Beginning April 12, the Hollister School District will offer the option of in-person instruction to all of its TK to eighth grade students. This follows a 4-1 vote at a special HSD Board of Trustees meeting on March 15, where Trustee Carla Torres-Deluna opposed the measure.
Parents and guardians will choose from two options: either a hybrid format combining in-person instruction and distance learning, or a full distance learning option. For the hybrid format, HSD will split students into morning and afternoon cohorts, and keep students grouped by class and grade.
The district consists of 10 campuses that serve around 5,600 students.
HSD gave families a paper survey during meal distribution on March 15, as well as an electronic survey through email. Superintendent Diego Ochoa estimates that 3,300 students will participate in the hybrid format and 1,800 will participate in the full distance learning format, with the remaining students enrolled in the Rigorous Independent Study Education (RISE) online program.
Elementary students in the hybrid format will attend school in-person for around two hours in either the morning or afternoon on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Wednesdays are reserved for distance learning instruction.
Middle school students in the hybrid format will choose, if deemed necessary due to spacing, between being a part of group A, which will attend in-person Monday and Tuesday and the rest of the week through distance learning from home; or group B, which will start the week Monday through Wednesday with distance learning and attend school in-person on Thursday and Friday.
The return to a hybrid form of instruction comes at the urging of the federal government to reopen all schools as soon as possible, in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, as well as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s financial incentives for school districts able to open within these guidelines. Districts that don’t open by April 1 would lose access to financial assistance by 1% for each day that they fail to offer a form of in-person instruction.
Districts that don’t offer in-person instruction by May 15 will lose eligibility for incentive funding.
Ochoa told BenitoLink that the state is supposed to officially tell school districts how much funding they will receive on March 30; he said HSD’s finance department estimates the amount will be between $900,000 and $1.2 million.
Federal incentive funding is unclear at this time as well, but Ochoa said it could be between $3 million and $8 million over the next two years.
HSD will join other schools in San Benito County that are already offering in-person instruction. According to the safe schools reopening map, Panoche Elementary, Tres Pinos Union, Cienega Union and North County Joint Union are open for in-person or hybrid instruction, some through waivers approved by the state and others such as Spring Grove because they opened their doors when San Benito County was in the red tier in October. The county again moved from the purple tier to red on March 14.
With the return to in-person instruction, Ochoa cited a significant decline in new daily cases recorded in the county.
“A month and a half ago the county’s COVID positivity and infection rate was sky high, among the highest in the state of California,” he said at the March 15 meeting. “I think we are all thankful to see that in the last 60 days those numbers have completely changed.”
Ochoa also cited legislation in California that encourages school districts to open.
“The goal is for every single school district that is in the red tier to offer every single student in-person instruction K-6 plus socio-economic disadvantaged, homeless, foster, special ed, [english learners], kids who lack technology access, and kids who are not logging in online.”
Access to the COVID-19 vaccine has also helped build the case for HSD to return to in-person instruction.
“At present we have vaccinated, through online means and local doctors’ offices, close to 95% of the staff that are interested,” Ochoa said. “There are some staff that are not interested in the vaccine. Those that remain unvaccinated at this point are those that are electing to have a specific kind of vaccine or are expressing they want to receive the vaccine at a specific time, date, location.”
Trustee Torres-Deluna was not swayed by the recent advancements.
“The hesitation for me, I’m feeling like, why all of a sudden?” she said, addressing her fellow board members. “I’m feeling a lot of pressure, honestly. I’m feeling like I want our kids to go back, but I thought we had a plan and then the plan got derailed by the state and federal government.”
She continued: “Why all of a sudden? The money issue, we had a plan already for priority groups, the parent voice, let’s look at the demographics again about who’s pushing?”
Holding back tears, Torres-Deluna said “I don’t want to get emotional, but it’s a tough decision. We’re looking out for everybody, every single student. We don’t want anyone to get sick, we don’t want any teachers or staff to get sick or die.”
Trustees suggested holding a town hall online or producing informational videos to explain to students and their families that an average school day will look different from how things were before the pandemic.
Under the new guidelines, students and staff will be wearing masks and maintaining social distancing while on campus. Breakfast and lunch will not be served and students will be encouraged to eat before they attend school. There will be no recess and access to playgrounds. Physical education and athletics will not be allowed through the remainder of the school year.
HSD implemented HVAC updates at all school sites between 2016-2018, and has also invested in HEPA-rated air purifiers. Ochoa told BenitoLink that every classroom in the district has one.
Ochoa also said that transportation will be different because of the need to minimize bus riders.
“We usually transport 1,200 kids per day,” he said. “We can’t do that with the requirement that kids sit in rows by themselves. We will provide all special education bus transportation and very limited non-special education transportation for COVID distancing reasons.”
The next regular HSD board meeting is scheduled for March 23 at 6 p.m. and can be viewed on the district’s YouTube channel. Community members can participate in the meeting through submitting a public comment by 1 p.m. via email to [email protected] on the date of the meeting, or by calling (831) 630-6320 during the meeting and asking to speak on an agendized item.
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