Williams Unified School District elementary school students may soon return to some in-person instruction, despite the objections of those who are afraid that kids and teachers together on campus will result in further transmission of coronavirus in the community.
The school board’s workshop last week on a safe reopening plan lasted for nearly four hours, with school officials assuring parents who do not want their children in school that distant learning would still be an option for the remainder of the school year.
While the district said negotiations with the labor unions are still ongoing, some teachers are eager to return to the classroom with their students because, overall, distance learning has failed to provide the education and social connection their students deserve.
“Distance learning is an effective tool for some students, but overall I believe that there are many students that are going to benefit greatly when we get back into the classroom,” said Williams High School teacher, Darren Robinson, who said he was only speaking for himself. “Internet connectivity throughout the district is too poor to maintain any kind of a significant learning progression.”
Robinson said he had no concerns about returning to the classroom and will take all precautions to protect himself and his students, including cleaning and sanitizing his own classroom if needed.
He and others, including parents, raised the issue that most people (90 percent in Colusa County) have been working continuously since the pandemic started in March, and that teachers should be doing the same.
“Teachers should be essential employees, and if other businesses and anything from nurses to cashiers to all these people out working in the workforce for me, then I can be in the classroom for them,” Robinson said. “That is just my personal philosophy and my thoughts on it. I’m ready to get back and many students are ready to get back into the classroom.”
Williams Unified School District Superintendent, Edgar Lampkin, said students in transitional kindergarten through third grade will be the first to return to school for two days a week, possibly as early as Nov. 16.
Lampkin said starting school the week before the Thanksgiving break would allow the district to make changes if they are needed before students return on Nov. 30. Returning to school for in-person instruction will require an agreement with the teacher union, which doesn’t appear to be fully on board.
Union President Tony Hermann said teachers still had concerns about the health of students and staff if the schools reopened, although discussion at the Oct. 25 workshop centered more around protecting community members and care providers.
School board member Yareli Mora said she will keep her child on distance learning because her mother, who is more vulnerable to coronavirus, is the child’s primary caregiver while Mora is at work.
Tamara Conry, the California Teachers Union representative, advocated for the district to accommodate teachers who want to work from home, not only if they felt they were at risk, but if they have a child or someone living in their home who may be more susceptible to having complications from the virus.
Parents said they want the district to allow them to decide what is best for their households.
Some said their children are doing well on the distant learning model and want them to stay there. Others said they need for their children to spend more than just two days a week at school.
Parents, public health officials, teachers, and school district officials have acknowledged that children have suffered dire consequences of being out of school, including poor grades, stress, anxiety, and other physical and mental health issues, while having a 0.0 percent death rate from COVID-19. District officials said since Williams schools closed, the number of students failing have tripled.
“I respect a lot of the parents who aren’t ready to send their kids back, and I agree that there should be an option for them to continue distance learning,” said Sara Martinez. “But that shouldn’t stop there being an option for parents who do want to send their kids back and the parents who are ready for their kids to go back full time. I also would like to ask what is going to happen with the students who are failing? If they fail whatever grade they are in, are they just going to be pushed through to the next grade without sufficient knowledge or are they going to be held back due to the difficulties of distance learning?”
Williams Elementary School teacher, Emma Agnew, believes the district should consider what other schools are doing in Colusa County to rotate their youngest students to provide at least a few hours of in-person instruction four days a week (rather than two), combined with distant learning.
“That way there is not one group of kids that is missing teacher interaction, direct teacher synchronous learning in the beginning half of the week,” Agnew said.
But school officials said in addition to providing students an education, they must deal with the fact that Hispanic/Latino communities have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19 than white communities, and that many students are living with people in their households that might be at risk.
“Our community wants our schools to open and parents want their kids back in school; a lot of them, not all,” said Superintendent Edgar Lampkin. “The pressure is definitely there, but the risks are also still there.”
According to the California Department of Public Health, Hispanic/Latino account for 40 percent of the state population, but have 60 percent of the documented COVID-19 cases. In rural populations in Northern California, the case rate is 70 percent.
“In our community, 95 percent of our student population is Hispanic/Latino,” Lampkin said. “That is the population of students we are addressing.”
Lampkin said that according to statistics, coronavirus has decimated the Hispanic/Latino community.
“There is a 55 percent death rate in Texas; 50 percent in California,” he said, quoting an article from the New York Times. “For Latinos, it’s a huge number of parents being taken away.”
California Public Health officials have also acknowledged the impact of coronavirus on the Hispanic community, which is attributed to most Hispanics being essential workers, living in multi-generational homes, and having cultural norms that foster large family gatherings that have led to fast and deadly transmission of the virus.
Lampkin said that safety precautions taken to reopen schools could lower the risk of transmission, but not eliminate the risk entirely.
“As schools inch closer to reopening campuses in some parts of California, medical experts are warning that the spread of coronavirus will be inevitable and that schools need to prepare,” Lampkin said, quoting an EdSource Magazine article.
While school officials acknowledged the high risk of coronavirus within the Latino community, they did not speculate whether keeping students off campus would actually help to reduce COVID-19, given the cultural norms and reasons for the high rate of transmission of the disease would still remain.
Officials did acknowledge that the same people they seek to protect will likely travel to Mexico for the Christmas holidays, despite the possibility of a 14 day quarantine if they come down with COVID-19 while there, and another 14 days quarantine upon their return to the U.S.
Currently, the U.S./Mexico border remains closed to all but essential workers through Nov. 21, although air travel is not restricted. Mexico’s COVID-19 cases are approaching 1 million, with the country having the third highest death toll of any nation, and 9.9 percent mortality rate from the disease.
Lampkin said it would be in their students’ best interest not to go.
Officials said the district will pursue a hybrid learning model that will lead to all students eventually returning to campus.
Currently, only TK-3 grade teachers have agreed to go back to work. The others may return next semester.
“Everything revolves around negotiations,” said Trustee Sylvia Vaca.
Meanwhile, parents need to let the district know their preferences for their children. Of the 700 families who have students enrolled in Williams Unified, only 138 have returned a parent survey, officials said.
“It is very important for parents to fill these out,” said Elementary School Principal Hector Gonzales.
The survey is available on the district’s website. Help with the survey is also available at the Family Resource Center. ♣