the safest way to move forward with the new tier system.

These tiers are explained on the “California Blueprint for a Safer Economy” website but Malone added grimly, “I can’t say for sure, but if Stanislaus County does not move from the Purple Tier to the Red Tier, I don’t see sports taking place. If we do transition to the Red, the CIF has set their schedule for practice and games and it is on their website. The first practices would begin on Dec. 7. Let’s hope for the move to the Red Tier.”

Parents can find the waiver details in its entirety at the OJUSD website:

Quiet hallways at Magnolia Elementary mirror the same situation at all OJUSD school sites as the district awaits word from the county health agency to find out if its waiver for the elementary campuses has been accepted. If approved, OJUSD has a plan to open the elementary school campuses on a modified basis with mitigating factors in place. KIM VAN METER/THE LEADER