Filling voids

CN&R File Photo Chico Unified School District’s bakery will prepare and package breakfasts and lunches for students in need during campus closures.

Pleasant Valley High School track and field coach Vince Enserro had some tough news to break to his student athletes last Friday (March 13). Effective immediately, their season would be suspended until April 15 due to the coronavirus COVID-19.

“You could see the disappointment in the kids’ eyes,” Enserro told the CN&R. “Those kids all put in a lot of hard work, and our season just got started.”

This wouldn’t just impact them, however—all sports activities across Chico Unified School District (CUSD) got postponed. Meanwhile, other extracurricular activities, such as arts performances, have halted through March 31.

Of course, since then, students and families across Chico have had to make even more adjustments as local educators respond to the escalating pandemic. As of press time, there were more than 7,000 cases in the United States, 97 of them fatal, including 598 cases and 13 deaths in California.

Sunday night (March 15), on the eve of the district’s regularly scheduled spring break, CUSD Superintendent Kelly Staley announced that in-person instruction would be canceled next week, March 23 through March 27. The closure has since been extended through April 17, for CUSD and BCOE. This announcement came on the heels of the Butte County Office of Education’s recommendation that same night that all schools countywide should close through the 27th “to protect our staff, as well as the safety and wellness of our students and families.”

In this time of crisis, school officials have spoken daily, scrambling to plan not only for remote education opportunities but also how to provide critical services, such as supervision and meals.

“None of it is as simple as, ‘Oh, we’ll just do everything online,’” Staley said.

Mary Sakuma, superintendent of the Butte County Office of Education, said conversations on those plans changed dramatically Sunday evening. That’s when Gov. Gavin Newsom called for the chronically ill and seniors 65 and older to isolate. It quickly became clear the impact that guideline, among others, would have on local school districts and charter schools, Sakuma said. In one small district, for example, all bus drivers are either 65 or older or have a medical condition that could put them at risk. School leaders had no idea how they’d make accommodations in time.

“You can imagine it started to snowball, especially for [that district],” Sakuma said. “I’ll be candid—there are some plans that are still in the works. While we have been working on planning for possible closure, we really didn’t think we would have to make the decision this quickly.”

In addition to CUSD, several other school districts and area charter schools, including Oroville Union High School District and Oroville City Elementary School District, have announced closures for that same timeframe in recent days. The Glenn County Office of Education took its closure a step further, through April 17.

While students are away, CUSD officials have rolled out plans to serve kids—first, by providing food service. Enserro, also CUSD’s director of nutrition, said the district’s bakery will prepare packed breakfasts and lunches. These will be available for all children 18 or younger, regardless of which school they attend, Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., at four locations: Citrus and Chapman elementary schools, and Chico Junior and Bidwell Junior high schools.

It’ll be grab-and-go style: Families can walk up or drive up and receive the meals to take with them. Enserro said this is a modified version of the district’s summer meal program that incorporates social distancing. All students qualify, regardless of family income status. A significant portion of students—41 percent—already received free or reduced-cost meals.

“This will be an easy way for us to serve kids and families without compounding the situation,” he said. “I want to make sure that all of our kids are taken care of, first and foremost.”

When it comes to another critical need, student supervision, Staley said the district is not able to provide childcare “with the requirements for social distancing currently in place.” However, she recognizes that this is a real concern.

Meanwhile, campuses will be sanitized. School officials currently are considering how to provide lessons, activities and/or reading materials electronically. All students in fifth through 12th grades have laptops they take home with them. However, that doesn’t address the needs of students without computers or those without access to the internet, Staley added. The district is considering setting up places for parents to safely pick up printed materials.

“Whatever we do, both legally and ethically, we have to make sure it’s accessible to all students,” she said.

As of press deadline, school officials still were ironing out long-term plans. Last Friday (March 13), Newsom signed an executive order stating that if schools close temporarily due to COVID-19, they will continue to receive funding to provide education, offer meals, pay employees and arrange for supervision “to the extent practicable.”

Then, during a press conference Tuesday (March 17), Newsom remarked that California schools likely will remain closed for the rest of the school year.

In response, Staley told the CN&R that statement was shocking. CUSD needs to meet the needs of the local community, she said, whether it be closure, distance/independent learning or—if Butte County remains COVID-19 free—a return to school for most students.

“This is fluid and developing and we need to proceed in a calm, organized manner that will include much innovation,” she said.