What’s new this school year? Changing Covid protocols, universal TK, later start times and more

What’s new this school year? Changing Covid protocols, universal TK, later start times and more
Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

Students arrive for the first day of school at Markham Elementary in Oakland Unified on Monday.

Earlier start times for middle and high school students, the expansion of transitional kindergarten, more after-school programs and the opening of more community schools are just some changes students and staff will have to adjust to this school year, while still dealing with Covid-19 safety protocols and persistent staff shortages.

Despite the challenges, educators seem confident that the experience of the last two years and increased resources will help them navigate another year of Covid-19, as well as new state programs.

“I am looking forward to another year of in-person instruction,” said Corey Willenberg, superintendent of Oroville Union High School District in Butte County. “We are going to offer kids and families a fantastic education despite the hurdles we are facing.” 

Despite the overall optimism, Covid-19 uncertainty and testing protocols top the list of concerns of California school administrators this school year, said Naj Alikhan, senior director of communications for the Association of California School Administrators. Other concerns include teacher shortages, the social-emotional health of students and staff and the implementation of later start times for middle and high school students, he said.

Districts relax Covid protocols

Covid-19 protocols have changed tremendously from the beginning of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. This year, mask mandates and social distancing are mostly a thing of the past. Regular surveillance testing has made way for at-home tests provided by schools during times of high transmission, as well as testing at school sites as needed.

State Covid-19 guidance recommends masking but leaves it up to districts and county health departments to determine whether to require it.

 Los Angeles Unified, which kept its indoor masking requirement after the state lifted mandatory masking rules in schools last spring, will not require masks this school year, nor will it require a weekly Covid test in order to enter campuses. Only students or staff exhibiting symptoms or those who are in close contact with someone who tests positive will be required to test, using an at-home antigen test. The district is distributing the tests to students and staff to use within 48 hours of the first day of school and again before the second week.

LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the district is relaxing Covid-19 protocols because of declining infection rates, but it also is ramping up disinfection of high-touch surfaces, hiring more custodians, increasing ventilation and upgrading air filtration systems.

Sacramento City Unified and San Diego Unified, which both mandated masking over the summer because of high Covid-19 rates, haven’t yet decided if masks will be required this school year. The districts, some of the last to start the school year, are watching community infection rates.

Oakland Unified, following the guidance of public health officials, began school Monday with no mask requirement.

Masking has been a contentious issue at most school districts, with families on both sides of the issue. 

Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

Jameela Jackson snaps a photo of her son Shadeede, a third grader, at Markham Elementary in Oakland Unified on Monday.

“To kind of strike a balance, we have made mitigation efforts as prevalent as possible and as easily accessible as possible,” said Sailaja Suresh, Oakland Unified’s senior director of strategic projects during a webinar last week. “But if it’s not a mandate that we do things like mask, we are just going to continue to strongly recommend and provide access to the mitigation measures.”

Tammy Yahud isn’t happy that Eagle Peak Montessori, a charter school her two sons attend in Walnut Creek, has opted to require masks indoors for another school year. Yahud says masking is impacting her children’s mental health and making it more difficult for one child, who is in speech therapy. 

She doesn’t understand why the school continues to have a mask mandate when others schools do not. 

“It is time of progress,” Yahud said. “We have medicine. We have approved vaccine. We have treatment. We have made progress. We are moving forward, so the school has to move forward.”

A school newsletter said the board’s decision was informed by a committee of health professionals and teachers.

The state of California and individual districts such as Los Angeles Unified, Oakland Unified and San Diego Unified have also put vaccine mandates for students on hold, although state law requires all school workers, including teachers, be fully vaccinated or to undergo a weekly Covid-19 screening.

Sacramento City Unified still has a vaccine mandate for students but hasn’t enforced it, said Brian Heap, the district’s chief communications officer. 

Monkeypox is the latest concern

If Covid-19 weren’t enough, families have a new virus to worry about this year: monkeypox. The virus is spread through close skin-to-skin contact and through contaminated materials like cups, utensils, clothing and towels. 

Symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, chills, exhaustion, headache, muscle aches, fever and a rash or lesions. 

At least five children in the United States, including one in Long Beach, have been reported to have the virus. This month, both California Gov. Gavin Newsom and President Joe Biden have declared monkeypox a public health emergency.

Dr. Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Medical Center, says the risk of a child contracting the disease is low and that schools should already have health policies in place that exclude students with certain rashes and other infectious diseases from activities where there is direct contact with other students, he said. 

But districts are taking precautions. 

“The biggest concern for us is sports, like wrestling or gymnastics where kids are on padding on the floors,” said Richard Barrera, San Diego Unified School District trustee. “So, what our facilities folks are doing right now, are going in and taking a look at places kids could potentially be exposed to a situation like monkeypox.”

Schools will continue to focus on mental health

School districts are making the mental health of students and teachers a priority. Districts will be able to put a greater emphasis on mental health this year because they no longer have to deal with online learning options or as many unknowns about Covid, Barrera said. 

The biggest challenge for educators this school year is mental fatigue, said E. Toby Boyd, president of the California Teachers Association.

“We are still not out of this Covid situation, where we have to mitigate all these circumstances,” he said. “The inability to actually teach truth about what is going on in our history. There are so many things. Not knowing if you are ill, if you are going to be able to get a substitute to cover your classroom.”

Staff shortages loom large

School districts are expected to struggle with staff shortages again this year. Bus drivers, paraprofessionals, substitutes and teachers continue to be in short supply even though districts have stepped up efforts to recruit and retain them.

San Diego Unified and San Francisco Unified were among the many districts that offered signing bonuses to lure teachers to their districts. 

But sometimes bonuses aren’t enough. Oroville Union High School District has been advertising for a special education teacher for severely handicapped students since April. Superintendent Willenberg expects that students in that class will start the year with a substitute teacher, who isn’t likely to have all the training needed to work with severely handicapped children. 

The district, which serves 2,700 students, still needs three special education teachers, two English teachers and four special education paraeducators before school starts Aug. 16.

Willenberg has asked outside agencies that work in special education to send teachers to the district in exchange for a finder’s fee. But even that isn’t working.

The high school district, like many others in the state, hasn’t been unable to find enough bus drivers with the required Class B license. So, instead, it has had to hire drivers with standard Class C licenses to drive a “huge” van fleet to pick up students 10 at a time, instead of the 55 or more that fit in a bus.

The shortage impacts families in the entire area, as the high school district also provides home-to-school transportation for an elementary school district within its boundaries. As a result, the high school district has had to cut back on providing transportation for athletic events and other activities.

Willenberg said he expects more retirements to make the bus driver shortage even worse this school year.

Older students will start the school day later

State-mandated later start times in California will make providing home-to-school bus transportation even more complicated, say administrators. The legislation requires middle schools to begin no earlier than 8 a.m. and high schools to start regular classes at 8:30 a.m. or later. 

Richard Nguyen, 15, an incoming junior at Bolsa Grande High School in Garden Grove, is thrilled that school will start at 8:30 a.m., instead of 7:55 a.m. this school year. He knows he needs more sleep, but says he will use the time to study and do homework.

“We are all really sleep-deprived,” he said of teenagers. “But that’s 35 more minutes to do homework. I have a rigorous schedule.”

Full slate of new programs

Record state funding for K-12 education and federal Covid relief money are making new programs like universal transitional kindergarten, after-school extended learning and the expansion of community schools possible this school year.

 “The budget this year was extremely helpful for educators,” Boyd said. “We have more money going into the classroom to hopefully lower class sizes and to retain and recruit teachers. There is the transitional kindergarten expansion. Community schools are going to be very impactful for our communities.”

The state also is investing $3 billion in community schools, which will take an integrated approach to their students’ academic, health and social-emotional needs by making connections with government and community services and by building trusting relationships with students and families. 

San Diego Unified has an ambitious plan to open five community schools each year beginning this school year. The district will continue the process until all the district schools with 80% or more of its students eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch are community schools. Eventually, the district will have upward of 50 community schools, Barrera said.

State and federal dollars aimed at learning loss also are allowing districts to offer more extensive after-school programs. San Diego is extending its summer enrichment program, known as Level UP SD, to an after-school enrichment program this year. It is working with community nonprofits to offer classes in marine science, robotics, dance, theater and the arts, among other things.

Oroville Union High School District has formed a partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of the North Valley to offer extended learning opportunities for its students

“This is an example of trying to find ways to get things done,” Willenberg said.

Universal transitional kindergarten is rolled out

This also is the first year of a three-year rollout of universal transitional kindergarten, which will allow every 4-year-old child to be enrolled by 2025-26. Students who turn age 5 between Sept. 2 and Feb. 2 are eligible to attend this school year, although some districts are enrolling even younger students. 

The student-to-teacher ratio will be 12-to-1 this year, and transition to 10-to-1 in 2025-26. That’s half the size of the current transitional kindergarten but larger than Head Start, which generally has an 8-to-1 ratio.

San Diego Unified was one of the early implementers of universal kindergarten with nearly 56 school sites last year. This year it expanded its program to almost every elementary school, adding about 700 seats, said Marceline Marques, operations support officer for the school district.

The district will enroll any child who turns age 4 by the end of the school year, Barrera said. He is hopeful that the additional enrollment generated by universal transitional kindergarten will help staunch declining enrollment in the district, which has had a half-percent decline annually over the last five or six years. 

“Reaction to universal transitional kindergarten was overwhelmingly positive,” Marques said. “So many families applied that we have more applications than seats available. We were determined to increase the number of classrooms in the district to accommodate everyone who applied, as well as to have seats available to families who move into the district.”

Universal transitional kindergarten, which replaces transitional kindergarten, offers a more play-based, developmental-based curriculum, Marques said. But literacy, math, science, social studies, art and physical education components are also taught, she said.

 “It’s a wonderful program for our students to be prepared before they move into kindergarten,” Marques said.  “That piece is super exciting, we are really excited about it.”

EdSource reporter Kate Sequeira contributed to this report.

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