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Elementary exception: Local districts seek waivers to reopen elementary schools, but teachers are apprehensive 

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Just when local school districts had finalized plans to start the 2020-21 school year with distance-only learning, the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department outlined a new waiver process on July 29 that would allow elementary schools to open.

Multiple SLO County school districts—including Paso Robles Joint Unified School District—are interested in applying for the waiver and reopening elementary campuses in some capacity this fall. But the idea is drawing questions and concerns from teachers.

click to enlarge REOPENING? SLO County school districts are exploring applying for a waiver that would allow them to reopen elementary schools—despite rising COVID-19 numbers. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SAN LUIS COASTAL UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT
  • Photo Courtesy Of San Luis Coastal Unified School District
  • REOPENING? SLO County school districts are exploring applying for a waiver that would allow them to reopen elementary schools—despite rising COVID-19 numbers.

"There is a lot of anxiety," said Jim Lynett, executive director of the Paso Robles Public Educators union. "We're very trepidatious about this whole concept."

The elementary school waiver is a footnote in the state's guidance to schools located in counties on the "COVID-19 watchlist," which SLO is on, where infection rates and other disease metrics are high.

A July 17 governor's order required that schools in these counties continue with distance learning until they are off the watchlist for at least 14 days. But the waiver carves out an exception for elementary schools.

"The reason we are able to offer this in-person waiver," SLO County Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein said at a press briefing on July 29, "is particularly under the age of 12, science tells us that [children] are much less at risk for getting the disease, for passing it to each other, for passing it to staff and teachers, and to become very sick with the disease. All of the considerations put them at the lowest risk for problems with COVID-19."

Some local districts are mobilizing to apply for the waiver in the coming few weeks; others said they're focused on carrying out distance learning for now.

"At this time, we are pouring all of our efforts into standing up a robust distance-learning program for all students across all levels," Lucia Mar Unified School District Superintendent Andy Stenson said in a statement on July 31. "After school starts, we will begin to consider a waiver application that could open limited forms of in-person instruction."

Paso Robles Joint Unified Superintendent Kurt Dubost said that his district is pursuing a waiver sooner, with a proposed plan to reopen elementary schools in phases—starting with kindergarten through second grade. While all grades would start the year with distance learning in August as planned, the waiver could allow those grades to reopen sometime in September.

Despite Paso having the highest number of COVID-19 cases in SLO County, Dubost said school board members strongly support reopening schools. Many families desperately need it, he said, especially those struggling economically or those with special needs children.

"If you saw some of the emails coming from parents, it just breaks your heart," Dubost said. "Farmworkers, single moms. ... We're also worried about our homeless kids.

"We don't see [safety and in-person learning] as mutually exclusive," he continued. "We take the virus very seriously and believe that the best, safest thing we can do for the majority of students is get them back into school as soon as possible."

To receive a waiver from the SLO County Public Health Department, districts (and private and charter schools) have to submit a reopening safety plan and show that they "consulted" with labor and community groups on the decision, according to the waiver application. Borenstein, SLO's public health officer, said her department can review an application in one week's time.

As of New Times' press time, Paso Joint Unified, Templeton Unified, Atascadero Unified, and San Luis Coastal Unified school districts were all exploring the waiver option, according to school officials and teachers. San Luis Coastal is weighing opening its elementary schools for "small groups of students, ... especially for some of our more vulnerable populations," according to Kim McGrath, assistant superintendent for educational services. That concept was already discussed by the San Luis Coastal school board over the summer, she said.

But these districts will face a number of questions and concerns from their teachers. Teachers union leaders told New Times they're concerned that local schools aren't currently equipped to keep COVID-19 off their campuses.

"The waiver is causing I can't tell you how much anxiety in our elementary teachers right now," said Christine Williams, president of the Atascadero District Teachers Association. "We're concerned that the county is not prepared for this."

COVID-19 testing is one chief concern for the teachers. Without sufficient testing protocols at the schools, teachers said they are not likely to support reopening plans.

"We're not prepared with testing and tracing countywide," Williams said. "We can get absolutely no information about how the testing is going to work. They don't have enough."

Lynett of the Paso Robles Public Educators also emphasized testing and added that his teachers are particularly fearful about entering classrooms amid a surge in local COVID-19 cases where Paso has the highest number of infections.

"We have the most cases in the county," he said. "To me, that nixes it right there."

The teachers also noted that while the latest science indicates young children may not be as susceptible to COVID-19, there's much that's still unknown on the subject.

"The science is not there yet," Lynett said. "Most kids have been home since March, so we don't have a lot of data. We have some data from South Korea, but we don't have a lot of clear data from here."

In the coming days and weeks, districts, teachers, staff, and parents will discuss their reopening options and the safety measures necessary for success—from testing, to mask wearing, to class sizes and setups.

Williams, of the Atascadero teachers' union, said everybody wants to be back in the classroom, but that it must be done safely and not hastily.

"We'll continue to communicate and work with the district because we all want to be back in school. We want to be in our classrooms with students," she said. "We're just trying to make sure everything's in place before we reopen." Δ

Reach New Times staff writers through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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