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It’s just 51 days before 32 Manteca Unified schools may change forever
2000 grad
A Manteca High graduate poses for a photo during last month’s drive-thru diploma presentation.

It is arguably the most challenging decision that will have ever been made in the 55-year history of the Manteca Unified School District.

The seven men and women that represent our community on the school board next week need to make a daunting decision that will directly impact the lives of 24,500 students, up to 49,000 parents, and 2,400 employees. It will be a seismic lifestyle shift that will last at least a year and could set the course to change for the better how students are educated for decades to come.

At the same time it could end up being a life and death decision for any of the 75,900 people whose lives the decision will directly touch and countless relatives and friends of those people.

It is being done in the fluid understanding of how COVID-19 spreads with the added challenge of a major hole being blown in district finances for multiple years as a result of how the state responded to the pandemic with stay at home orders.

They must weigh the long range impacts on students’ education that could follow them into college or the workplace.

There are issues with the impact on the “whole” student in terms of working parents who may not be able to secure child care for younger children to work around whatever solution is advanced.

The “authorities” they must heed in making their decision aren’t exactly on the same page — the California Department of Education, the Centers for Disease Control, and the San Joaquin County Health Department.

They are facing two major camps: Parents that are scared to send their child back to school and parents that are demanding that schools return to what they were prior to March 12. Between those two extreme positions are an infinite number of other concerns reflecting the unique situations of individual students, their families, and teachers.

They need to keep in mind not just the health of students who are at the core of the struggle to come up with the right school year scenarios but those of teachers and staff. Even with staggered solutions that might limit an individual student’s exposure to perhaps 15 or 17 other students on an ongoing basis, that is nothing compared to that of teachers. Primary teachers would still be around 30 students on an ongoing basis even if they are split into two groups attending at different times or days. High school instructors could literally have 150 to 200 students they see on a regular basis.

Of those 24,500 students, each has a unique immune system. That is on top of the fact they — and their families — will circulate among other people given the odds of anyone bunkering down in quasi-quarantine away from school or work is pure fantasy.

And while there is evidence children and teens are less susceptible to becoming ill with COVID-19 that isn’t the case for the adults that teach them or support the education process in each of the district’s 32 campuses.

The decision on what format school will take when that first bell rings on Aug. 6 is something that literally needed to have been made yesterday.

If the board Tuesday decides on which way to go other than business as usual that would give educators 51 days to essentially remake a school model of teaching that has been in place for more than 120 years.

The nuts and bolts of how teaching will be done starting Aug. 6 is without a doubt the biggest challenge any educator has tackled in such a short time frame.

Right alongside it is how families are going to reorganize their day-to-day lives between their children’s schooling, work, and other demands. Those issues impact schools in an infinite of ways. The most obvious is it could erode the ability of students to learn due to distractions. There is the possible inability of parents to take a more active role in their child’s education is another.

Then there are the two 900-pound gorillas. It is likely a large number of older students will have to become de facto child care providers for younger siblings due to parents that need to work. If the “in” school time of the older and younger students aren’t coordinated it would drag the older student’s ability to have access to real face-time teaching down. Just as daunting is how students will get to and from school with whatever staggered education format moves forward.

The odds are high the district will no longer be able to afford home-to-school transportation for students that don’t have special needs. Not only is school funding being cut but social distancing mandates effective cut bus capacity by 80 percent.

Since special education transportation is mandated by the state, that $11,000 annual cost of bus a student will soar past $50,000. A non-special needs student that now costs north of $3,000 a year to bus with social distancing will approach $15,000. Do the math. For the elimination of every 13 less non-special needs students that were bused prior to the pandemic you will be able to afford the pandemic era busing cost of one special needs student. Given the district buses roughly the same number of special needs students as non-special needs students you can see how it will start draining money from classrooms. And that’s before you factor in the 7.92 percent loss this coming school year in state funding.

And if bus drivers “lose” their jobs driving buses, it’s hard not imagining the district still employing them as a small army of “sanitizing staff” that is going to be needed to hit the district’s 1,400 classrooms and common areas students use especially between staggered sessions. The existing janitorial staff is too thin to handle such a Herculean task while teachers are already going to be inundated with making sure students’ social distance and items in classrooms that students share are immediately sanitized between uses.

On top of everything, it is painfully clear there cannot be a “right” solution that fits all like a glove.

While administrators and teachers have been going non-stop exploring and vetting the pros and cons of various options since it became clear next school year will not go back to the pre-pandemic world, the decision on what direction Manteca Unified goes rests on the collective shoulders of seven lay people.

And no matter what they do, a lot of people will be unhappy.

But in the end as long as they have weighed all the possibilities — which they have days and not weeks to do — they should not be condemned for whatever decision they make.

It is a call that is far from clear but it has to be made.