Students that are the most vulnerable to falling behind in their education due to COVID-19 forcing the switch to distance learning could return to Manteca Unified classrooms as early as mid-September.
The California Department of Public Health Tuesday issued guidance for schools that supersedes county health departments to allow cohorts — groupings of up to 14 students working with no more than two certificated instructors — to return to classrooms. It would be for limited instruction, addressing special needs, and to help facilitate distance learning by those students.
Manteca Unified Community Outreach Coordinator Victoria Brunn said the state guidance specifically requires that students with disabilities should be prioritized. After that other groups that fall under the guidance that allows schools to bring them back into the classroom are English learners, homeless students, foster youth that have a high tendency to be moved between families, students at risk for abuse or neglect, and those students that are at a higher risk of further learning loss or not participating in distance learning.
The district — once COVID-19 conditions within San Joaquin County allows it — intends to apply for a waiver to allow kindergarten through third graders to return to classrooms.
That falls in line with what the district has been stressing from the beginning of the pandemic — bringing students back into the classrooms with all of the required COVID-19 measures in place is critical given in-person teaching is the most effective way for students to learn.
Brunn noted that the cohort approach the state is allowing will require some doing when the district is able to start including high school students. Besides the 25 percent capacity rule that is now in place, high school students take multiple subjects from different teachers. Under state rules students allowing schools to take the cohort approach students would have to stay in the same grouping and interact with the same two teachers.
Brunn said the district had been planning for such a scenario that would move some students off distance learning into the classroom as intermediate steps toward a hybrid model that would have half of the students in classes and the other half distant learning from home at any given time. As a result, the district believes the first movement of students back into the classroom can occur in mid-September.
The district decision to have teachers instruct remote learning from their classrooms is expected to allow Manteca Unified to start the transition to cohort learning maxed out at 14 students at a time sooner than other districts. That’s because many teachers have already set up their classrooms for the return of students.
There are still numerous issues to work out given special needs students with disabilities are the top priority. Many of those students have aides that work with them one-on-one. The guidance requires a maximum of two instructors/aides per every 14 students.
Schools are being limited to 25 percent capacity which is half of what Manteca Unified plans on when they are allowed to move to phase 2 to implement the hybrid model with half of students attending Monday-Tuesday and the other half Thursday-Friday.
Also issues such as how to transport students safely on buses have to be hammered out. Although the district has eliminated to and from school busing for all other students due to social distancing rules sending costs sky high by severely reducing the capacity of buses it cannot legally do so for special needs students or homeless students. Under the most recent rules for buses, the district would have to press all buses — the smaller buses that were already dedicated to special education students as the large buses — into service in order to just transport the special education students. As a result, Brunn said the district is exploring possible “creative options” such as providing parents gas money to transport their special education students.
The state mandates special education busing but doesn’t pay for it.
The Centers for Disease guidelines imposing 3-foot separation would require the district’s large capacity buses designed for 84 passengers to be capped at 24 riders. The smaller buses used primarily for special education routes that carry 20 will only be allowed 8 maximum on board. The county could reduce capacity even more.
The district will not be saving any money by dropping busing for 1,200 students. Under CDC guidelines it may take the entire busing budget that was in place and then some to transport the 465 special education students they are mandated to bus.
Special education busing must be door to door. That means the bus pulls up to a student’s house to pick them up and drop them off. That significantly increases the time — and cost — to operate a bus route.
If the district continued to bus non-special education students it would increase busing costs from $6 million a year to roughly $30 million. The board would have had to eliminate virtually all spending except for salaries as well as benefits for all district employees. The school district has a general fund budget of $256 million of which roughly 85 percent goes to cover salaries, benefits, and retirement costs for nearly 1,100 teachers and 2,200 part-time and full-time support workers from paraprofessionals and custodian staff to bus drivers and others. That 85 percent staff cost is typical for California public schools.
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