Schools will reopen — with modifications

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Schools will reopen — with modificationsAs educators consume the guidance document (perhaps better classified as a tome) for what schools will look like when they reopen next term, early photos from districts across the state show the potential for draconian solutions — spaced-out desks separated by shower curtains, students in masks, gloves or both, personnel dedicated to sanitization protocols.

“There is definitely a level of uncertainty for all of us,” said Dr. David Ostash, superintendent of Sierra Sands Unified School District. “But one of the greatest advantages of the Local Area Education Plan model is that each district, with its governing board, is allowed some discretion to determine what best serves the students in their communities. What we do in Sierra Sands very well may be different than what you see in large urban school districts such as Los Angeles.”

He broached the topic with the Ridgecrest Exchange Club at the June 10 meeting — his first public speaking engagement since the Economic Outlook Conference back in February, when the forecast was still projecting positive days ahead.

But not everyone has weathered the challenges in the same way, he noted. While the pandemic has effected our entire country, as has the period of civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, education and our region have suffered challenges on top of those.

Last year, historic earthquakes rattled the region three days after he started his new position. Sierra Sands was still in the throes of rebuilding when COVID-19 hit. In May, Gov. Gavin Newsom reported staggering losses to the economy during the shutdown. For education, the best-case scenario was a 10-percent funding loss across the board.

That same month, Sierra Sands lost Amy Castillo-Covert — who had served for nearly two decades on our Board of Education.

“She was a member of our community who was passionate about access to education for every student. She was also instrumental in making sure we secured our impact aid funding each year,” said Ostash.

“There has been a lot of loss for our district in the last year, and it will take time to recover.”

This week, the district sent out a survey to all families, asking whether they would prefer a return to traditional school, a virtual curriculum, or a hybrid model of the two.

At press time, the survey had yielded more than 1,500 responses. The vast majority chose a return to traditional school. “That is what we are planning to do on Tuesday, Aug. 11,” said Ostash.

The hybrid option also drew significant interest among parents. However, he noted that it would be the most difficult to implement. It would basically break classrooms down into two groups that attended two days on campus and two days from home, with one day each week dedicated to deep sanitization.

“Just looking at the needs of the parent or consumer, I can see how this option might seem attractive. But from the perspective of the superintendent, implementing it would be very challenging.

“It would effectively mean each of our 300 teachers would have two full-time jobs — each day the need to be a full-time teacher for the students present as well as available full-time to the distance learners.”

Where the district is exploring its options is in the possibility of enhancing its independent study program — which currently serves 20-30 students each year, and only in the high-school grades.

“But we also know that there are many parents who are extremely uncomfortable sending their students back to school until there is a vaccine,” said Ostash.

“So what would it look like if we needed to expand that to 200 or 300 or 500 students?”

Part of the reason this is even possible, he said, is because of the technological advancements that have been made in recent years, as well as an increasing desire from families to have flexibility.

“This is not 1950 anymore — it’s not even 1990. There is a competitive landscape out there and I realize parents already have options outside of our district,” he said.

“We have to be thoughtful about how to serve all of our students — even if those who are anxious about a return to schools represent only a small number. We have 5,100 students in our district. If we lost 10 percent that results in a loss of $5 million in revenue.

“The truth is that creates chaos for our districts. Loss of funds means having to eliminate programs or lay off staff. None of us want that to happen.”

So the plan to reopen school on campus continues — with contingencies being worked in parallel. “And as guidance continues to come out of the governor’s office, we will continue to integrate that into our plans.”

Ostash said that most of us now recognize the cultural shifts that came after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “We have a certain collective consciousness about our world pre 9-11 and post 9-11.” Our way of travel, our access to the base, the structure of our defense and security agencies — everything changed.

“I believe that our society will have a very similar perspective pre-pandemic and post-pandemic.” The primary difference is that we don’t know what all of those modifications will look like.

“There is somewhat of a systemic momentum in how we operate in education. It used to be that Independent Study, for example, was something that was only used for exceptional circumstances,” said Ostash.

“But the needle has been moved on the need for our public schools to be more responsive in our modern society. I’m kind of a traditional guy. I am a product of public schools. I even graduated from UCLA, which is a public school.

“I spent 25 years — effectively my entire adult life — as an employee in a public school district. It would be naive and disingenuous for me claim to be the most innovative person to turn the system upside down,” he said.

“But what I can do is recognize that we must do things differently. We must learn to think differently. People want more flexibility, and it will require us to open up the aperture — at least for the short term — and see what our options are. In the short term, it may meet our immediate needs. Down the road, we may end up creating our own magnate program that has a virtual campus.”

Is there a longterm benefit to this shift in assessment?

“Good leadership always looks for the silver lining. I aspire to good leadership.”

Pictured: Social distancing is just one of the elements that will have to be incorporated in the return to school this August. — File photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2020-06-12