New guidance issued by the state last week has given school districts the ability to bring students with more acute needs back to the classroom in small groups without going through a waiver process.

Dr. Bryan Ballenger, superintendent of the Gustine Unified School District, and Newman-Crows Landing Unified School District Superintendent Randy Fillpot, each told Mattos Newspapers that they hope to resume some in-person instruction for specific groups of students before the end of September.

The state last Tuesday relaxed its rules in new guidance allowing local districts to bring small cohort groups of students with more acute needs, such as special education pupils and English learners, back to the classroom.

Under the guidelines, cohort groups must include no more than 14 students and two adult supervisors. Members of one cohort group cannot have contact with those in other groups, and precautions such as social distancing, sanitation protocols and use of personal protective equipment are required.

Fillpot and Ballenger said that they will work with teachers and classified employee groups to collectively develop plans for safely bringing those small groups of students back to the classroom.

“We have to make sure our teachers are ready and willing to take on that responsibility,” Ballenger commented. “If they are not feeling safe and protected, how much can they give their students? We want to make sure that they are on board as we move forward.”

Parents must also feel comfortable sending their students back to the classroom.

“My biggest thing is making sure that kids are safe and staff is safe,” emphasized Fillpot.

Once the district has a plan in place it can begin inviting students back to the classroom, he said. Some parents, Fillpot acknowledged, may not yet be comfortable with the thought of allowing their students to return to the classroom.

Fillpot said he envisions the Newman-Crows Landing offering in-person instruction to special education students and English learners with the most acute needs under the new, relaxed guidelines. Fillpot said he did not immediately know how many students or cohort groups that would involve.

Ballenger said special day class students would be the initial focus in Gustine Unified. He said he anticipates offering one cohort group class at Romero Elementary, one at Gustine Middle School and possibly two at Gustine High.

“I think we are going to focus on our special day class students first, and then our English learners to see where we can provide additional support under the new guidelines,” Ballenger commented.

Both superintendents said that the structure for the small group cohort instruction remains a work in progress and may very well end up being a modified schedule of some sort as opposed to traditional school days.

Each also praised the new guidelines, saying the new format will allow schools to better serve students with the greatest needs.

“I was extremely happy and relieved that we might be able to do something for our most vulnerable students,” Ballenger commented. “As far as their education and well-being, I don’t think there is a better situation than to be able to bring back those students.”

“I think it’s great,” Fillpot agreed. “We haven’t (brought those students back) because we weren’t able to under the previous directives. Now they have loosened those up.”

Each superintendent said they will bring plans to resume in-person instruction for the small cohort groups before their respective school boards this month.