NEWMAN - Local school leaders are working on plans to bring students from across all grade levels back to campus this spring, but whether a planned mid-March reopening is feasible has yet to be determined.

The target date for starting to reopen schools remains March 15, Superintendent Randy Fillpot said, but it remains to be seen if that time frame is viable.

“I am a lot more optimistic about March 15 than I was a week or so ago,” he told Mattos Newspapers last Thursday, noting that trends in Stanislaus County’s rate of positive testing are encouraging.

At the same time, Fillpot cautioned, that trend must continue in order for schools to reopen.

“We are taking it week by week,” he told the school board at its Feb. 8 meeting. “I would say that if things don’t improve significantly by the first week in March I may be coming back with a recommendation that we stay on distance learning longer.”

He said that he anticipates an announcement by March 1 if schools will reopen on March 15 to give parents time to plan accordingly.

Two key issues will drive the school reopening decision, Fillpot indicated.

One is the availability of vaccines for school staff. He said at the school board meeting that vaccine availability for the district’s 375 employees is a critical consideration. Discussions surrounding vaccine availability for staff as it relates to reopening schools will be held with both union groups, Fillpot said.

A new development on that matter came last week, when Stanislaus County announced that it would begin offering vaccines to those over age 50 in the education field on Feb. 22.

He said the other key factor is the county’s standing in the state’s color-coded, four-tier ranking of virus activity. Fillpot indicated to the school board that he would like to see Stanislaus County in the red tier - signifying less severe virus spread than in the current purple tier - for two weeks before reopening.

But he also did not rule out consideration of reopening if the county is close to reaching the red tier with strong trends and projections of continued improvement.

“I think we need to get close to (the red tier), as long as the projections are heading that way,” he told Mattos Newspapers. “I am just worried about these other variants (of the virus) racing through the Central Valley and the numbers going up real fast.”

The district is working on plans to reopen TK-12, he said, but that may very well occur in phases starting with lower elementary grades.

Some small cohort groups could also resume meeting in advance of the broader reopening, Fillpot told the school board.

Ultimately, he said, “It would be nice to get some secondary (students) back as well.”

When instruction does resume, it is not likely to resemble the hybrid model used at the elementary schools when in-person instruction was offered.

That approach blended classroom and remote learning, but proved to be unwieldy.

“Hybrid learning was not working well,” Fillpot stated. “It didn’t work well for the kids who were distance learning only, or for those on hybrid learning.”

He said the district is looking at acquiring technology which would allow teachers to conduct in-person  instruction while simultaneously allowing classmates at home to join in. Students would still have the option of remaining solely on a distance learning format, Fillpot said, and those who choose to return to the classroom may be placed in groups that meet on alternating days.

“We would probably have to bring them back in groups,” he explained. “The difference (from the hybrid model) is that everybody would be taught at the same time.”

Even if schools begin to reopen in mid-March, some students will not have physically been in the classroom for one full year, give or take a few days.

With the exception of several weeks from early November leading up to the Christmas break, when elementary students were offered the opportunity to return to classroom on a part-time basis under a hybrid learning model, pupils have been studying remotely.

Those students returned to a distance learning model solely through the third quarter of the school year due to a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases.

At the middle and high schools, students have not been in the classroom since last March, with the exception of a few small cohort groups of acute-needs pupils who met for several weeks before all campus instruction was halted in December.

The desire to reopen is widely shared throughout the staff, Fillpot reflected.

“Most of us would be very happy to reopen full-scale if we were in the red tier for at least two weeks and have vaccines for our employees,” he told the school board.

But, Fillpot cautioned Mattos Newspapers, even when students do return the environment will be far different from that they enjoyed on campus before the pandemic struck a year ago.

While bringing students back to campus is important for both academic and social/emotional reasons, Fillpot said, social distancing will be a norm and student interactions with one another will be limited.

“There is going to be a limited amount of socialization,” he explained.

But, the superintendent emphasized, the reality is likely to be that schools - and society - are likely to be dealing with the coronavirus long-term, and developing strategies to operate schools and effectively deliver instruction is essential.

“The sooner we find a solution,” he commented, “the better off we will be in the long run.”