District cautiously pursues return to campus

Staff braces for changes resulting from governor’s impending press conference

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

District cautiously pursues return to campusWith only three weeks before the start of school, amid a landscape of shifting guidances aimed at managing COVID-19 outbreaks across the state, the Sierra Sands Unified School District Board of Education’s July 16 meeting yielded unanimous support from administrators, trustees and the teachers union to move forward with a modified return to on-campus learning – provided that all appropriate safety measures are met.

However, an ongoing recognition during Thursday night’s discussion was the reality that a pending announcement from Gov. Gavin Newsom today at noon could once again change the decision-making matrix for our district.

Earlier this week, SSUSD Superintendent Dr. David Ostash sent out a message to parents and staff that acknowledged the many challenges in forging a path forward. “Many of us feel as though we are walking on wet cement as we plan,” he said.

The latest parent survey showed that some 65 percent of parents favored a return to campus-based instruction. For most cases, students would be divided into morning and afternoon cohorts to attend class with strict enforcement of masks, social-distancing and heightened sanitation protocols.

“I believe that public education is one of the foundational pillars of the American Dream,” wrote Ostash. “All students deserve the priceless opportunity that is provided in the classroom. We must deliver the very best public service so that we are teaching the whole child.

“This means that among other important areas of a child’s life we are teaching or providing services in these areas: academic, socio-emotional, nutrition, mental health and physical/athletic. While we can certainly provide comprehensive services in a number of ways, including virtual, there is no substitute for human connection and inspiration that occurs on campus, in the classroom.”

Parents will also have the option to enroll their students in an online program under district oversight.

Throughout the months-long distance-learning model implemented last spring, officials from law enforcement to mental welfare reported that incidents of abuse had increased during shelter-at-home. Other families with socioeconomic disadvantages — including reduced access to technology — reportedly suffered disproportionately from academic loss during that period.

During Thursday’s meeting, Trustee Bill Farris said that what faced our community was a series of suboptimal solutions.

He commended Ostash for outlining the guiding principles for the district. “As we go through the process, we know every day there’s going to be a change. And that horizon gives us something new that we’ve got to deal with. At any given point in time, picking the ‘perfect’ solution is impossible,” said Farris.

“So I really believe that having those guiding principles is a key to our success.” If the district can keep those principles at the forefront of their decisions, and be thoughtful, reasonable and caring, they can come up with a plan that serves the community.

“We live in an amazing community,” he added. “I believe if we ask them to come aboard and we all join together, that is the only way we will succeed.”

Farris added that there are some elements of attending school in person that cannot be addressed in a distance-learning model.

“One of the things that I can't minimize is that by providing public education, we provide a common arena for young people to learn what other people’s cultures and experiences are. And by not having that, we lose tremendous value.

“In a time when we already have so much division, and such an inability to come together, if there is any way we can preserve that opportunity we’ve got to try,” said Farris.

“It is too critical. People have got to learn how to work together and accomplish goals together with people who are not just like them.”

Trustees Tim Johnson and Kurt Rockwell both said they believed Farris covered the board’s position in his comments.

“It’s a huge first-time challenge we are facing. Boards across America are making these super-hard decisions,” said Johnson. “If we stand together as a board, a district and a community, we will weather it until the end.”

“I’ve also got to commend Sierra Sands’ staff for the way you have been working through this and engaged with and communicated to our community.,” said Rockwell. “That’s what is going to help us pull together. Like Bill said — this is a very hard time.”

Ostash said that one of the greatest challenges for the district is that attending school has been identified as the safest place for students. “But there are other stakeholder groups we are responsible for whom that is not the case,” he said.

“As I type up this message at my kitchen table 9 hours before the start of the meeting, the plan is for school to reopen on Aug. 11,” Desert Area Teachers Association President Eileen Poole wrote to the board.

“Based on the survey DATA conducted, teachers want to be in their classrooms — as long as safety measures are in place.”

She added that based on the survey results and the many emails she has received, the most important safety measures to teachers are a mask requirement, availability of hand sanitizer and enforced social distancing.

“Happy, the district supports all of these, as evidenced in the Parent Square email sent out earlier this week,” she wrote. “We applaud this and are grateful that staff safety is recognized and valued.”

“As we move forward with the modified on-campus schedule, we are confident that the teachers’ duty-free lunch will be preserved and that enough time will be provided for the custodial staff to sanitize all surfaces.”

Poole said that teachers look forward to the prospect of providing the best possible solution for students.

Pictured: SSUSD Superintendent Dr. David Ostash - News Review file photo

Story First Published: 2020-07-17