VC schools to return to distance learning classes | Valley Roadrunner

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The Valley Center-Pauma Unified School board Friday night voted to “pivot away” from a hybrid learning program back to the distance learning program they began the year with—on the recommendation of Supt. Ron McCowan.

The vote by the board was unanimous. 

For several weeks the school district gave the hybrid version of some virtual classes combined with some in-person classes the old college try—but several factors mitigated against it working at this time, although the district will probably take a look at the statistics again in January.

McCowan said, “It was truly the hardest recommendation I’ve ever had to make to this board. But the problem is, that with the viral load that we are under, there is no way we can do that with our little district.” 

Before the vote, board President Mike Adams commented, “Our schools are safe but we are surrounded by the pandemic and that creates a situation where it is impossible to have hybrid learning at this time.”  He added after the vote, “That’s the toughest vote I’ve had to do in my four years on the board.”

Before the vote McCowan gave a presentation that highlighted the County data on the increase in cases, combined with the rising number accounted for at VC campuses.

There were very few students identified with COVID-19 on campus that needed to be quarantined, “but the problem is when you deal with students with cases of the sniffles,” said McCowan.  “The biggest problem we have is COVID symptoms.” They have no choice but to stay away from campus.

The district has over 270 students that are out as of Thursday, because of flu-like symptoms that the district doesn’t know if they tested positive for COVID. Such students are not required to take a test, but are required to self-quarantine for 14 days.

One of the biggest factors working against hybrid classes at this time is that the sudden surge in Coronavirus cases is putting a strain on all school districts in the county and the state. 

Over the last week, the number of persons in San Diego County who tested positive for the virus has ranged from slightly more than 700 per day to almost 1,100, while hospitalizations have almost doubled during the last month.

McCowan said that he had been impressed by the efforts by staff and students to follow the safety guidelines. He reiterated that the problem wasn’t that the schools were not safe enough. 

“I was very impressed with the  mask wearing. The little guys were all wearing their masks,” he said. “The masks were great. And the distancing was great.”

McCowan told The Roadrunner that more widely available tests are needed. “Tests need to be more widely available but we need to have people taking the tests,” he said. “When one sibling has ‘the sniffles’ and everyone in the household must self-quarantine rather than go to school, this removes students from the system. The chance that it could be Covid is too risky to allow on our campuses.”

This is also affecting staff to the degree that many are forced to stay home because of unidentified cases involving their own families. When that happens, anyone in that house or in close contact can’t come to school.

McCowan told The Roadrunner, “We have staff, maybe a spouse or their own children, who has a contact, so the whole household stays home and we lose staff. That surge in numbers causes a ripple effect.”

They also don’t have enough substitute teachers to cover the classes where teachers are not able to come in. 

This is because of two factors: One is a general shortage of substitute teachers in the county and state. This is because older retired teachers, who often make a large percentage of substitutes, don’t want to chance getting the virus. The other factor is that in order to hold hybrid classes, it is necessary to have fewer students per class than in a normal year. That has required hiring more teachers, which has also subtracted from the substitute pool.

Because of all of these factors, said McCowan, “I’ve lost custodial, administration and substitutes. With that many people gone, it becomes almost impossible run school and keep kids on campus when you don’t have enough personnel. It’s NOT that our schools are not safe.”

In addition, the district had 325 students whose parents decided not to come back to the hybrid classes basing that on the county numbers. “That also lowers the numbers on our campuses,” said McCowan. “That doesn’t make it easy to stay open, and hinders our ability to stay open in hybrid.”

When hybrid classes started there was between 78% and 82% attendance. As the weeks progressed, those percentages have fallen to about 63%. 

“The hard thing about this is our staff have been equally hit by these things,” McCowan said. “This is hitting all levels of our employees.” It effected yard duty, custodians, bus drivers, etc.  “The stress level this put on the district—If you don’t have enough people on campus, you aren’t safe.” McCowan himself found himself filling gaps—on the playground, at the nurse station and as an assistant principal.

Just before the vote, McCowan told the board: “This isn’t a situation that I think is going to go away quickly. I don’t want to get to a situation that if after Thanksgiving we didn’t have enough subs, or security, or custodians, we would have to have an emergency meeting and shut things down at a day’s notice. So I am recommending that we take this decision to give parents enough time for child care and for teachers to get ready for distance learning again.

The schools will remain open and teachers will have the option of teaching from their classrooms if they wish. 

McCowan will bring the issue up again in January as new figures on infections comes in. “We’ll look at the data when we have enough of people coming back to make it worth doing,” he said.