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Coachella Valley superintendents prepare for uncertain school reopenings in summer

In a normal world, a day at school means a day of sharing your space. From bustling classrooms to lunchtime lineups to a simple shoulder-to-shoulder walk down the halls, students are in close contact all the time. It's how it's always been.

As parents and students navigate murky educational waters during the coronavirus pandemic, educators across California are working to open up schools in the summer. But the details surrounding what that will look like and how classroom spacing will be managed remain blurry. The process to get to a final plan won't be easy: How do you hold recess and lunchtime -- traditionally when kids are playing or hanging out in groups -- while still following physical distancing guidelines? It's a tough prompt with no easy answer. State and local educational leadership has said though that it's looking like hybrid learning -- a mixture of in class instruction and distance learning -- is a strong possibility. But a number of other educational protocols remain in question.

"Instead of having a typical plan A and plan B, we have plans A - Z running in our minds right now, not knowing which plan we're going to be in," said Scott Bailey, the superintendent of Desert Sands Unified School District.

The superintendents of Palm Springs Unified School District (PSUSD), Coachella Valley Unified School District (CVUSD) and Desert Sands Unified School District (DSUSD) all say they are waiting on state guidelines before releasing district instructions.

"We're all waiting to see what the medical recommendations are going to be because whatever they are, we're going to have to follow for the safety of our students and staff," said Dr. Maria Gandera, the superintendent of CVUSD.

Campuses are not going to look the same at schools across the Golden State. California's Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond has said each district will make its own decision on the exact date to open.

"It's widely believed that, in order for us to reopen with schools in a social distancing kind of fashion, that students and staff will have to wear masks," said Thurmond in a virtual news conference on Wednesday.

The state superintendent also said state educational leaders are still working on definitive guidelines and brainstorming through different scenarios…

"… Students may come in a morning shift and then another group of students may come in an afternoon shift -- that may be a way to accomodate the need for much smaller class sizes …" said Thurmond.

The California Teachers' Association had a number of concerns surrounding reopening. The union sent a statement to KESQ, reading in full:

"As schools consider reopening, educators must continue to be part of conversations that directly impact their students. Balancing economic issues with the health and safety of students and educators involve tough conversations. The uncertainty in the state budget and funding for our schools is creating a perfect storm in which we must all work together to protect our students and communities. It is hard to see any budget solution that does not require additional money from the federal government.

Teachers locally have noted concerns over the technology gaps, either because students don't have access to internet or they lack the tools. Blended learning, combining in-class and distance learning teaching and learning strategies, and logistics to reduce class size to facility safe schools are also concerns. Of course, class size has always been a concern so that teachers can provide the attention each student needs to succeed. Educators are concerned about maintaining social distancing guidelines and remediating the education gap that has occurred since March.

Educations, through their unions, are having conversations now with district managers and different configurations are being considered. CTA is working local educators as they work on agreements that will be best suited for their local students, address their needs and ensure their success."

All superintendents say they've made improvements to student internet access but that it's tough to get to every student because of internet service providers' reach in more rural areas. Another big question on teachers' minds was whether staff will be laid off, in light of the budget shortfalls from the pandemic.

"Will management look at taking reductions as well? Absolutely." said Dr. Sandra Lyon, the superintendent of PSUSD. "We definitely will look at what we need to do across the board. That's always the way we approach it to make sure that we're feeling whatever needs to be done and the cuts that need to be made will be made across the district."

The state superintendent has also said his team is working with different districts on what blended learning might look like but has yet to come out with anything set in stone.

"The reality is the superintendents are helping write the book on how we're responding because the book doesn't exist on something like this historically, and we want to write it so that it reads well," Bailey said.

California's educational leaders have said that the state could be short up to $19 billion in its educational budget and that part of the puzzle is figuring out how to do more with fewer resources.

"We're always amazingly good at keeping things going with less, really trying to dig deep and being creative around it and then bringing back things when things get better," said Dr. Lyon.

The only certainty in mid-2020 is that schools will look different when campuses reopen for the fall semester. Thurmond has said schools will take more stringent health precautions and open up with a lot of personal protective equipment available for students and staff, which will include masks, hand sanitizer and the ability to wash hands, among others.

"Let us hope that, if nothing else, at the end of all of this, we are still united together in overcoming whatever the next challenge will be," said Dr. Gandera.

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Angela Chen

Angela comes to the Coachella Valley as KESQ’s morning anchor after teaching graduate school classes at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication. Learn more about Angela here.

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