MONTEREY COUNTY — Gov. Gavin Newsom announced July 17 that schools located in counties on the state’s Covid-19 watch list would only be able to begin their 2020-21 school year in a virtual setting over computer, also known as distance learning.
Monterey County was one of those watch list areas, with more than 100 confirmed Covid-19 cases per 100,000 residents, so all local schools will now start out in a computerized rather than in-person format.
“We recognize the significant impact school closures have on our entire community, students, families and staff,” said Deneen Guss, Monterey County superintendent of schools. “The Monterey County Office of Education, our 24 school districts and eight charter schools will continue to work diligently and collaboratively towards a safe reopening of schools to in-person instruction in Monterey County when health conditions allow.”
The governor’s order also provided metrics on how schools and county public health officials would determine if a school would reopen and begin in-person instruction. In order for a school to do so, their home county must have been off the state’s watch list for 14 days.
Schools can also be closed when at least 5% of the total student, staff and teacher population tests positive for Covid-19 within a 14-day period. A district can be shut down if 25% of its schools have closed due to Covid-19.
The state mandate came at a time when all local school districts were evaluating how to begin their upcoming year, with many beginning in August.
Districts had mostly evaluated a three-pronged approach, making plans for in-person instruction, distance learning and hybrid models. Some area districts, such as Greenfield Union School District, set up town hall meetings to receive community feedback.
At school board meetings in recent weeks, districts have been questioned by the community about their ability to ensure the safety of students, staff and families.
Greenfield’s town hall meetings hosted more than 500 community members, where ideas were put forth and a team of more than 50 — including community members, teachers, union personnel, administrators, counselors, psychologists and nurses — put together a plan based on that information.
“I am also incredibly proud of our school board of trustees for taking a bold stance in accepting staff recommendation with a unanimous 5-0 vote to start our school via distance (or virtual) learning to keep our students and community safe,” said Zandra Jo Galván, GUSD superintendent. “This decision came a day earlier than the governor of California declaring all Monterey County schools to start via virtual learning.”
The decision by Greenfield’s board planned for the entirety of the first quarter of school, Aug. 12 through Oct. 15, to be held online only.
Had schools reopened, staff would have had to figure out such issues as: social distancing in classrooms too small to have 30 students 6 feet apart; how to enforce mask use; increased hygiene practices; how to handle a classroom if a student or teacher gets sick; how to recruit substitutes; among other concerns.
South Monterey County Joint Union High School District, which oversees King City and Greenfield high schools, announced earlier in July that after community surveys, the district decided to move forward with distance learning.
“Now more than ever, our number one concern and priority is the safety and well-being of our students, staff and the King City community,” said KCHS Principal Janet Sanchez Matos in an open letter to the community. “We will slowly begin to open our doors to students once we are able to comply with the local and CDC safety requirements, procedures and precautions.”
She went on to explain the expectation was that all students and teachers will log in daily with class objectives and tasks. While students work, teachers will be available for questions or to clarify instructions.
While KCHS already had plans in place for distance learning at the beginning of its school year, Matos said the plan was to shift to a hybrid model by Sept. 1. However, new state guidance means that option must be pushed back.
Distance learning itself compounds inequity issues, especially surrounding access to internet service and computers. Area school districts last school year issued students their classroom laptops or tablets to use at home. However, access to the internet remained a problem.
In Gonzales, the city issued free Wi-Fi hotspots to residents. In Greenfield, community leaders partnered with Monterey-Salinas Transit to act as mobile hotspots, which were soon extended throughout South Monterey County. Greenfield has since secured more than 60 broadband access points throughout the city.
Officials from Soledad and Gonzales schools did not respond to requests for comments.