NEWMAN - Safety measures were the focal point when Superintendent Randy Fillpot briefed members of the Newman-Crows Landing school board on elementary school reopening plans last week.

Fillpot spent most of the hour-long board workshop held Oct. 7 reviewing the district’s waiver application seeking authorization to bring elementary students back to the classroom, but emphasized that the safety measures outlined in that document apply across all grade levels.

Fillpot said that the district hopes to resume in-person learning at elementary grade levels on Monday, Nov. 2. The waiver may or may not be required, depending on Stanislaus County’s standing in the state’s four-tier, color-coded guidance for reopening.

He explained that the plan is to bring back all elementary grade levels, with each class split into two cohort groups of about 10-12 students. One group will meet for in-person instruction Mondays and Tuesdays, while the other will be in the classroom on Thursdays and Fridays, each on a schedule similar to that of a minimum day. Wednesdays will be fully devoted to distance learning, with no in-person instruction. On days they are not in the classroom, according to the district’s reopening plan, those students will take part in off-site learning activities with live interaction each morning.

Bringing back students in grades 6-12 will be a more drawn-out process, Fillpot told Mattos Newspapers, and is starting with small groups of students with the most acute needs.

A premise for school reopening is the creation of small groups of students - or cohorts - who do not mix with pupils from other cohort groups.

That approach is most conducive to the elementary grade levels, Fillpot said, because the classes are self-contained and each can readily be split into two groups.

Because students at the secondary level rotate from one class to another each period, developing cohort groups is far more challenging.

“There is no way to keep them from mixing,” Fillpot commented.

Fillpot said the district is moving slowly on bringing back students in grades 6-12, with the focus on following guidelines which allow schools to create small groups of no more than 16 people per classroom (including adults) and serving pupils with the most acute needs.

“These groups only meet with one teacher and do not move to other classrooms,” the superintendent stated. “We have a couple of those small cohorts that have started at Orestimba.”

Fillpot said teachers at Yolo and Orestimba are being asked if they would like to propose creation of additional small cohort groups to provide in-person instruction for students who are most at-risk. Typically, he explained, those students will meet in the classroom for one block section a few days each week. They will also continue distance learning.

“I would hope that by Thanksgiving we have quite a few more kids (engaged in in-person learning) at the secondary level, but it is hard to predict what those numbers will be,” he commented earlier this week.

It is not currently feasible for secondary sites to fully reopen, Fillpot reported, as social distancing guidelines preclude a broader reopening.

As schools do reopen, Fillpot stressed to the board, “there is no back to normal the way it was a year ago.”

The elementary waiver application (which, again, includes many elements which also apply to secondary grade levels as they reopen) offered a glimpse of school routines.

Once in a cohort, students cannot switch to another.

Breakfast and lunch will be served in the classroom or outdoors rather than in the cafeteria.

Restroom and recess protocols will be in place. No equipment will be shared, and pupils will not have access to playground equipment.

No visitors will be allowed at any site other than by appointment, and will log in so that if the district has need to conduct contact tracing it has a record of who was on campus on any given day and time.

Masks will be required for students in grades 3 and higher, and strongly recommended for younger pupils as well. The district will make masks available as needed, Fillpot said, but he believes many children already have personal masks which they favor.

Facial shields may be worn as a complement to - but not in place of - masks.

Masks will be required on buses. Transportation plans are still being worked out, Fillpot said, but the district is working with First Student on those protocols. Practices, he said, will include spreading students out to the largest degree possible on buses. The buses will be loaded from back to front and unloaded from front to back to minimize incidents of students crossing one another.

Release times will be staggered.

When feasible, desks will be placed at least six feet apart and will be arranged to all face in the same direction.

An emphasis will be placed on the basics: Wearing masks, distancing and regular, thorough hand washing.

Campuses will have portable wash sinks, and no-touch water faucets are being installed in restrooms.

The district has stockpiled masks, hand sanitizers, wipes, disinfectant products and other protective equipment in anticipation of school reopening.

School staff members will periodically be tested for COVID-19.

Each site will have a rigorous cleaning and sanitation protocol, Fillpot emphasized.

For all of those campus safeguards, he emphasized, parents will play a pivotal role in the success of schools reopening - and staying open.

Schools may be able to do a quick visual inspection and temperature checks for students as they arrive on campus, Fillpot explained, but will be relying on parents to do a more comprehensive assessment before sending their children to school each day.

“We want parents to understand what the symptoms are that (students) should not be coming to school with,” he told the board. “We are relying on parents. It is critical that families understand what is important.”

Each staff member is required to complete a self-assessment, including temperature check, on a daily basis.

School reopening plans also include protocols and procedures in the event of positive COVID-19 cases or potential exposures among students and staff.

A waiver to reopen the elementary schools may not be required but was filed as a safeguard in the event that Stanislaus County does not move to a less restrictive tier in the state’s reopening guidance.

Regardless, Fillpot said, going through the process was beneficial.

“The protocol is important enough that we need to send it out and get feedback from the California Department of Public Health and the county (health department),” he told the board.

Fillpot has acknowledged that not all parents will be comfortable having their children return to the classroom. Those pupils, he said, can remain on a distance learning format.

He said the district will be reaching out to families this week to notify parents of reopening plans and to find out who wants to remain fully in distance learning.

Fillpot said much thought has been put into the reopening process, which has included extensive feedback and input from staff members.

“We have been very methodical and very slow at this. I didn’t feel like we wanted to be the pilot for the county,” he commented. “We are learning from others what works and doesn’t work before we jump in.”

Still, the superintendent acknowledged, “we are all a little nervous.”