Jessica Cejnar / Wednesday, July 15 @ 3:10 p.m. / Education

Del Norte Unified Takes Blended Approach to Blended Learning Model; Whether It'll Work Is Still Uncertain


Del Norte High School

Trustees with the Del Norte Unified School District decided on a Phase 3 blended learning model Tuesday that would have students in a classroom part time and engaging in distance learning when they’re not at school.

This may not be the model students and parents will encounter when the summer break is over on Aug. 24. Trustees have yet to decide whether schools will reopen for even small student cohorts in the fall.

They and administrators must also determine if their blended learning plan will work since its components differ based how grades are structured at each school.

Full distance learning will be an option for families uncomfortable with sending their students to school, however.

“With conflicting guidance coming from the federal government, from the state government, we don’t know what we will be allowed to do on Aug. 24,” Superintendent Jeff Harris said. “I don’t think anyone would argue that if we were able to remove COVID-19 from the equation, that the best place for kids to learn is in school with their peers in front of their teachers every day getting the services they need. However, we have to put COVID into the situation because that’s the reality of where we are and we have to understand the restrictions under which we function.”

Trustees voted 4-1 in favor of their blended learning model. Jamie Forkner, who represents Del Norte County District 5 — which includes Klamath — dissented, saying she and her colleagues should make a determination “so people can move forward and not delay it another month.”

Trustees decided to implement a “2-day on, 3-day off” plan for DNUSD’s K-8 schools and Crescent Elk Middle School. Students at Smith River, Redwood and Mountain schools and Crescent Elk will be in the classroom with teachers for two days during the week and will learn remotely the other three days of the week.

The classes will be split with half the students coming to school for the first two days of the week and the other half interacting with teachers the other two days of the week.

Trustees will look into whether an am-pm model can be adopted at the K-5 schools in the Crescent City area and at Margaret Keating Elementary School in Klamath. In this blended learning model, students will be divvied up into morning and afternoon cohorts, though the ability for transportation to adequately serve students is uncertain.

“If it turns out not to be feasible for transportation we can always go back to the 2-on, 3-off,” said District 4 Trustee Charlaine Mazzei, who made the motion Tuesday.

During her motion, Mazzei also proposed letting Del Norte High School come up with a blended learning model that works for them.

“That makes sense for their learning environment because it’s different from everything else,” Mazzei said, adding that the district may also have to make exceptions for special needs students.

Tom Kissinger, DNUSD’s assistant superintendent of educational services, said those exceptions would apply to English language learners, special education students, foster and homeless youth and others who are in “at-risk populations.”

Safety Measures and Phases
On Thursday, Harris presented trustees with the results of a parent and staff survey on their preferences for reopening Del Norte schools. He also discussed the proposed reopening phases based on California’s progress on its “Resilience Roadmap” ranging from a full distance learning model to allowing students to fully return to schools, though distance learning would still be available.

On Tuesday, Harris referenced Assembly Bill 98, a budget trailer bill that defines distance learning. Under that bill, daily learning must include daily contact, high-quality curriculum and supports for special education students and English-language learners.

Harris also explained the different reopening phases DNUSD must deal with. Phase 1 would have all students engaged in distance learning. Under phase 2, small groups of students who need specific support could receive in-person education.

Phase 3 is the blended learning model trustees were asked Tuesday to adopt. DNUSD would enter Phase 4 once Governor Gavin Newsom’s March 19 stay-at-home order is completely lifted, Harris said.

“We’re not asking the board to say here’s how we’re opening,” he said. “We’re saying we truly believe, this is the model that best meets the needs of our kids … that is going to be malleable, changeable enough so we can adapt blended learning to whatever guidance is (coming) either from the California Department of Public Health or from the local public health officer.”

Del Norte County’s public health officer, Dr. Warren Rehwaldt, said a significant safety measure has to do with the concept of cohorts — keeping students within small functional stable groups. Urging students to wear face coverings and implementing proper social distancing are also important precautions, Rehwaldt said, though he recognized that’s not always possible in some school situations.

Rehwaldt said he and other public health officials expect students will transmit the novel coronavirus to others, but the goal is to keep that transmission low. Those most at risk for serious illness are staff, parents and grandparents, he said.

“We expect kids are going to be bringing this virus to school. We expect kids are going to take it home from school sometimes,” Rehwaldt said, adding that children are often asymptomatic or “minimally symptomatic” from COVID-19. “We want to keep those transmissions contained as best we can within a small group makes it much easier for us to identify and do case investigation and contact tracing from a public health standpoint.”

As for testing at school sites, Rehwaldt said the county could test small numbers of people for COVID-19 with its resources. But to test an entire school site would take a site similar to the community testing site at Del Norte High School, he said. Rehwaldt said Del Norte County also has to decide whether it wants to continue to contract with Verily as a testing service or meet the community’s testing requirements on its own.

Rehwaldt also spoke to the lag in testing time, saying that it took two weeks for his own COVID-19 results to come back. For some people, test results can be had in about 3-4 days, he said. The fastest time a community like Del Norte County can hope for is likely 48 hours, Rehwaldt said.

Transportation, nutrition, sanitizing
Before COVID-19 about 700 students rode the bus to and from school, according to Harris. That statistic, which makes up about 25 percent of the district’s enrollment, still stands.

In an am/pm blended learning model, DNUSD would only be able to offer transportation to about 75 percent of those 700 students, Harris said. The ability to transport students would be more limited in the morning than in the afternoon.

“If we did am/pm and only focused on providing transportation for K-8 (students) the worst-case scenario is we have to look at one cohort of transportation, we couldn’t look at transporting both cohorts,” Harris told Trustees. “I just don’t think that’s logistically feasible given the number of buses and the number of kids.”

Some students ride the bus for two hours to get to school, Harris said.

“We may get to the point, and I am completely making things up, but it could be that we only run the Gasquet-high school run on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Gasquet’s not run on the other two days,” he said, “and that could free up a bus to allow for more kids to be transported by cohort.”

The Board of Trustees may also have to take action to eliminate transportation for a certain distance away from a school or for a certain grade level, Harris said.

Del Norte High School English teacher Cheryl Bradley pleaded with trustees not to eliminate transportation for any student.

“It’s an equity issue as well,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I have had students arrive in my classroom soaking wet because they walked to school.”

Kat Moreno, whose students are in first-, eighth-, ninth- and 12th-grade, said older students can’t be cut off from transportation either.

“It’s a disaster and it’s jeopardizing their chances of graduating high school,” she said.

Speaking for Derrick Campbell, the district’s transportation director who was on vacation, Harris said Campbell was concerned about the ability to provide transportation if both the am/pm blended learning model and the 2-days on, 3-days off model were used.

Harris agreed with Bradley and Moreno, that changing transportation schedules and routes is an equity issue. The blended learning model the district decides on also affects students’ ability to participate in after school programs. Parents’ need for child care must also be taken into consideration as should American Indian programs and supports for English language learners, homeless and foster youth, Harris said.

“Whatever it is, we need to think about the equity that’s involved,” he said.

Though she said her department will “figure it out” whatever Phase 3 model trustees pick, Nutrition Services Director Deborah Kravitz said it may be more difficult to give students hot fresh-cooked meals in the am/pm model. They’d also have to find the means to send food home with students for lunch or breakfast, she said.

In the 2-days on, 3-days off model, the Nutrition Services Department could provide a menu that’s similar to what students have received previously with hot breakfasts and lunches, Kravitz said.

Kravitz said she hasn’t been able to offer those after school suppers and snacks since March, which has affected the money her department was reimbursed.

“Going from scratch cooking to prepackaged commercial foods caused our food budget to go through the roof,” she said. “We’re looking at ways to be fiscally responsible and bring in more money to offset what will inevitably be a big loss in our program this year for next year.”

When it comes to sanitizing classrooms, Steve Morgan, the district’s director of facilities and maintenance, had estimated Thursday that it would take a minimum of 27 custodians to clean 14 campuses in the hour and a half between morning and afternoon sessions.

Though teachers and other staff indicated they would be willing to sanitize their classrooms between sessions, Morgan said with a 30 minute lunch period and an hour of preparation time, he wasn’t sure how easy or realistic that would be.

Making it work
Though she noted there wasn’t a right choice, Paige Thompson, lead negotiator for the Del Norte Teachers Association, said she and her colleagues will make and maintain connections with their students.

“If we’re in a hybrid model, fully distance, ebbing and flowing, I promise you we will figure out to the best of our ability how to meet academic and, more importantly, the social and emotional needs of our students, Thompson said.

High school teacher Jenn Longrie noted that for her and her colleagues, seeing half of their students is still 100 kids a day. She also noted there’s a desk shortage at Del Norte High School. She suggested that having the high school on a different plan than elementary and middle schools would be a good option.

“What might work for elementary school might not work for middle or high schools,” Longrie said. “I’m glad these conversations are happening.”

Special education resource teacher Marcus Endert urged trustees to listen to their food services, transportation and janitorial staff.

“I personally think 2-1-2 is a better model,” he said, referring to the 2-days on 3-days off option. “That’s what your food services, transportation, maintenance and custodial staff are saying is the most workable model for them.”

Endert also urged the district to think about students’ cohorts at home when determining how to create cohorts in classrooms.

Since trustees made their decision, Harris said his next steps is to get that information to the district’s departments. He also held a question-answer session Wednesday on the blended learning models.

Harris said he’ll also discuss the hybrid learning model at the in-town schools, out-of-town schools and Del Norte High School with teachers, classified staff and “programmatic folks” and the challenges of phasing into and out of that model depending on what public health orders are in place.

“I do think we’re going to have to come back together prior to the first August meeting for a final determination on what does it look like to re-start school,” he said. “Distance learning will be made available to anyone who needs it.”

Del Norte High School’s new principal, Alison Eckart, is also formulating a reopening plan with her staff, Harris said.

“We’ll work with her to solidify that,” Harris said.


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