NEWMAN - The Newman-Crows Landing Unified School District ushered in 2020 with every expectation of a typical second semester all that it entailed in bringing another year to a close.

Then, the world changed.

By mid-March, activities ground to a halt, schools were closed and residents were largely sheltering at home as the coronavirus pandemic swept through the nation.

Initially, the thought was that schools would be back in session a few weeks later and that the typical flurry of spring activities - from sports seasons to proms to graduations - would return as normal.

But visions of such a short-lived disruption proved to be an illusion.

Not only did schools remain closed through the spring, any prospect of a normal start to the current year were dashed as virus numbers spiked over the course of the summer.

“I was fully anticipating we would open in August,” said Randy Fillpot, district superintendent. “When the numbers started going the other way, I was really disappointed.”

Now, more than nine months later, campuses in the Newman-Crows Landing district remain closed or have closed again, with no firm dates in sight for a reopening, and distance learning has become a part of the American vernacular.

For a few weeks starting in November the district did open its elementary campuses to students who wanted to take part in a hybrid learning model that blends classroom instruction with remote learning, and a few small groups of students with the most acute needs were meeting at Orestimba High and Yolo Middle School.

But as the pandemic spiked after Thanksgiving, Fillpot made the decision to halt classroom instruction and return the district entirely to distance learning for the third quarter of the school year. That starts in early January and runs through mid-March.

Bringing back classroom instruction only to have to shut down again was a scenario which Fillpot had said earlier in the school year he wanted to avoid if at all possible. But as the pandemic worsened among the general public and the district was experiencing a growing number of cases in its staff ranks, he made the decision to do just that.

“It has been a real struggle just staffing our classrooms,” Fillpot said in December.

But if there was a positive factor in 2020, he said, it was the district’s previous campaign to put 1:1  technology into the hands of its students.

When schools were forced to close, Fillpot explained, the Newman-Crows Landing district already had a foundation in place to shift to distance learning.

“We had started this several years ago. We just felt that moving forward for our students, these types of technology skills are critical to make them marketable and prepared for the future,” Fillpot remarked.

As it became clear that distance learning was going to be ongoing rather than a short-term replacement for classroom instruction, Fillpot added, the district turned its focus to fine-tuning remote learning - a campaign which continues as the calendar flips to 2021.

“We have done a lot of (staff development) for teachers on how to take a student in their class at any level and move them forward and meeting the standards,” he commented.

Looking ahead to the new calendar year and second semester of the 2020-21 school year, Fillpot said there are no promises that classroom instruction will resume this spring.

While the arrival of vaccines is encouraging, he noted, it remains to be seen how quickly those vaccines change the tide of the pandemic.

“I just don’t know how it is going to play out for the remainder of the (school) year,” Fillpot told Mattos Newspapers. “I am skeptical that we will return to full attendance at the schools.”

In anticipation of computer-based instruction continuing, Fillpot said, the district is giving its teachers the option of working remotely if they have the internet access to effectively do so, choosing to work from the classroom or a mix of both.

While there is sentiment across the board that educators want to have students back in the classroom when it is safe to do so, Fillpot said, there is also an awareness that asking staff members to teach both hybrid and distance only students is extremely difficult.

“I am not sure that has been good for either group of kids,” he commented.

One change in the distance learning era, Fillpot noted, is that teachers have narrowed their focus to stress only critical standards rather than attempting to instill a broader curriculum via remote instruction.

“You cannot focus on every standard. You have to focus on priority standards and get students to master those,” he explained.

Fillpot acknowledged that there will be a greater need to identify students in need of intervention next school year, and pledged that those resources will be provided.

Hopefully, he said, through in-person instruction.

“I believe it will resemble a normal classroom much more in August,” he said.

At the same time, Fillpot reflected, blended learning models may become common in the aftermath of the pandemic.

“I am hoping that we may have some lessons learned from distance learning,” he concluded. “We have a lot of students, especially at the secondary level, who have done very well at distance learning. I don’t  know that they need to attend the classroom (on a daily basis).”