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Most challenging piñata ever to crack: Educating 24,000 kids during pandemic

Think of COVID-19 as a piñata.

It’s not hard given blown up renderings of the microscopic coronavirus that show its ragged round and somewhat colorful shape.

Now charge the Manteca Unified school board — or any school board for that matter — to take a crack at the piñata in a bid to “bust it” with carefully placed protocol whacks to be able to release the upcoming school year it is holding hostage.

Given the board is taking swings at answers in uncharted territories the prerequisite blindfold provides the perfect image.

Meanwhile all around you there are various groups of people virtually screaming at you to tell you which way to swing. Making matters worse people within different groups of people — parents, teachers, health experts, scientists, pundits, students, staff, and the 1.8 billion or so COVID-19 experts populating social media — all are pushing different scenarios.

An expert tells you to swing the bat to the right just as the piñata moves to the left. They then tell you that you need to swing higher to the left while another tells you to weld the bat in such a manner that you are pounding the ground in front of you as they are sure that is where the piñata is headed next. But before you can take a swing another expert implores you to take three steps at a 45 degree angle to your left and take a chest level swing as they are sure that is where the piñata is going to end up.

Meanwhile others are quibbling about whether they should be allowed to go into a feeding frenzy to retrieve the candy when the piñata is busted, opt to spread out and pick up candy in an orderly manner, or have everyone stand back at a distance and use long tongs to cherry pick the candy.

Topping that off people that want you to listen to them and adopt their solution are calling you everything under the sun by accusing you of being heartless, political hacks, spineless, and whatever words they can use to sink the quality of public discourse to a point somewhere below the Marinas Trench.

The Manteca Unified trustees have now taken their second swing at a game plan to start the upcoming school year. And they are getting whacked from all sides that they are too restrictive, not restrictive enough, are putting kids’ health at risk, are overreacting, are destroying the quality of education, are kowtowing to parents, are ignoring teachers’ health, are making it difficult to learn and just about everything else they can be accused of including not caring about children, education, teachers, or the community.

Things are constantly changing but so are the yardsticks that safety and success is being measured against. The death rate per 1,000 cases that was once considered a critical matrix has dropped given stepped up testing is now taking place. The rise in people testing positive is creating heart-stopping concern from the same people who theorized such an increase would include a number of people that would never get ill. The number of hospitalized patients that everyone seemed to agree several months ago was critical in judging California’s ability to handle the pandemic is now being dismissed by some even as they have climbed after months of being low.

There are 23 days left before school starts again.

Unlike most other districts, Manteca Unified is trying to offer two distinct options in a bid to address comfort levels, those vulnerable to health risk, student needs, and families. They are an alternating day model and a remote learning academy tailor made by Manteca Unified teachers who will also teach online as opposed to other districts using canned distance learning programs they will have local educators oversee.

It’s never been easier to be dismissive of whatever action the board takes simply because COVID-19 is unchartered territory.

The term “guinea pig” has been tossed around in reference to both the alternating day school plan and the 100 percent distance learning model.

Those that believe the scales should be tipped toward caution regarding health impacts take little stock in the numbers that seem to show school children may not be as vulnerable as other age groups. That is why they describe a bid to bring half the student body at a time back to campus with COVID-19 protocols in place as treating students as if they are “guinea pigs.”

Meanwhile those that believe there are significant deficits incurred with remote online learning that could prove insurmountable to overcome view students being used as “guinea pigs” as well. They tend to pooh-pooh concerns about health risks even with an at-school format that reduces typical classes of 34 students to 17 at a time.

But that forgets about the potential of teachers getting ill. And it downplays a healthy faculty member or student that may never get sick possibly ending up transmitting the coronavirus to a loved one at home that may be battling cancer, recouping from a heart attack, or dealing with some other illness.

Regardless of where you are in terms of how schools should move forward, the Manteca Unified board instead of simply taking what would be the easy route and going to a 100 percent remote learning out of the gate on Aug. 6 is seeking to advance a hybrid in-school, at-home alternating day schedule in what they believe are the best options to other students.

The jury is out in many quarters as to whether that will end up being a prudent move.

That said the Manteca Unified School District has a track record of keeping school open in public health emergencies after balancing it with other risks students are exposed to.

When severe wildfires swept the north state and filled the valley with heavy smoke, Manteca Unified was the only public school system in San Joaquin Valley not to cancel school.

The rationale was simple. With more than half of the district’s students qualifying for free and reduced lunch school was the only place they might get an afternoon meal. There was also a concern parents in order to support their families would likely not be able to stay home and watch their children.

Manteca Unified took numerous precautions due to the smoke cancelling physical education and minimizing children being allowed outside.

A wildfire’s smoke and a pandemic is not the same thing. But schools in a fair number of cases serve as safe haven for students, a fact school board members as well as teachers don’t take lightly.

It is unfair to accuse any of the board members of being in disregard of the health of a student, teacher, or other school employee just like it would be to accuse any teacher of not being concerned about the education of students.

The issue is what is best for the reason the Manteca Unified School District exists — the 24,000 students — as it pertains to not just health and safety but learning as well as their well-being.

That is the question the board is seeking to answer in their bid to try and not foist a one-size-fits-all pandemic answer on 24,000 students plus their parents.


To contact Dennis Wyatt, email