In summary

While many school districts in the state’s more populous areas have been essentially forced to start the school year teaching remotely, more sparsely populated have options.

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Students lined up in front of six tables spaced 20 feet apart across Bishop Union High School’s sprawling front lawn. School employees processed their registration packets, braving triple-digit heat on a sunny Tuesday afternoon.

Kids mingled for the 15 or so minutes they were there. They purchased yearbooks, picked up ID cards and only took off their face masks when it was time to show a photographer their smiles for their annual pictures. 

Occasionally, the voice of Wanda Summers, the principal’s secretary, boomed friendly reminders through the intercom. Remember to maintain social distancing unless you come from the same household, she said. Make sure your face masks cover your nose. 

“A little bit of normalcy is what it seemed like,” Summers said. “It’s our registration day. We do this every year.”

Reopening decisions

The vast majority of California’s public and private schools will begin the new academic year remotely as coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to mount. But a handful of schools, such as those in Inyo County’s Bishop Unified School District, will be among the first in the state to reinstate physical school reopenings, offering case studies on when and how to safely bring children and adults back to campuses.

More than 97% of California’s 6.1 million K-12 students live in the 38 counties on the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list, effectively shutting the door on in-person instruction until their counties stabilize infection rates and stay off the list for 14 days. The other 164,000 students live in the 20 counties not on the watch list. 

In Bishop — an Owens Valley town at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains in a remote county that has largely avoided the virus — classrooms will be in session.

Wearing face masks and sitting spaced apart around a horseshoe table, the Bishop school board last Thursday decided in a 4-hour meeting to give parents in the district of 2,000 students an option of full-time distance learning or hybrid scheduling, in which students attend class in person for part of the week and learn remotely for the other portion. 

“We’re privileged to be in a county that has a low (positive test) rate and we have this opportunity to do it. A lot of places in the state don’t even have the option,” said Taylor Ludwick, a school board member and veterinarian.

“There are risks in every business … and they’re scary,” he said. “It’s not an easy proposition to wrap your mind around, but I think the stakes are too high for these kids to not go to school.”

Rural differences

Back-to-school season in California and the rest of the country is happening at a time when dozens of states are experiencing surges in cases, prompting thousands of school districts, including 12 of the nation’s 15 largest systems, to begin the year remotely.

Schools in at least two other states had students test positive for coronavirus within a day of reopening. Students’ return to school has been raised as a possible cause of a coronavirus resurgence in Israel, as well. Without federal help, a sustained decline in cases and extensive testing and contact tracing measures, school officials around the country have cast doubt on whether schools can safely reopen and stay open.

California’s massive public school system is home to the nation’s second-largest school district as well as hundreds of small districts, some with as few as five students, each with diverse communities.

The challenges rural districts in Bishop and Lone Pine face in reopening might not apply to large, urban schools in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. But just about every California school district and community at some point this year will likely be in the same shoes as Bishop, grappling with the decision over whether and how to physically reopen schools once they have the green light from the state public-health authorities.

“We’ll find out if they will provide more comfort or anxiety for the rest of the state as these schools go back in session,” said Tim Taylor, executive director of the Small School Districts Association. “Everybody’s thinking of worst-case scenarios. Maybe when we get schools started, these example schools that are going face-to-face can provide us with some relief and reduce our anxiety.”

Many of the state’s rural schools have additional space to spread out classrooms and meet social distancing guidelines requirements, partially because of declining enrollments in remote communities, Taylor said.

As has been the case throughout the pandemic, there is a wide variance in how the 200 school districts in the 20 counties not on the state watchlist are choosing to start the new year.

In Northern California’s Lake County, for example, four of the six school districts decided to begin the year with distance learning, with plans to phase into a hybrid model.

“Everybody’s thinking of worst-case scenarios. Maybe when we get schools started, these example schools that are going face-to-face can provide us with some relief.”

Tim Taylor, Small School Districts Association

In Shasta County, the Redding and Shasta Union High school districts will offer in-person instruction, with the latter planning to have students in class five days a week. Shasta Union does plan on requiring students and teachers to wear masks, configuring classrooms to be more spread out and forbidding personal contact between students, among other rules. 

Six of 15 school districts in El Dorado County will offer hybrid scheduling, with the rest beginning under full-time distance learning. Buckeye Union Elementary, about 45 minutes east of Sacramento, is the largest California school district currently not affected by reopening restrictions. The district’s 8,900 students will begin with distance learning and school officials will consider physically reopening campuses once El Dorado County can test people for the virus and process results within 48 hours and its infection rates fall below 100 positive cases per 100,000 residents.

Mariposa County Unified School District, about 170 west of Bishop, will also begin under full-time distance learning. In a July 27 letter to families, superintendent Jeff Aranguena said that while the state provided “guidance and mandates for when a school or district must close its campuses, both the governor and (California Department of Public Health) have not provided mandates and metrics for when it is safe to reopen.” 

Schools, he added, still need more direction to make responsible decisions for reopening.

Part of the Mariposa district’s distance learning decision had to do with the wariness that the county — home to Yosemite National Park where recent evidence of the virus’ presence has surfaced — could likely end up on the state’s monitoring list. Another factor was that the district simply did not have all the logistics figured out to bring students back in person by August 20, the first day of school.

The district, which started last school year two bus drivers short, still doesn’t have enough drivers for the additional routes that would be required to transport students under social distancing practices. Some small, remote schools such as Yosemite National Park Valley Elementary — with 34 students — could potentially bring students back sooner.

“We have a lot of hurdles to get through to get to that point,” Ceci Archer, executive assistant to the district’s superintendent, said.

Applying for waivers

The Lucerne Valley Unified School District lies in San Bernardino County’s high desert, a school district of 750 students in the geographically largest county in the U.S. The community in the district would like to physically reopen, but its path to doing so is difficult. 

San Bernardino County is on the state’s watch list, but even schools in those counties have a path for reopening classrooms for K-6 students through elementary school waivers

Schools can submit waivers, which the state introduced in its July 17 rules for reopening schools, if they can attest that they have support from local teacher and employee unions and parent and community groups. Though county health officers will make those case-by-case calls, the state is recommending that counties should not consider approving any waivers if their infection rates are above 200 cases per 100,000 residents.

“Rushing into reopening schools is simply reckless.”

jeff freitas, president of the california federation of teachers

Peter Livingston, superintendent of the Lucerne Valley Unified School District, said the process effectively prevents his district from offering in-person instruction despite strong support from the district’s teachers, parents and employees.

Livingston applied for a waiver to physically reopen Lucerne Valley Elementary the same day Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled the new mandates in a long-shot attempt to begin the Aug. 6 first day of school on campuses for the youngest students. About 87% of teachers support a hybrid or full return to campus, Livingston said, adding that 6 in 10 families surveyed said they wanted in-person learning.

But while there are about 55 confirmed coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents within Lucerne Valley’s 750 square miles, according to figures the county health department shared with Livingston, the county as a whole had a rate of 239 cases per 100,000 residents as of Saturday.

“We’re being lumped into the category of the large metropolitan areas down by San Bernardino, and we’re far from that,” Livingston said.

The state introduced these elementary school waivers pointing to research that shows children age 12 and under are at lower risk of contracting, spreading and suffering severe complications from the virus. The waivers, however, have come under fierce pushback from the state’s two teachers unions and some school facilities experts who noted the waivers’ approval don’t consider critical factors such as whether classrooms have proper ventilation.

“Rushing into reopening schools is simply reckless,” said Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, calling the waivers “a major mistake.” 

“Decisions about reopening schools must be guided by a singular goal of keeping our students, our families, and our communities safe,” he said. “Unfortunately, the state’s recent guidance and waiver allowances fall short.”

Teacher buy-in

In Bishop, Superintendent Katie Kolker said the district learned many lessons from operating socially distant summer schools. For one, she said, “students need frequent mask breaks.” They need time to be outside, distanced, without their coverings. An elementary school principal suggested that students have lanyards around their masks so they’d be less likely to misplace them, a practice that quickly caught on.

Kolker isn’t sure whether larger cohorts of students will maintain their distance during unstructured parts of the day — like lunch — without supervision, but adding more adults or a hall monitor to keep tabs doesn’t seem appealing, either. “People policing at all times is not going to create a very welcoming environment,” she said.

The former guidance counselor and alternative school principal has wondered both how students with unstable living conditions have fared during the pandemic and how depressed and anxious Bishop students are.

“If we weren’t trying really hard (to reopen), we’d be doing a disservice to our community because these kids, they need us,” Kolker said.

Stacy Van Nest, a math teacher at Bishop High who’s also the school’s athletic director and president of the district’s teachers union, said many logistics still need to be hammered out. The key question yet to be completely resolved is how teachers in the district will balance in-person classes while overseeing students in distance learning. 

Though the district is considering dipping into its reserves to hire more teachers to reduce workloads and lower class sizes further, “the bottom line is we’re all doing more,” Van Nest said.

About nine in 10 teachers were on board with trying to offer hybrid classes, Van Nest said, though Kolker acknowledged some teachers are concerned about returning in person.

“Our teacher working conditions are our students’ learning conditions, so we want to make sure that it’s the best that it possibly can be for everyone,” Van Nest said.

An Aug. 18 in-person start, though less than two weeks away, is far from guaranteed. Complicating reopening plans, the local county health department on Monday warned that a rise in cases could land Inyo County on the state’s monitoring list if cases keep growing.

Sometimes, it feels inevitable that the district would have to shut down campuses again, Kolker said. Even a temporary in-person return to schools would help build relationships among students and teachers, making distance learning a more satisfying experience. Unpredictability, she said, will be a constant theme this school year.

As Tuesday’s registration day wound down at Bishop Union High, Summers and the school registrar quickly leafed through the packets families turned in. Most of the school’s 650 students opted for in-person instruction, she said.

Summers, the president of the local classified employees union who will celebrate her 60th birthday in late August, is a “little apprehensive” about physical school reopenings, noting her age puts her at risk. An informal survey of school employees found many supported the district’s efforts, but were most concerned by the sheer uncertainty of what will happen once schools reopen.

When students return to Bishop Union High for the first day of school, they will see signage posted on walls telling them which directions they should be walking in. Several handwashing stations will be placed across campus. Hand sanitizer will be in every classroom. A thick wall of plexiglass now separates Summers’ desk counter from visitors. 

“I think we’re on the road to being thoroughly prepared,” Summers said. “But can you really be thoroughly prepared for this?”

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Ricardo Cano covers California education for CalMatters. Cano joined CalMatters in September 2018 from The Arizona Republic and, where he spent three years as the education reporter. Cano...