IMPERIAL COUNTY — With finals set to get underway this week, students, school officials and the California Department of Education are all envisioning what school will look like in the fall under the guidance of newly mandated restrictions.
On June 5, the Imperial County Office of Education released a 31-page document outlining a four-stage plan to get students back into a physical classroom.
“I ran through the (ICOE) document (June 8). It has very interesting information but similar to our graduation in the way we had a plan and the plan changed. There is a possibility that this document may change. I’m certain the state may issue some things to change this plan,” Holtville High School Principal Anthony Arrevalo said during a June 8 interview.
Just a few days after ICOE released its document, the California Department of Education on June 8 released a 55-page guidance document detailing its roadmap to re-open schools in the fall.
“What educational services and school activities will look like in the fall is not yet known, and dependent on the evolution of local health conditions, guidance and available information. We are all searching for certainty in uncertain times,” stated Alvaro Ramirez, public information officer for the county Office of Education, in a June 9 email to this newspaper.
Beyond the State Board of Education’s requirements, the ICOE’s roadmap is a recommendation and the ultimate decision on when and how to re-open lies with each campus’ respective school board, Ramirez said.
“We will continue to work collaboratively with our local health officials and ensure that the re-opening of our schools is undertaken with the safety of our students, staff and families as top priority. The document published by ICOE, and even the Governor’s guidance, is exactly that, guidance. It does not seem there will be any single ‘model’ that will fit the needs and circumstances of all school districts,” Ramirez stated.
Local school administrators said they wish there were more they could do to take action, but in light of the current COVID surge in Imperial County, their hands are tied.
“Our plan of attack right now is to be ready for whatever the conditions are on the ground. Come August, we will have to make a final decision about opening. Of course, we hope to let everyone know well in advance, but the way this has progressed so far, we have to be mindful,” Central Union High School District board President Ryan Childers told this newspaper.
Childers was cautious to speculate what school could like in the fall if campus’ in El Centro re-opened.
“Exactly what that will look like is a decision that is yet to be made. It could look like a school day where students are wearing masks and on any given day only a portion of our student body is on campus to allow for appropriate social distancing and have widespread availability of hand sanitizer throughout campus,” Childers said.
The Central Union board has been proactive in planning strategies and utilizing technology to keep students safe when schools re-open.
“We’ve made investments in electrostatic foggers. Those come in the form of backpacks and what will allow our maintenance staff to completely disinfect a classroom in seven or eight minutes. We purchased seven backpacks, two at Southwest, two at Central, one at Desert Oasis, one for the maintenance warehouse and one for our district office. The tech is so effective and efficient that we are confident those devices will allow us to completely disinfect our facilities on a daily basis,” said Childers.
All staff who have cleaning duties as a part of their job description with the CUHSD will have to be certified in a course that will allow them to use sanitizing products on campus and be in compliance with the Healthy Schools Act, Childers said.
Childers is cognizant of the financial and personal strains local families are going through regarding the pandemic and schools being closed. He understands some are eager to open schools, but he said he must put the safety of his community first.
Thirty-year kindergarten teacher and McCabe Union School District board member Alexa Horne said, “It’s gonna be what it has to be.”
“If the Imperial Valley’s numbers don’t go down, I don’t see how we can trust kids to do social distancing and wear masks,” Horne said.
She said she fears social-distancing protocol will greatly prohibit McCabe teachers from providing their students with the education they deserve.
“More than half of the kids ride the bus to school at McCabe. I could envision having to have four buses per route, which would be a huge cost to schools. Suggestions were one student per seat and every other row would be empty. Plus, the cost to sanitize each bus twice a day and have the bus driver check kids for temperature or schools would have to pay for a bus aid to do that instead,” Horne said.
With rumored budget cuts for schools coming from the state level, Horne is unsure how schools will be able to afford to enact all the required regulations to keep students safe.
“There are all sorts of little things to think about. We don’t have hands-free sinks or toilets. Drinking fountains will be shut down. Kids will be responsible for bringing their own water bottles. The plan calls for cleaning door handles and keeping doors open, which is not possible in Imperial County,” said Horne.
Younger students will be less able to follow social distancing, Horne said, and she feels they will suffer from the lack of emotional connection they receive from a teachers’ smile.
“Think of these poor little kids, having to leave Mom and Dad to be with a teacher wearing a mask. The mask will prevent teachers from communicating with emotion. I remember the first days of school when kids needed hugs and affection. Friends would pat them on the back if they were sad. That’s all got to stopped, and I don’t have an answer at this point,” said Horne.
“When you think about field trips stopping, recess stopping and the cafeteria serving meals to kids who are observing social distancing, this is not going to be school as we remembered,” said Horne.
The McCabe School Board has been discussing what school would look like if only a portion of students were allowed on the campus at a time, Horne said.
“Right now, it’s all just ideas floating around. Several schools have sent out surveys to parents asking what they would prefer. Many parents want to just ignore the virus, but we can’t do that. The survey asked about part time school with part time distance learning. I don’t see any way we can have all the kids at the same time at school all day. There is just not the room for it,” said Horne.
In Calexico, officials at the Calexico Unified School District have yet to discuss what a return to campuses would entail with any specifics. The district sent out a letter to parents, staff and community members on June 8, signed by Superintendent Carlos Gonzales.
“We are aware that you may have several questions about the next school year and we can assure you that we are researching and creating a plan to ensure that any form of reopening occurs with the highest level of safety, health and guidance that is conducive to a positive environment for our students and staff.
“In weeks prior, we distributed the CUSD COVID-19 Instructional Program and Delivery Support Survey that solicited your opinion on potential reopening scenarios. As of June 8, 2020, approximately 2,440 parents and staff members have completed the survey. Thank you for responding, as your responses have provided insight as to how things have worked for you and your children the last few weeks. Your response is very important for our planning process,” Gonzales stated.
“At the moment, conversations with the Imperial County Department of Public Health and the Imperial County Office of Education are taking place to clarify guidelines for reopening of schools here in the Imperial Valley. We will be taking into consideration the current status of COVID-19 cases in our community as well as any other relevant situations that pertain solely to our county,” he stated.
Calexico High School Principal Gabrielle Williams-Ballesteros was asked whether she could discuss any specifics for the high school on June 8.
“My team and I have contemplated, discussed, planned and brainstormed every scenario possible. We were waiting for the guidelines,” Williams-Ballesteros said. She had no specifics she could share at this time, only saying that the next step in the process was to have discussions with the district office and stakeholders.