(WORDINBLACK.COM) – On Oct. 13, the Sacramento County Health Department gave schools the green light to reopen classrooms following careful guidelines and precautions designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Teah Hairston gives instruction to her 4-year-old son, Daelan, while holding her 7-month-old son JahRuah. (Photo courtesy Teah Hairston)

While many of the county’s 240,000 students — roughly 11 percent African American — and their families celebrated the news, other families weren’t sure if it was the right move, especially grandparents who face the greatest health risk from the pandemic. A third of the county’s nearly 27,000 COVID-19 positives are over age 49, and most of the deaths have been residents 55 and over, said Sacramento County Public Health Officer, Dr. Olivia Kasirye.
And some teachers have doubts about their safety, regardless of how careful their schools are to sanitize classrooms, hold class sizes down to manageable, socially distanced numbers and keep their groups of students masked and separated.

True to form for 2020, this week, after a rise in positive COVID-19 cases, Sacramento County has moved backwards into the “purple tier” — the state’s most restrictive tier for reopening. Now the county cannot move out of those restrictions for several weeks. The uncertainty of the county’s status has been frustrating for educators and families to say the least as school districts are struggling to formulate their reopening plans.

“Each local district is developing its own return-to-school plan because they all have separate school boards, labor groups, and are making their own decisions about returning,” said Sacramento Office of Education (SCOE) spokesman Tim Herrera. “Things are constantly changing. Several thought about returning in November but have now decided on December or January.”

The Sacramento Unified School District, one of the county’s largest, has been locked in a dispute with the teachers’ union over how teachers will come back and what’s expected. Calls and emails to SCUSD communications staff went unanswered.

Sacramento’s Black charter schools have been working with Dr. Kasirye and had planned to open their schools as soon as mid-November using a “hybrid learning model” that blends remote learning via computer with in-class supervision and other school activities including meals and recess.

All students will be broken into groups, or cohorts “of no more than 16 people and there’s no mixing until the end of the school year,” explained Dr. Margaret Fortune, founder and CEO of eight predominantly Black K-12 charter schools in Sacramento serving 1,904 students and another in San Bernardino serving 395. Dr. Fortune said Fortune School consist of 65 percent African American and 26 percent Latino and Mixed Race, most of them low income. After polling their families, she says 46 percent of their families said they want to come back to some sort of hybrid model.

Childcare and adult supervision are big issues for parents trying to juggle jobs with supervising their in-home students.

“Staff and kids are eager to get back and interact with their students and classmates…” Dr. Fortune said. Desks will be at least six feet apart, there will be health screenings, temperature checks, a designated sick bay, plexiglass in staff offices and PPE.

The curriculum will be the same, whether students are learning from home or in the classroom. Either way, each student is going to work on a Chromebook and receive online instructions from their teacher. In school, “the person in front of them may or may not be their teacher but they will be supervised by a school employee,” Dr. Fortune said.

The health and safety of each 16-person cohort (15 students and a supervisor) “is something for teachers to navigate,” Dr. Fortune said, and parents and students have been told up front what’s expected “for their own safety and the safety of others.” Students who can’t keep their masks on and comply with the health guidelines will be sent home.

Teachers and staff won’t be required to return to their classrooms if they have medical reasons or vulnerable family members.

Samantha Douglass, the lead teacher for TK (transition kindergarten) through second grade at Tecoy Porter College Prep in Meadowview, said “school’s going to look a lot different than it ever did before but I’m excited for the new adventure — a majority of teachers are looking forward to coming back, we’ve been training every day.” Ms. Douglass had planned to get back in the classroom with her kindergarteners from 7:45 a.m. to 12:30 Monday-Thursday with a fitness and yoga break in the middle. Because the classrooms are somewhat smaller, Ms. Douglass said her cohort will be 14 instead of 16 so each student can stay in their invisible six-foot box.

When in-person school resumes, the first week of school will be spent coaching the students ahead of time, explaining to them “what going to the bathroom is going to look like, keeping our distance, giving them a lot of compliments, making it clear we can’t be at school if we don’t follow the directions,” Ms. Douglass said. Scholars who can’t keep their masks on or stay away from other kids will be docked points, and their parents will be notified.

Some schools will have the young scholars eat lunch at their desks, while others will eat outside at campuses that have enough space to do it safely.
Ms. Douglass believes scholars can learn as much remotely as they would in the classroom. “They’re still getting the same level of rigor, we do on-line standardized testing and one-on-one quizzes with students and set meeting times for students to log in after they receive direct instruction.”

St. Hope Schools serve a similar population at PS7 elementary and middle schools and Sacramento Charter High School in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood: more than 1,000 predominantly African American students, the majority low-income, said Chief of Schools Kari Wehrly. They are also crafting a hybrid learning model with 12-15 people per cohort said spokesperson Alison MacCleod.

All county schools are keeping their scholars in cohorts so if someone gets COVID-19, the cohort can be quarantined for two weeks, returning to remote learning, without closing the entire school, said Dave Gordon, Sacramento County Superintendent of Schools.

“The return to school is badly needed for our young people, let’s face it, a lot of our kids are lonely. They need social interaction with their teachers they care for and trust, and they need to be back together with their classmates,” Gordon said.

“Opening is the easy part. Placer and El Dorado County Schools have opened and their safety precautions have been effective, any health issues they’ve been able to manage without closing the schools,” he added.

Dr. Kasirye has worked tirelessly with the local schools to prepare them to reopen. She outlined how they can go back safely:

  • Symptom check before they get to school — thermometer checks aren’t needed, but parents need to check their kids
  • Face covering consistently
  • Physical distancing as much as possible to maintain the six-foot bubble
  • Being able to maintain stable cohorts, have students to be around the same group — quarantining if necessary.
  • Hand washing

“Now our definition of cohort is more about keeping a group together, could be as small as 16, for the largest groups as many as 30 with desks six feet apart,” Dr. Kasirye explained.

“Schools are limited by their classroom size. One half of the students can come back Monday, Wednesday, Friday, the other half Tuesday, Thursday, or half come in the morning, the other half in the afternoon. As much as possible they need to do the cleaning at least once between groups, good ventilation is important as well,” she added.

The key thing to remember, Dr. Kasirye added, is “this virus is mainly passed on from one person to the other through the air through singing, laughing, sneezing, coughing, so maintain six feet. Most surfaces are safe, the virus dies very quickly, but if the virus drops onto these surfaces that are touched very frequently, when a person touches the surface and then their face or eyes, this could be a way to transmit the virus.”

Since the main risk is breathing in the virus, “keep your mask on, it works a lot better if all parties are wearing face covering or a mask,” Dr. Kasirye said. The virus affects all age groups, but only 8 percent of the county’s 26,716 cases as of Nov. 3 were people 17 or under. That doesn’t mean they aren’t carriers who can give the virus to their parents and grandparents.

It’s hard to know when exactly it will be safe for kids to return to school, said Dr. Teah Hairston, who works full time for the Board of State and Community Corrections while raising her 7-month-old son JahRuah and helping her 4-year-old son Daelan zoom into his Tiny Tots pre-K in Natomas.

“That’s one of the things I’ve been struggling with, how will I know when to send Daelan back to a physical classroom. I don’t have any real sense what is true about COVID, and my 65-year-old mother lives with us and is in the age range that has more complications and deaths,” Dr. Hairston said.

“Do I jeopardize her health? Right now, my son loves technology, computers, tablets and cell phones – he’s on his laptop right now and he’s OK with remote learning, but he’d prefer to go back with other kids. I think he would probably learn more in the classroom because at home there are distractions; he loves to play with his baby brother.”

Some African American families Dr. Hairston knows “are doing great with remote learning, they take advantage of being home to see what their kids are doing.” It often depends on the child. “If a child is an introvert or does better by themselves, remote learning works well,” she said. “A woman I know has an 11-year-old son who’s on the spectrum who’s thriving, but her two older girls — one who’s a senior — are struggling to keep interested without being able to see their friends. It’s a split, some people are super stressed out about remote learning, working at home, helping with distance learning, just being parents. Others are enjoying a pause from the daily rigmarole.”

By Stephen Magagnini | OBSERVER Correspondent

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