Students were back on campus Tuesday, March 23 in Oakdale, the end result of a long process that featured plenty of twists and turns.
Emotions were high from all corners of the district on Thursday, March 18, in fact, as members of the Oakdale Joint Unified School Board gathered for a special meeting with just one agenda item to discuss: “Student Requirements of Guided Instruction Portion of 7-12 Re-Opening Plan.”
Entering through the courtyard of the OJUSD Tech Center, board members and district staff were greeted by a small group of parent demonstrators holding signs and chanting, “No more excuse, kids first!”
Some spoke with board members as they stopped to hear the concerns of the parents, while others shouted messages of disapproval as board members made their way into the meeting venue.
What could not have been known then, yet was quickly revealed following the call to order of the 6:30 p.m. meeting was that District Superintendent Marc Malone was ready to place students, grades seven through 12, back on campus.
Before Malone addressed the board with his plan, Board President Barbara Shook read a prepared statement, noting the receipt of multiple e-mails sent to board members as well as the district.
“We don’t respond individually, because we need a consistent voice as a board. It has always been the practice of this district to have our Superintendent respond to all inquiries concerning school business,” Shook stated, citing a board bylaw to that effect.
Shook additionally noted that non-response does not mean a lack of caring, as she said all members of the board had been working diligently to get students back in the classroom fulltime.
“The board asked Marc to research with our school district lawyers and professionals what would happen if we decided to defy all the guidelines and mandates and simply put our kids back in school,” she shared of an inquiry early in the school year.
According to Shook this prompted learning how the state and county would react; the bottom line placing the district in jeopardy and therefore the students. Shook additionally noted each board member having a vested interest in the district. Then opening for additional comments from the board members, Larry Betschart echoed Shook’s sentiments.
“It’s frustrating to sit here and have our hands tied the way we have been,” he said. “As soon as this thing clicks and times out, we’re going.”
And “soon” came quickly thereafter, as Superintendent Malone took the floor. He shared with the board critical information which proved to be a game changer in the current re-open plan. On March 15, a San Diego Superior Court issued a temporary restraining order, as result of a lawsuit brought on by a group of parents challenging the constitutional rights of the reopening framework and guidance issued by the California Department of Public Health on Jan. 14.
The temporary restraining order restrains defendants from enforcing or implying the CDPH work orders.
“I would also like to morph this into a recommendation to the board for a reopening and the reopening would be as soon as March 22,” Malone stated to the board.
He also noted that CSBA (California School Board Association) urges boards to continue to use best practices for safety with respect to COVID-19 for school reopen plans.
“We have consistently said when we got our window of opportunity to open we would do so,” the Superintendent said. “We have heard, I have heard and answered the question why did we not open previously and that was because there is no school district our size or larger that could open under the requirements that we had under the California Department of Health at that time.”
Malone indicated earlier in the week he received information in regards to the San Diego court decision, receiving an immediate update from Stanislaus County Public Health stating “permissible to open grades 7 through 12 using the established safety protocols.”
“I will say in all of this, we are still mindful that the virus is still out there. We are still mindful dealing with infection rate,” Malone stated, noting all will be taken into consideration with the re-entry plan for students in grades seven through 12. Safety protocols will continue including masks, social distancing, hand sanitizing and surface sanitation.
The current re-opening plan for the secondary schools began as stated on March 22. The first nine days (March 22 through April 1) the students of both campuses will be on a half day Hybrid Block Schedule. Divided (just as the primary campuses were in fall) by last names into two cohort groups. All groups will continue Distance Learning on Mondays, with two days of in person instruction. Instruction days will either by Tuesday/Thursday or Wednesday/Friday depending on the assigned cohort. Off days will be “independent practice.”
“We’ve had questions as to why we would continue with distance learning,” Malone said of the Monday instruction. “We have to have a distance learning portal for quarantine processes and in order for us to be able to quarantine kids and quarantine classes we still need to be able to have this portal live.”
Malone added if the virus numbers should start to decline the board would in turn re-look at the on campus learning in the second phase. The second phase for the secondary students will be upon return from Spring Break on April 12. At this time the Hybrid Block Schedule will transition from in person half days twice weekly to two in person full days with respect to each assigned cohort.
“Most of us are aware we have an open campus at lunch and because of that we don’t have a cafeteria large enough to host all of those students. That was a problem,” Malone shared.
In order for the Oakdale High School students to return to the full day Hybrid Block Schedule the campus will be temporarily closed at lunchtime. This means that students will not be free to leave campus at lunch.
“I also want to make sure people are clear, this is not a permanent closure of the high school lunch. The board has talked about that in times past,” the superintendent acknowledged. “This is not some veiled way to find a way to close the high school lunch. This is about trying to find a way to get kids in school all day for as many days as we can.”
Malone continued stating that students will be addressed on being mindful of distancing guidelines. Seating chart protocol being a major concession so that if someone should test positive, they can retrace to the student/desk and not have to quarantine the entire class.
“I’m sure they’re ready to get back at school, so they will be mindful of the protocols in place,” he stated. “With the seating chart protocol this was a major concession that the district’s going to utilize, because again we’re not opening schools just to close them.”
The elementary school reopen was also addressed, noting that the secondary Hybrid Block opening will have no impact on the plan to the TK-6 students. TK-3 returned to four full days March 22 with Monday distance learning and four through 6 returns April 12 to the four-day schedule.
Board Member Tina Shatswell inquired as to why four through six was beginning later than TK-3 for the four-day schedule.
Malone stated a phased reopen was recommended.
“We know what’s going to happen,” he said. “In this town, we’re a single high school town, one positive test has a trickle down through the entire district. It was recommended strongly that we do a phased reopening at this time.”
President Shook acknowledged some students will be nervous and hopes the safety protocols in place would aid with their feeling of ease.
“There’s two sides to this coin,” she said. “I hope it all works smoothly. I think doing it phased is a smart move.”
Board Member Diane Gilbert noted, “Despite that there’s still ample opportunity and staff available to administer independent study, correct? If a student decides they’re not comfortable to return to in person instruction. It would be the students’ choice and the families’ choice.”
Prior to taking a vote on the proposed reopening plan, the phones were open to take calls from viewers during the Public Comment portion of the virtual meeting. There was a mix of support and opposition and the board agreed to go past the normal 20-minute public comment window, listening to speakers for roughly 45 minutes.
Oakdale High alum and longtime community member and businessman Guy Stueve was among the first callers.
“This is a very difficult thing for you guys and also our kids,” Stueve stated.
The father of three shared while his oldest was a graduate of OHS, two still remained as OJUSD students.
“There’s a pathway here, we need to proceed with the pathway. You can’t be a leader if no one is following you.”
Parents as well as students continued calling in both in support of as well as in opposition of the board reopening the secondary campuses.
“Since the onset we have said we would follow the eminent expert in Stanislaus County in regards to infections disease and that’s our County Public Health Officer,” Malone summarized. “Our County Public Health Officer is on record for supporting 7-12 schools reopening with our current county case rates as a result of this court action. We have followed the science, we have followed this every step of the way.”
In conclusion, President Shook once again addressed the board to ensure it was clear what was being voted on. The vote was unanimous to approve the re-open date of March 22.
“Been a long time coming,” stated after confirming the return date for students.
“Too long,” Shatswell agreed.