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State creates new twist: Will Manteca Unified bring back only K-6 when they get the chance?

It’s back to school Thursday in the Manteca Unified School District.

There will not be any photos of kindergarten students being dropped off on their first day of school or freshman anxious to find the right classroom since they will be starting the school year seated at the kitchen table.

Students shouldn’t get too comfortable in their social distance learning “desk”. That’s because the California Department of Health Monday issued guidelines for elementary schools — specifically only for kindergarten through sixth graders — that want to seek permission from county health officials to resume in-person instruction.

The most important information the state released was that schools couldn’t be considered for waivers if their counties have had more than 200 cases of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks.

That makes the magic number just under 1,550 for San Joaquin County with 760,000 residents. San Joaquin isn’t quite there yet but with new cases dropping substantially in the past week — it was averaging 133 daily on Friday through Sunday — the county could get there in less than three weeks.

This will create two more issues to add to the ones related to COVID-19 already on the table that will make educators yearn for the days in the 1960s when parents were taking up sides on sex education and hammering local school districts.

The new dilemmas are what prompts Manteca Unified to pull the trigger to return to the classroom beyond county COVID-19 counts and if it is willing to do so initially only with kindergarten through sixth graders.

Ripon Unified has made it clear they would seek such a waiver. Manteca Unified early on dismissed such an approach in favor of going forward with K-12 all on the same page.

But the state made it clear they are significantly less comfortable with older students being in school settings as the health experts emphasized they are significantly more likely to transmit the coronavirus or get infected than younger children.

That means it could be a long time before seventh through 12th graders are allowed back in a classroom setting.

Monday, by the way, is when United Nations Secretary-General weighed in on the rancorous school reopening debate. He warned the world faced a “generational catastrophe” due to the COVID-19 pandemic adding that getting students back in a school safely must be a top priority.

The Manteca Unified School Board will obviously weigh in on the issues sooner or later. A prediction that San Joaquin County Health Department Director Dr. Maggie Park made two weeks ago that she expected the latest surge in cases should be settling down by mid-August appears on target.

The board has made it clear their goal must be to get students back into a classroom setting as soon as possible. Based on the latest state’s latest directive that clearly is weighed heavily on what science currently knows about the coronavirus it is apparent that they are a long ways off to blessing the physical return of 7th through 12th graders to school compared to kindergarten through 6th graders.

The question is if the board believes in-classroom instruction is critical and agrees with the premise it is even more critical for younger students will they direct the administration to apply for a waiver for kindergarten through sixth graders?

No matter what they do on this one including not asking for a waiver they are going to be pelted with a lot of criticism.

To be honest the need is to answer the waiver question first because 7th through 12th graders could very will not be allowed by state health officials to see the inside of a classroom setting with other students for months if ever during the current school year. That raises the question of how much educational damage would be inflicted on young students if their return to in-person learning is joined at the hip with when high school students are allowed to return.

And since nothing stays still for more than a few days during this pandemic, it is clear the teachers union isn’t going to let go of the AM/PM model anytime soon as their preferred way for Manteca Unified to go when blended learning — part-time in the classroom and part-time at home — is triggered.

Their education arguments for AM/PM where half of a student body goes to school in the morning and the other half in the afternoon are sound.

But as long as they are holding up assuring student and teacher safety as the absolute top priority which is what the district and school board stress they want to do within reason, for the Manteca Educators Association to have a death grip on the AM/PM scheduling is counterintuitive and undermines their entire argument they want safety first above all other considerations.

The district’s current preferred blended learning model of alternating days has half of a school’s student body going into the classrooms on Mondays and Tuesdays with the other half doing so in Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are set aside for teacher prep and deep cleaning of classrooms and the rest of campus.

The AM/PM model will make it next to impossible to deep clean between the two daily sessions due to time constraints and the number of rooms involved. You could deep clean daily after students leave for the day but that only provides a wider margin of protection for morning students against afternoon students and significantly less robust protection of afternoon students against morning students.

Granted deep cleaning may not need to be done every day but the alternating days model based on how it is structured clearly provides the most robust separating between the two groups of a student body by a wide margin when they are divided in half compared to the AM/PM option.

Of course there are teachers — who would be in contact with 100 percent of their students although at different times — that would argue no one should be in a classroom until COVID-19 is viewed as no greater of a risk than flu. That could easily be one to two years or longer from now.

Which brings us back to Monday’s announcement by the California Department of Health that essentially changes conversation from “what criteria will the district use to reopen schools to in-person learning” to does Manteca Unified split their shift to hybrid learning by treating K thru 6th independently from 6th thru 12th”?

And to tell you how strange things will get if the blended model is triggered and things get good enough to go to the third phase for all students to be on campus at once with aggressive COVID-19 protocols in place as outlined by the Manteca Unified School District, this year’s freshmen will never have to worry about remembering their locker combination because no one will be using lockers as long as there is a pandemic raging.

Not being able to use lockers is just one of the endless quirks that will be dogging not just schools but the entire community for months and easily years to come due to COVID-19.