The spreading COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed life on the West Side with stunning swiftness in recent days, as a handful of cancellations and closures quickly cascaded into a torrent.

Public school districts in Newman and Gustine closed effective today (Thursday), with a shutdown anticipated to last until April 20. Non-essential school activities ranging from field trips and FFA competitions to a school play in Gustine and athletics across the board were suspended as last week unfolded, leading to the weekend announcements that schools would be closing altogether at the close of the school day yesterday (Wednesday).

Our Lady of Miracles Catholic School in Gustine was the first to take that step locally, closing through at least the end of the month following the conclusion of classes Friday, March 13.

The impacts of the COVID-19 crisis reverberated throughout local communities.

Police departments in each community asked the public to file non-emergency reports via phone rather than sending officers out to make direct contact with reporting parties.

West Side Community Theatre canceled all performances through the end of March.

City recreation programs were suspended in Gustine and Newman, as were youth baseball/softball seasons originally scheduled to begin Saturday.

Shoppers flocked to stores in increasing numbers, emptying shelves at various locations of toilet paper, cleaning supplies, eggs, bread, pasta, rice and other staples.

Some funeral services were postponed, and a number of community clubs, including the Gustine Seniors and Orestimba 50-Plus, halted meetings in response to the growing crisis.

“Social distancing,” the practice of keeping six feet of space between people to help limit virus spread, was widely adopted where people did gather.

In a matter of days, many facets of everyday life were upended in a series of new developments which continues.

Local public school leaders found themselves facing the unprecedented task of shutting down schools in mid-year. Gustine and Newman-Crows Landing unified school districts sent students home with an expected return date of April 20 - but no guarantees the shutdown will be lifted at that time.

“I don’t think that two weeks ago we would have predicted that we would be in the situation we are today,” said Dr. Bryan Ballenger, superintendent of Gustine Unified.

Gustine and Newman-Crows Landing are taking different educational approaches during the shutdown.

Randy Fillpot, superintendent of the Newman-Crows Landing district, said schools are implementing a remote learning strategy to replace face-to-face education.

Existing practices at the middle school and high school lend themselves to the transition, Fillpot noted.

The district had already provided devices for home use by high school and middle school students, Fillpot said, and has been using digital programs which allow teachers to hand out assignments and monitor student progress.

In preparation for the closure, Fillpot said, the district has gone through the process of checking out devices already issued to grades 1-5 students for classroom use so they can be taken home.

Kindergarten and TK students are being sent home with packets of materials. Suggested weekly schedules and activities for elementary students will be posted on the district website. 

Newman-Crows Landing will also provide social emotional support for students, Fillpot told the school board in a special meeting Tuesday morning at which the closure was officially approved.

In the Gustine district, Ballenger said, devices are not being sent home with students. Instead, he reported, teachers prepared enrichment work for their pupils.

“The work will be going home with students. It will all be enrichment activities to solidify the knowledge of concepts,” Ballenger told Mattos Newspapers. “No new learning will be taking place.”

Each district will continue a food service program.

Ballenger said Gustine Unified will provide free grab-and-go meals at multiple locations in Gustine and Santa Nella. The program serves children 18 and under.

Fillpot said the Newman-Crows Landing program, which is also a grab-and-go with no food to be consumed on site, will feed children ages 1-18.

Details of each district’s meal program can be found on the back page of this edition.

The superintendents agreed that providing the meals is absolutely essential.

“I think that was one of our biggest concerns,” Fillpot said. “For some of our children, that may be the only meal they get that day. We are very concerned about continuing to feed our students.”

“We are feeding 100 percent of our kids, and some of those may not have food at home,” Ballenger told Mattos Newspapers. “It is imperative that we continue to provide students with nutritious meals.”

The Newman-Crows Landing district operates a senior meal program which will continue, said Alex Pineda, Sodexo’s food service manager for the Newman-Crows Landing district. The congregate site is closed, but to-go meals will be available for curbside pickup weekdays from 11 a.m. to noon at the McConnell Center. Pineda said Merced County seniors may also participate by registering with the McConnell Center address.

According to Pineda, Stanislaus County seniors can also arrange home-delivered meals. Call 593-5633 for information (A general information line for senior resources and services in Stanislaus County can be reached at 558-8698).

Fillpot and Ballenger said all staff will continue to be paid in their respective districts.

In each district, the superintendent said, maintenance crews will be conducting deep cleaning operations during the closure.

Newman-Crows Landing and Gustine Unified officials each indicated that they plan to keep district offices open.

At the special school board meeting Tuesday in Newman, Trustee Vern Snodderly cautioned that the closure could be extended beyond the April 20 date. He suggested that the district prepare for the possibility that the closure remain in place through the remainder of the school year. Plans for that eventuality will be put in place, Fillpot said.

The planned closure of Our Lady of Miracles Catholic School at this point extends until March 30, according to Chandra Brace, but is subject to re-evaluation. She said teachers will be conducting distance learning with their pupils.

Shopping frenzy

Shoppers packed into local markets to stock up on essentials such as toilet paper, bread, cleaning supplies and eggs.

Bob Corella, assistant manager at the Nob Hill Foods in Newman, told Mattos Newspapers Monday afternoon that demand started picking up early last week and was magnified over the weekend.

“It doesn’t seem to be slowing down,” Corella said, adding that the store imposed purchase limits on some items in an order to stretch the inventory.

He said customers have been understanding, and praised employees for their hard work and extended hours during the time of increased demand.

While Nob Hill has been getting new deliveries, Corella commented, shoppers are “buying more than we are putting back on the shelves.”

City government

Local governments have also been responding to the COVID-19 crisis.

A variety of recreation programs have been halted in each community, and the Newman Teen Center is closed during the crisis.

In Gustine, City Manager Doug Dunford said, residents are being encouraged to use a utility bill drop box or pay their bills on line. Public access to City Hall is being limited to the front lobby, Dunford noted, as visitors are not being allowed back into office areas.

Dunford said the city is also canceling reservations for use of city facilities by groups larger than recommended guidelines.

He said the city is looking into ways it may be able to help its restaurants, which are a significant downtown presence in Gustine, and is also exploring means to support the senior community.

“It is a very fluid environment right now that we are dealing with,” Dunford commented.

In Newman, City Manager Michael Holland said the city is continuing to monitor new developments and respond according with its public safety protocols.

“It is a day to day situation that we will continue to respond to,” Holland commented.

Police departments in each community are asking residents to file telephone reports of non-emergency incidents such as vandalism cases, petty theft, vehicle burglaries or tampering, or lost property. Newman residents are asked to file phone reports at 209-243-2399. Gustine residents may call 854-3737 to file reports.

Officers will continue to respond when necessary.