SSUSD progresses toward in-person learning

SSUSD progresses toward in-person learning“The overarching goal is to get students back into the classroom as we all understand and have a context for what it means. Students coming into the classroom and learning in the classroom with a teacher. That is what in-person learning is,” explains Dr. Dave Ostash, Superintendent of Sierra Sands Unified School District. However, to the casual observer this is far more complicated than what meets the eye.

The complications are beyond vaccination. “The vaccine is a very important piece. It is not the only deciding factor in moving forward. We know from research that the youngest learners are the least at risk for both getting the Corona virus and for transmitting. When we leverage our safety plan and we employ a whole host of mitigating factors then that is the sensible way of getting back in-person and scaling up as we go. But vaccines alone simply cannot be the deciding factor for getting back in-person. We are ready to go back in-person as a nation.”

On February 3, the district opened five additional in-person cohort classrooms and now have a total of 170 students receiving in-person instruction. A team worked hard to make this possible. According to Ostash the team had to “wade through myriad agencies of guidance and mandates: The Center for Disease Control, Cal OSHA, the County Department of Health, the State. There are lots of details that we must attend to based on what is a required safety plan, which is ratios, distances, numbers of students allowed on the bus, food handling, food distribution, how students arrive to and leave the campus, checking temperatures, and having surveillance testing set up for staff. That is another big issue. COVID Surveillance testing: it costs a lot of money; it takes staff time and organization. We had to get contracts in place, procedures in place, practices in place, there are so many elements of the new requirements, mandates, guidance, that it takes a team to implement that safety plan.”

The newly opened classrooms reflect mandates, “Each classroom has acrylic barriers for each student, which we call sneeze guards. There are lots of sanitizing supplies in the classroom. There are procedures for if and when a student leaves the classroom, for example, a restroom break. There are hand cleaning stations, hand sanitizers, individual bottled water. There are all sorts of protocols and practices that are new and in place. PPE, making sure that everyone has proper PPE, face masks, in some cases teachers or staff may wear a mask and a shield depending on the nature of the classroom. We can continue to open more cohorts. The guidance allows you, even when your school district is closed to in-person learning. Cohorts are generally for special education or acute needs. There is a whole number of groups of students that could be identified as students with acute needs. So, yes, we have been and continue to be opening those cohorts that are not related to general education. So we have been approved and we are growing and we are going to continue to grow our cohorts. But that pace is slow in and of itself.”

Ostash and his team are at work to be ready to return more students to the classroom as soon as possible. Beyond the aforementioned mandates and guidelines is collective bargaining, “We have the Desert Area Teachers Association, DATA, the California School Employees Association, CSEA, for classified non-instructional employees, and the Desert Area Guidance Association, DAGA, representing counselors and mental health staff. We have a legal obligation to collectively bargain with those associations regarding working conditions for those employees. So when you combine all of the mandates, all of the guidance, and all of the health and safety expectations that have severely diminished our resources and ability to serve with the requirement to collectively bargain. It creates a timeline and a procedural process that we are going through right now.”

“When we reach agreement we will be able to move forward to enrolling our youngest learners per the Governor’s pledge for the in-person instruction grant. The State has not finalized the details for the Governor’s pledge but I anticipate that those details are going to be galvanized together in the next several days or weeks. The funding mechanism is going to be solidified. Our goal is to be in line with our safety plan and agreements with our associations so when those details are finalized we are ready to go. We are doing the work now in anticipation that the Governor’s plan is going to be finalized and we will be ready to go. Our planning efforts are proactive.”

Ostash strongly believes that the lessons learned these past eleven months will prove beneficial. “We, as a public school system, a large national bureaucracy, will be able to more quickly adapt to new societal needs. For example, most school districts had not developed a strong virtual learning or distance learning component. We were all in various stages of that. But we will no doubt retain and grow distance learning and virtual learning opportunities in a much more advanced way moving forward. So that some students who are not forced into it but choose distance learning will have those options that they didn’t have before. Distance learning as a concept as an infrastructure will have been developed because of this disruption and we will be able to retain that infrastructure for a percentage of students for whom that is a better option than going in-person. That will be a great silver lining because education will better meet the needs of more students moving forward.”

The school district is proud of the Distance Learning model they developed. “We imagined Distance Learning in a very rigorous way from the very beginning. Our teachers are teaching full-time. All of our K-5 students have a teacher of record and the upper grades have many teachers of record. In a sense it is not much different. We teach a full day. The teachers are on camera, the students receive lectures, they receive practice time, they receive breaks, they receive physical education, they receive support that is built into their day. It is actually tiring for the teacher, the students, the parent. Because we felt very strongly about making a parallel promise in the virtual world to what we promised during normal times. It is a full classroom experience as opposed to independent study. Independent Study is where a student does the work through a vendor, receives video lectures and tests and once a week meets with an Independent Study overseer.” For a peek into how the day is structured one can “go to the district public website,, click on any school site and then the Distance Learning button. There you can pull up any of the schedules. You can see exactly what the daily schedule is.”

In spite of these efforts, “In the national conversation there is concern about the number of students who are not engaged, who are not logged in, or they are logged in but they are not highly engaged. They may have their camera off, they may be multitasking with another device. We know that is a reality. When you are in the classroom you have the interpersonal connection that is more highly accountable and more real time. Then the teacher can mitigate those distractions more actively. It is much more difficult to hold students accountable, to be that influential guide that instructional coach, it is more challenging to do that virtually. We are seeing that nationally. That is part of the challenge. This is tiring. This is not effective. This is why I want my kid going back to school.” Ostash agrees, “There is an absolute need to return students to the classroom.”

“Many students need the interpersonal connection that one gets by reporting to a classroom, reporting to a teacher who in a sense acts like a life coach. He or she is an academic coach and provides socio-emotional support in the process. That interpersonal connection. The accountability. And then there are a lot of incidental realities of getting up and showering and grooming and getting dressed and activating your body: your mind, your body, your soul. Activating that life energy and going into a school. Then you have peer interaction. There’s peer competition. That sense of camaraderie/competition with classmates and peers and pushing one another to be a better self. Then, of course, the social interaction among your peers and friends. Many students aren’t getting the physical exertion, the physical education component of being in a school with recess and exploring. It is not that ALL students are completely devoid of that in Distance Learning, it is that many students have too much of a reduction of that. Too much of a lack of exposure or opportunity. That is the whole point about public education. It is a benevolent system for all students. Because some students don’t really need the system because there is a back-fill of support and resources that some families can and do provide. But not all students have those resources that access. Because not all families can or do provide those for whatever sets of reasons.”

Bill Farris, Board President, Sierra Sands Board of Education, adds, “There are some people who have other options and there are some people that do not. One of the great advantages of public education is it brings people from a variety of walks of life and a variety of aspects of life into the same classroom to learn how to live together, and to learn about each other and to be exposed to people who are not necessarily like them. It brings them together in a way that causes them to learn how to work with one another. We have people who have options and those that don’t and that becomes a mechanism for separating us instead of bringing us together. Just one more of the important features of public education and the value to our society. We need to strive to work toward maintaining that.”

Ostash concludes, “I believe that public education for many students is the greatest single pathway and opportunity for whatever they choose to do in life. Not for everyone. There are other roadways in our society, but for many of our nation’s youth, public education is the single greatest opportunity for them to reach whatever goals they have in life. It positions them for career opportunities and influence in society. We have to be our best selves so that we are giving every generation those opportunities.”

Pictured: Faller Elementary student Jeremiah Husk, 5th grader, with teacher Mrs. Ryan, has his temperature taken Wednesday morning – just one of Governor Newsom’s many new mandated requirements to return to In-Person-Learning. — Photo By Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2021-02-12