By Mary-Justine Lanyon
If San Bernardino County moves into the red tier of COVID-19 restrictions soon – as predicted by Supervisor Janice Rutherford and other officials – all of the students in the Rim of the World Unified School District will be back in the classroom by mid-April.
A three-tiered reopening plan, spurred on by AB 86, was approved unanimously by the five Rim trustees at a special meeting on March 2.
As Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 86 into law on March 4, he said that “this package of funding and supports for our schools recognizes that in-person education is essential to meet not only the learning needs, but the mental health and social-emotional needs of our kids. The state is committed to creating safe learning environments for students and safe workplaces for educators as we build on months of progress to accelerate the pace of school reopenings across California.”
Outlining AB 86 for the trustees, Chief Business Official Jenny Haberlin said $2 billion will be available to school districts in proportional amounts. Half of the allocation will be distributed in May, the other half in August.
In addition, AB 86 also includes $4.6 billion available for extended instructional learning through August 2022.
To get those funds, school districts must provide in-person instruction by April 1. If they do not, their allocation will be reduced by 1 percent per day in-person instruction is not provided between April 1 and May 15.
Each school district will get a proportionate share of the incentive funds. Rim’s proportionate share of the LCFF (Local Control Funding Formula) is 0.000477. Following the meeting, Haberlin estimated that amount to be $1 million.
Superintendent Michelle Murphy clarified “in-person instruction” as defined in AB 86. This instruction, “under the immediate physical supervision and control of a certificated employee,” must continue through the end of the school year. Should that in-person instruction end prior to the end of the school year, the district will forfeit the allocated funds – unless ordered to do so by a local or state agency.
In addition, Murphy told the trustees, vaccines are not a prerequisite to provide in-person instruction.
The superintendent was pleased to share the news that, immediately prior to the school board meeting, she had received a message from the county superintendent of schools that he had arranged for codes for the 127 Rim employees still in need of a vaccine to get one. Murphy added she did not know where those vaccines would be given but her plan was to personally email each of the employees the code on Wednesday morning.
Associate Superintendent Todd Beal said that, currently, Rim falls into the purple tier, with fewer than 25 cases per 100,000. Under that standard as part of AB 86, they must offer in-person instruction to prioritized cohorts and grades kindergarten to second.
Once Rim moves into the red tier – which he said could be “in a matter of days” – they must offer in-person instruction to prioritized cohorts, grades kindergarten through five and one grade of the district’s choice above five.
Prioritized cohorts include foster and homeless youth; English learners; special education students; students at risk of abuse or neglect; disengaged students; students lacking access to adequate Internet access. The trustees agreed with Beal that there is no clear definition of “disengaged” students.
School board president Jordana Ridland opened the meeting by reading messages from 19 parents and teachers. Several of them included the phrase “enough is enough,” encouraging the school board to reopen schools as soon as possible.
“Bring our children back as soon as possible,” one person wrote. “My children do not see me as an educator but as a mother.”
Another urged the board to “get our kids back to school. School is so much more than academic instruction.”
But one person wrote that “teachers’ lives need to be taken into account. Being vaccinated should be the standard. We should be thinking of their health and safety.”
“I have learned so much this year,” one teacher wrote, “and feel I am a better teacher. It had to be done so I adapted. I want to be back in my classroom but I want to be as safe as possible.”
Mark Bear, the president of the Rim Teachers Association, told the board that “it sounds like your constituents are as diverse as mine. I don’t think anyone here wants to keep schools closed. However, a lot of this is out of our control.”
Bear went on to say that he feels teachers should be fully vaccinated to go back into the classroom. He also asked for consistency from one Rim campus to the next. “I don’t think one school should be doing something different from others,” he said.
“If we didn’t push our kids, they’d sleep until noon and play video games,” Bear said. “I feel sorry for kids without parents pushing them. There aren’t that many who are self-motivated.”
Bear also wondered if a two-day hybrid model – the one being proposed – is the best way to return to school.
Suzanne Grow, the district’s representative to the California School Employees Association, told the board that some classified employees are afraid of coming in contact with an infected person and taking the virus home.
“We are essential and willing to do our part,” Grow said. “Many are doing things they didn’t sign up for, just like teachers who didn’t sign up to teach virtually.
“We dream of going back to school,” Grow added. “But we worry that the schedule of cohorts will be more disruptive to students. We worry that, no matter how safe we try to make our schools, the risk will increase. Our association president pleads with us to practice safety protocols and reminds us we’re not out of the woods.”
When asked where the district stands on its safety protocols, Murphy said they have met all of the requirements for the county’s safety plan, which was submitted. “We have secured testing for students so it is available,” she said. “The custodians are doing a great job of cleaning. We are well prepared with our safety plan.”
Eight days after submitting Rim’s safety plan, Murphy had gotten no feedback which, she said, is tantamount to approval.
“There are pros and cons to all dates,” Murphy told the trustees. “Some are tied to funding, to safety, to priorities.
April 12 was already announced. The tier approach allows us to have time to develop confidence and trust in what we’re doing rather than bringing everyone back on one date.”
There was some discussion about a five-day hybrid model – in which half the students would be in class in the morning, the other half in the afternoon. However, following the meeting, Ridland said that “while in many ways it would be preferable to have students on campus five days a week, we don’t have staffing to support the classroom cleaning that would be required.”
In the two-day hybrid model, half the students will attend school on Monday and Tuesday, the other half on Thursday and Friday. Wednesday will be devoted to cleaning all the campuses.
“Having the hybrid model,” Murphy said, “is the only way we can safely maintain four to six feet of social distancing as required in the guidelines.”
In the end, the board voted unanimously to approved the hybrid model proposed by Superintendent Murphy:
Tier 1: Grades TK-2 students will return on March 22.
Tier 2: Grade 3-5 students will return on March 29. If the county is in the red tier, one secondary grade will also return.
Tier 3: All grades, TK-12, will return on April 12 if the county is in the red tier.
“All staff,” Murphy said after the meeting, “are preparing for a safe return to campus and are looking forward to being with students as we are on a path to some normalcy. Students are looking forward to meeting their classmates and their teachers face-to-face for the first time this school year.”
Murphy also noted that families will have the option to remain in distance learning. “About 25 percent will be doing so,” she said, “reducing the number of students in class on any given day.” Teachers, she noted, “will need to return to campus unless accommodations need to be made for medical reasons.”