Tiny foothill school district in California reaches out to other countries for reopening plan

A task force of educators, parents and school administrators from Eureka Union School District talk to teachers in Germany about reopening schools.A task force of educators, parents and school administrators from Eureka Union School District talk to teachers in Germany about reopening schools.Eureka Union School District’s seven campuses in Placer County may seem a little unfamiliar to students when they return to school on Aug. 13.
The district, which serves 3,345 students at schools in Granite Bay and Roseville, will reopen its campuses — barring any major spikes in the number of coronavirus cases in their communities.
But things will be a lot different from years past. Students will have lunch and spend recess with the same group of students throughout the school day, much like their counterparts in Germany and Finland. They will be taught in classrooms where unnecessary furniture, wall hangings and other materials have been removed, like their Chinese peers.
After schools were closed in March because of health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic, a task force made up of Eureka Union parents, teachers, board members and administrators was formed in May to devise a reopening plan. The task force contacted teachers in Germany and China, and shared information from a teacher in Finland and a school system in Austria, where schools shuttered in February and March due to the pandemic had reopened successfully. 
The task force looked overseas for help because it wanted to start planning early, before guidance was available from the state, county or other education agencies. In many cases, the precautions taken overseas mirror what U.S. education officials have said to expect next year: regular temperature checks, physical distancing, hybrid schedules and even restrictions on eating lunch.
“We knew right away, when we started this task force that there was no way we could get any examples or anything from the United States, because we haven’t gotten back to school yet,” said Ginna Myers, director of curriculum and instruction for the district. “So the countries that went back to school are in Europe and in China. So why not reach out to them?”
Myers contacted Tamara Faber, an elementary school counselor and second-grade teacher at the German-American John F. Kennedy School in Berlin, who had previously worked at Norwood Junior High School in the Twin Rivers Unified School District in Sacramento. Faber and her husband, António González, a sixth-grade teacher at the school in Germany, talked with the task force during a Zoom video conference call on May 20.
Germany had reopened its schools just the week before. The couple described the staggered daily start times and dismissal times of students on campus by grade level, how students remain with the same cohort of classmates while physically distancing during classes and recesses. While at recess, each cohort is assigned a designated space for play.
The task force also talked to Lucy Guan, a 10th-grade teacher at the International Department of Hexi Nanjing Foreign Language School in Beijing, by video conference the same day it spoke with the Berlin teachers. The school, which has 2,828 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, teaches English, German, French and Japanese. Guan gave the team an update on how China had reopened its schools three weeks before. Requirements in China vary a little by school, but masks, temperature checks, social distancing and staggered lunches are the norm. 
Students of all ages at the Nanjing Foreign Language School wear masks all day, except during physical education classes, and have their temperatures taken with an infrared scanner every morning. Hand-washing stations are numerous and classrooms are sanitized daily, often with ultraviolet lamps or with machines that emit a disinfecting mist. 
Myers said district officials were envious of all the resources like hand washing stations and sanitizing fogging machines that Chinese schools were given by their government. 
Eureka Union staff attempted to purchase hand-washing stations like the ones in the pictures Guan showed, but they are in such demand that companies are out of stock. The price also was extremely high, Myers said.
“So they had all that, those resources for them, which just paints a stark contrast with how we are in California, with a lack of funding, and we’re expected to do a whole lot,” Myers said.
Eureka Union, which serves primarily middle and upper-middle-class neighborhoods, doesn’t get many of the supplemental dollars that the state offers districts for students who are low-income, English learners or in foster care. The district does benefit from parent fundraisers and donations to the Eureka Schools Foundation, which has helped provide programs and other necessities for the district.
Because students at Eureka Union will remain in small cohorts with little to no on-campus interaction with other students, cohorts can be transitioned to online learning for 10 to 14 days if anyone in the group is diagnosed with Covid-19, according to district officials.
Students will wear masks because of a statewide mask order declared by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Teachers in the district will wear masks or face shields, said Superintendent Tom Janis. Students in China wear masks all day, while students in Germany and Finland do not. 
An Austrian school system shared with Eureka Union the five-tier matrix that it is using. The matrix, which the district is using as the backbone of its plan, covers plans for instruction, infection control, cleaning, co-curricular activities, employees, communications and school operations for five levels of risk, depending on the number of coronavirus cases circulating in the community and in the schools. It offers the flexibility to change as the number of coronavirus infections decreases or increases in the community.
The plan starts at Tier I, which assumes a vaccination for Covid-19 is readily available and students can return to school with no restrictions. Tier 2 assumes a low threat of Covid-19 infection in the community, meaning some preventative measures like temperature checks and social distancing but a return to school five days a week. Not much changes in Tier 3, except for additional health screening and monitoring of students and recommendations that teachers take classes outside as much as possible.
In Tier 4, students would remain on campus, but they would be divided into groups A and B that rotate onto campus for two days of instruction and three days of distance learning. Custodians will deep clean the campus each Wednesday. Students will eat lunch at their desks and playgrounds will be closed. The school district would move to Tier 5 if hospitals are at capacity and the state recommends that schools close and students return to distance learning.
Just a few weeks ago Superintendent Janis had been planning to reopen schools at the Tier 3 level. But now, with a surge of new cases in Placer County, the district is planning to start the school year at Tier 4, although that could change as cases of Covid-19 increase or decrease in the community, Myers said. 
“So we are preparing for three models (of instruction) and in a short amount of time,” Janis said. “The staff has been burning the candle at both ends to make this happen. It’s taxing, and to prepare for something that may not even be needed, such as the A/B model, you know it’s frustrating to some degree. But you have got to be prepared.”
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