Early insights on distance learning

New ‘Cohort Guidance’ could provide solution for gaps in access for special needs

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Early insights on distance learningA slight dip in enrollment, an unknown impact on attendance, and a light at the end of the tunnel for special needs families were the highlights of last week’s meeting for the Sierra Sands Unified School District Board of Education.

Dr. David Ostash, SSUSD superintendent, said during his report to the board that the total enrollment for this year was 5,086 — down from 5,135 at the end of last year. He said that because of the number of families seeking alternative means of education during the pandemic, it was relatively good news.

“Without that disruption, I think we would have been up 150-200 students. A net loss of 49 still leaves us well positioned to serve our students.”

Because of the massive shift in reaching students, it will be some time before the district is able to report attendance figures, he said.

Ostash also addressed ongoing concerns — from parents, as well as teachers, board members and administrators — that Distance Learning was not a practical solution for many students.

He reported that Sierra Sands was pursuing a waiver from the California Department of Public Health to allow small groups of students “with acute needs” to meet in person with teachers.

The new policy was released “in recognition that some of our students will never be able to thrive in an online learning environment, regardless of access or accommodations,” he said. At the meeting, Ostash said that they were still awaiting guidance from the state, and had not yet procured necessary input from staff or agreements with bargaining units.

On Tuesday, the state released its much-awaited “Cohorting Guidance,” which sets health and safety standards that will enable small clusters to meet in ‘controlled, supervised, indoor environments” operated by local educational agencies.

The guidance document notes that cohorts are limited to 14 students with no more than two supervising adults. Students also remain eligible to receive additional specialized or targeted services, including one-on-one interactions that are not included in their cohort. These services may include speech or occupational therapy and tutoring.

Ostash said that at press time, district officials were coordinating with state officials and local stakeholders to sketch out what plan could be offered locally that will be approved by the public health department.

“We have to serve our most needy students,” he said during last week’s board meeting. “They are not being adequately served in the modern environment. We need to acknowledge that.”

“I want to recognize that clearly there are a lot of students for whom we are unable to meet the needs,” Trustee Bill Farris said earlier in the meeting. “It is critical that, as board members, we perform our function of advocacy for public education.

He said that he believed the board was committed to influencing those in decision-making positions. “We have got to find ways to meet these needs.”

He encouraged parents to make those needs known, as well. “Share with our legislators and our governor the kinds of concerns you have about the needs of your students that are going unmet. We are restricted in what we [in education] can do, but there are other layers of government in which we can create opportunities to address those needs.”

Ostash said that the district has also experienced many successes during the first week of Distance Learning. He thanked teachers, staff and parents for supporting the new format, and that he looked forward to improving processes as time goes on.

“I really appreciate the superintendent’s report tonight,” said Trustee Kurt Rockwell. “In my almost-15 years on the board, that’s probably the most information-filled and heart-felt delivery I have ever heard.

“We are over-the-top thrilled with what people are doing and how people have been doing it, but banging our heads on the table and wanting to do better for those we are not reaching. Thanks for giving us the highs and lows.”

Story First Published: 2020-08-28