Lodi Unified must stick with distance learning as county remains in purple tier

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Because COVID-19 statistics in San Joaquin County have not improved as much as health officials would have liked, the Lodi Unified School District this week announced distance learning would remain in place until further notice.

Dr. Cathy Nichols-Washer, LUSD superintendent, made the announcement late Monday through an email and text alert sent to parents. Her announcement was also posted on the district’s website.

“We are hopeful that conditions in San Joaquin County will improve in the near future to allow for a safe return to in-person instruction for all students,” she said. “We look forward to the time when state and county health officials make this determination. We understand that ambiguity in a timeline can make planning difficult, however, as you know this situation has fluctuated from the beginning and it is difficult to predict what may happen even in the near future.”

Many parents and grandparents who commented on the district’s Facebook post about the decision were not happy.

“This is ridiculous,” Stefanie Pilcher commented. “Our numbers were low before, during and now. There isn’t ‘science’ behind any of this. I am tired of people using that word. Let the teachers teach and the students learn in person. So frustrating. Our kids are the ones suffering in all of this. Private schools went back today, why can’t we?”

While some private schools in the county returned to in-person instruction this week, it was only because they were granted a waiver from county and state health officials that permitted kindergarten through sixth grades to return to campus.

In addition, private schools typically have small student bodies that can accommodate distance learning protocols, and some schools only allowed grades K-3 to return to class.

Marilyn Fandrich Rahlf questioned if the plan to allow special education students to return to campus had been scrapped.

“Very disappointed in the decision to keep everyone on distance learning,” she commented. “So with this decision made, how and what is the district going to do about special education — where students are not able to do work via computer? What supports will the district now implement to help those students? Or will they just continue to fall through the cracks? Why have an (Independent Education Plan) if you are not going to be able to meet goals?”

During its Sept. 15 meeting, the Lodi Unified School District Board of Education directed Washer to move forward with a plan to implement “cohorts” on various campuses in an effort to provide students with special needs extra assistance with learning.

The California Department of Public Health is allowing public schools to provide in-person child supervision with limited instruction, as part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s latest plan to reopen the state during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The total number of people in a cohort can be no more than 16 people that must stay together the entire day and not mix with other cohorts to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In addition, cohorts would be used for special education students, English as a second language students, disabled students, those at a higher risk of further learning loss, those at risk of abuse or neglect, foster youths and those experiencing homelessness.

Katrina Larson was one parent who was thankful the district decided to continue on with distance learning for the time being. She said her freshman son, who is autistic, is actually earning better grades.

“If he didn’t need that social interaction, I’d keep him distance learning for as long as I could,” she said.

The district’s decision to remain on a distance learning program comes as San Joaquin County remains in the lowest and most severe tier of the state COVID-19 monitoring list.

Last month, Newsom revised his method for allowing counties to reopen, placing all 58 into four separate tiers of COVID-19 severity.

San Joaquin County was placed in Tier 1, the lowest and most severe in terms of transmission, because it has had more than seven new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents each day over a seven-day period.

As of Tuesday, the county was experiencing 6.7 new cases per 100,000 day.

In order to move into Tier 2 — or the red tier — the county must have four to seven new cases per 100,000 residents over that seven-day period, and have a test positivity rate of 5% to 8% over a seven-day period.

Earlier this month, the county met the test positivity metric at a 7.1% rate. As of Tuesday, the county had a test positivity rate of 5.5%. The county’s new case average must remain less than seven for the next week, due to a seven-day lag, according to the state.

Dr. Maggie Park, San Joaquin County Public Health Official, was hoping to have the county move into the red tier Tuesday, and was disappointed about missing the projected date to do so.

“Even though we’re still in the purple tier, when the numbers are updated (late Tuesday), they will look better,” she said. “Since counties were placed in tiers, every week our numbers have improved slightly.”

Park said even if the county had been able to move into the red tier Tuesday, it would have had to be able to remain in the second level of reopening for two straight weeks before public school districts could reopen.

Many other businesses, however, will be able to move operations indoors with modifications when the county advances to the next tier, she said.

There are 24 other counties that remain in the purple tier, including Butte, Yuba, Sacramento, Merced, Stanislaus, Fresno and Los Angeles. Eighteen counties in the red tier include Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, Alameda, Santa Clara, San Diego and Orange.

Another 11 counties are in the orange tier with moderate transmission levels, including Humboldt, Shasta, El Dorado and Tuolumne, while only the counties of Modoc, Mariposa and Alpine are in the yellow tier with minimal transmission levels.

As of Tuesday, the county was reporting 20,019 COVID-19 cases and 421 deaths.

Hospitalizations in the county increased slightly, with 64 people being treated at the county’s seven facilities as of Monday. Of those, 23 patients were in the intensive care unit. San Joaquin County Emergency Services Agency said that was a 15% increase from last Friday.

At Adventist Health Lodi Memorial, 12 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 Monday, with three of them in the ICU.

“We did see a small spike due to the Labor Day weekend,” Park said. “We had hospitalizations down and ICU admissions down to levels almost like we had in March and April, and then we had the spike. People think we are doing great just because we’re on a downward grade, but we have to keep social distancing and wearing our masks to keep our hospitalizations low.”