The Hollister School District will continue teaching students via distance learning after the school board took action this week to extend campus closures until the end of the year.
The board voted 4-1 in a special meeting on Oct. 13 on a recommendation made by Superintendent Diego Ochoa that campuses should remain closed at least until Jan. 3, 2021, the day before students return from winter break.
“It is my sincere wish that we return to normal soon and see our amazing children back on our campuses,” Ochoa said in an email. “While I remain sad about the campus closures, I am tremendously grateful to our administrators, teachers, staff and parents for their efforts during this pandemic.”
Board President Rob Bernosky was the lone vote opposed to the idea. His argument is that there are families in the school district who want their kids back in the classroom.
“I would love to serve all of our constituents and some of our constituents would like for their kids to be in school,” said Bernosky in Tuesday night’s meeting. “By ignoring them we’re not serving them.”
Ochoa said some of his reasoning is that San Benito County for the past two months was in the “widespread” sector, or Tier 1 purple status, in the Covid-19 risk level metrics. That meant the county still had the most severe restrictions.
The state on Aug. 28 introduced the Blueprint for Safer Economy, which is a four-tier framework on which counties are measured for loosening and tightening restrictions on social activities and business operations.
Ochoa said there’s still a risk of Covid-19 exposure to the health and safety of 6,500 students and staff. He pointed out some statistics provided by the San Benito County Public Health Department that show most of the cases in the county fall within the three age ranges (5-24, 25-49 and 50-64) that the district serves.
“In terms of how Covid cases have come about, there is a strong correlation with person-to-person transmission, often family related,” said Ochoa during the meeting.
Ochoa presented another chart with data on monthly case progression in San Benito County and it showed how cases soared in June, which he said was shortly after the county allowed businesses to reopen.
“When the economy started to open and when restrictions regarding shelter-in-place were taken away, you see the gradual increase,” he said.
However, he pointed out that the numbers are beginning to decrease leading into October. The county, according to state data, had a case rate of 3.8 daily new cases per 100,000 residents and a test positivity rate of 2.8 percent for the week ending Oct. 3.
Dr. David Ghilarducci, County interim Public Health Officer, announced on Oct. 13 that the county’s risk level was downgraded from “widespread” to “substantial” in the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy.
The “substantial” risk sector, also known as Tier 2 red status, allows schools in the county to have in-person learning. Nine local schools have permission to reopen through a special waiver, according to Ghilarducci.
“When you open and when you provide a service, there is an apparent risk of having to close the service and having to reformat the education to the children,” he said.
Ochoa mentioned in the meeting there’s also the possibility of interruption of in-person learning that could take place in the event of a virus exposure, which can impact more than one cohort of students or staff.
Then there’s the potential major complications caused by a typical flu season, which is the final reason Ochoa recommended the board keep the schools closed.
Bernosky asked Ochoa if there was any demand from families that want their children back in school. He also wanted to know if there were any teachers willing to show up for in-person instruction.
Ochoa said the percentage of teachers favorable to hybrid instruction was in the 35 to 40 percent range, while 50 to 55 percent of the families were open to it.
Bernosky then asked if it’s possible to create a program for the families that are willing to allow their children to return.
“I think we should try to pair them up in a real classroom, with real live instruction and with a real live principal until there’s a compelling reason not to,” he said. “It’s so open ended and again I know families that want to be in the classroom.”
Board member Carla Torres DeLuna said she’d love to go back to the way things used to be but wants to take the staff, students and health into consideration.
“I like the idea of revisiting and keeping it closed until January,” she said. “I know there are issues but I think that we’re trying to work them out and I think that families have done the best they can to adjust.”
The Board will hold a special meeting on Dec. 8 to consider reopening schools on Jan. 4, 2021.