Updated Oct. 7, 9:45 p.m.

At the Oct. 7 Truckee Tahoe Unified School District regular board meeting, Superintendent and Chief Learning Officer Carmen Ghysels proposed that the board postpone the district’s transition to a hybrid model of instruction to Oct. 28, two weeks after the originally planned Oct. 14 date. The meeting was cut short due to technical difficulties with Tahoe Truckee Media and has been rescheduled to Oct. 8 at 7 p.m. In an email to parents, Ghysels expressed her apologies for the technical difficulties and outlined where TTUSD stands with their criteria to reopen, all information she planned to share during the presentation.

This email information included an update that Placer County is trending toward the orange tier, which means a decreasing COVID-19 positivity rate; confirmation that TTUSD received the MERV-13 filters and anticipate they will be installed by Oct. 9; information about a partnership with Tahoe Forest and the Placer County Department of Public Health for rapid testing; the scheduled arrival of desk shields for students Oct. 14; and a “confident” yet “tentative” agreement with Tahoe Truckee Education Association and the California School Employees Association by early next week.

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Every weekday since school started on Sept. 2, Ashley Bierwolf’s sons — who are in kindergarten and third grade at Kings Beach Elementary School — have had what she describes as structured and constant teacher interaction. For her kindergartener, the day starts with a morning meeting where the class sings a song, and the students get a chance to say hi and check in with their teacher and classmates. The remainder of the day is structured and virtually supervised by her son’s teacher. Her third-grader is also busy and engaged with school all day, she says.

“I was really nervous about how this was going to go. And the district and the teachers have really stepped up. They have been doing an amazing job,” Bierwolf said of the current distance learning model. “It works really well for the kids and for me.” A product analyst for Clear Capital, she recognizes how lucky she is to work from home on a flexible schedule.

Distance learning is working well for her family — and for many other parents in her circles — so Bierwolf was curious when the Truckee Tahoe Unified School District sent an email to student families on the evening of Friday, Sept. 18, announcing the district’s possible transition to an optional hybrid model of learning, with the first day of in-person instruction happening on Oct. 15. “Possible” because there are still a few factors up in the air — including guaranteed rapid testing, the arrival and installation of the in-demand and backordered MERV-13 air filters, and a signed memorandum of understanding (MOU) with agreed upon working conditions within the hybrid model with Tahoe Truckee Education Association (TTEA), the local teachers unions and the district. An update on these aspects of the pivot to hybrid learning is expected to be shared at the Oct. 7 regular school board meeting. TTEA was schedule to meet Oct. 6 to further negotiate the MOU.

According to Placer County regulations, rapid testing has to be available for staff and is required if they are exposed to the novel coronavirus or experiencing symptoms. Testing cannot be required for students but parents will be highly encouraged to get tested if they are exposed or experiencing symptoms. The district is in the final stages of solidifying guaranteed rapid testing through Tahoe Forest Hospital with the help of the Placer County Office of Education, according to Kelli Twomey, coordinator for parent and community relations at TTUSD. “And if we if don’t have [rapid testing] in place by Oct. 14, we won’t transition,” Twomey said.

The same goes for the MERV-13 air filters, which must be installed before students and teachers are back in the classroom. If they aren’t installed, the district cannot transition. The filters were slated to arrive around the second week of September,” but due to high demand have been out of stock. “We’re first on the list and these MERV-13 filters should be coming to us hopefully in the next week-or-so,” Todd Rivera, executive director of business services at TTUSD, said during a special board meeting on Sept. 28.

Following a detailed presentation from Superintendent Chief Learning Officer Carmen Ghysels and various school principals, questions from board members, reports from the California School Employees Association (CSEA) and the Tahoe Truckee Education Association (TTEA), and a solid hour of public comment, the meeting adjourned with a 4-to-1 vote coming from the board in favor of moving toward the hybrid model. Dianna Driller, board member and trustee for area 5 (West Shore to Dollar Hill) was the sole nay vote.

In short, the hybrid model divides students into cohorts, attending school in-person two days a week and three days online. Cohort A will attend in-person class on Monday and Tuesday, and cohort B will attend in-person class on Thursday and Friday. Wednesday, or “Same Page Wednesday” as the district is calling it, will be online for all students to allow for both the deep cleaning of classrooms and for the class and teacher to get together as an entire group. The group of students opting to stay in full distance learning is cohort C.

The Sept. 18 email took some parents by surprise and left many with a list of questions they felt needed to be answered before making an informed decision. Many parents took to local social media pages to air their concerns. A group of parents (of which Bierwolf was a part) got together and posted a change.org petition asking TTUSD to “reconsider, without haste, the design of the hybrid and full virtual models,” as well as “provide a revised implementation plan and revised calendar for implementing an equitable, safe, and successful hybrid model as quickly and as responsibly as possible.” As of Oct. 6, the petition had 392 signatures.

The school district sent a follow-up email Sept. 22, clarifying common questions they were getting about what the hybrid plan would look like in practice.

Yet parents and teachers are still concerned.

While the health and safety of students and staff are some parents’ worry, the petition specifically focuses on a reduced amount of teacher instruction and inequity between the two new options.

Teachers are also worried. One teacher in the district, who requested to remain anonymous, feels the decision to enter the hybrid model is rushed and comes as teachers were finally settling into the distance teaching modality after multiple summer trainings and a hectic spring 2020 “at no fault of anyone,” the anonymous teacher told Moonshine.

“I think in a perfect world, we wouldn’t fix what’s not broken until we know for sure we’re replacing it with something even better,” that same TTUSD teacher said. “In a perfect world, the distance learning continues for a couple more months, a couple more weeks, however long it takes to get the hybrid model completely flushed out.”

Some families echo the same sentiments. “I think a lot of parents are really confused about what this new hybrid program looks like, compared to what folks assumed it would look like when we were first asked if we wanted a hybrid plan,” Bierwolf said.

For instance, one parent Moonshine spoke with said she was surprised to learn that the two days of in-person instruction would not be full school days. Rather, students will be following a minimum day schedule of learning, with approximately four hours of classroom time on the two days of in-school learning, the same as they do during distance learning days.

“I was expecting the kids to be in school for a full school day,” said the mom, who asked to remain unidentified. “One of my kids goes to Alder Creek and the other to Glenshire. I’m fortunate enough to be able to work from home on a flexible schedule. I feel bad for those who have to actually go into a place of employment, especially with limited bus service available.”

TTEA President Jess DeLallo told the Ink in an email that while teachers are excited about the possibility of seeing their students in person, many teachers are worried that the hybrid instructional model being presented by the district will lead to less quality time with students, and the possibility that only half of the curriculum would be covered.

“Members have been presented with hybrid models that have students attending in-person classes two days a week, one distance learning day (on Wednesdays), and then independent work on the remaining two days a week,” DeLallo explained. “This is significantly less quality instruction with teachers than the distance learning model, which has students interacting with teachers, and being provided a new curriculum up to five days a week. TTEA feels that a viable, and high-quality model could be created in conjunction with the district, but we wish we didn’t have to do it under such intense time pressure.”

Another main concern heard across the board by parents is the possibility of learning loss as the inevitable kinks in this new system get worked out.

While the possible learning loss associated with transitioning to this hybrid model is a main concern for parents — it is the drive behind the change.org petition and the focus of many a public comment at the Sept. 28 special board meeting — parents are also worried about what specific health and safety precautions will be put in place with the suggested hybrid model of teaching. Some families feel the district hasn’t don’t a good enough job communicating the specifics of these measures.

Lauren Tapia, whose son is in the special education program at Alder Creek Middle School, is concerned how the individual cohorts will be isolated should an outbreak occur at the middle school level where students cannot stay with their same cohort all day based on the variety and level of classes offered.

Those same worries about necessary safety precautions are echoed throughout the state. On Sept. 22, the California Teachers Association issued a press release addressed to Gov. Gavin Newson and elected leaders titled, Educators Concerned Schools are Being Allowed to Reopen Without Basic Safety Protections and Testing in Place to Prevent Further Spread of COVID-19.

While the school district acknowledges and hears these parent and teacher concerns, they believe communication related to hybrid models, health, safety, and learning loss has been consistent and informative, particularly through emails and the 39-page TTSUD’s School Reopening and Safety Plan for 2020/21. The guidebook includes information about school opening scenarios, social-emotional-learning, food and nutrition services, and COVID exposure protocol, among other topics.

Moreover, the administration feels the decision to enter the hybrid model is anything but rushed, and follows all state-mandated safety guidelines, often taking precautions a step further than what’s suggested, according to Twomey.

“The idea is that we are focused on providing equity,” Twomey said. “The whole intent is to reopen, and do it safely, with what we have to follow the guidance from the California Department of Public Health.”

Reopening is also what the district feels the majority of parents want, especially since the results of the survey that went out on Sept. 18 reflected that about 85% of parents with students at TTUSD selected the hybrid model of learning .

Cory Allison has two kids at Tahoe Lake Elementary, ages 6 and 9. Her family chose the hybrid model of instruction and doesn’t think there will be any issues as her kids transition from distance learning to the hybrid option. “I feel like the district has been working super hard to come up with the best option they can in a terrible situation,” Allison said in an email to Moonshine. “Of course I am worried about COVID safety, there is no way not to be. But the school is taking precautions and I feel like the benefits of being back in school two days a week outweigh the risk for our family.”

One thing parents and teachers seem to agree on — and, further, agreed with the district on — is that they want students to return to in-person instruction. The disagreement comes when the conversation shifts “how soon” and “under what circumstances.”

“I want my child back in school and to be safe while back at school,” said Lauren Tapia, who has concerns about the hybrid model and chose to keep her son in distance learning at Alder Creek for the timing being. “But, I want my family on the sidelines while the hybrid model is being figured out.”

The hybrid model is far from finalized, yet the district is taking the necessary steps with hopes of having students in the physical classroom on Oct. 15. Yet that will only happen if the filters arrive, rapid testing is available, TTUSD and TTEAS negotiate and sign the working conditions MOU, and Placer County stays in the red tier of California’s four-tier COVID-19 reopening system.

DeLallo said TTEA began working on the in-person/hybrid MOU in August, starting by addressing issues of safety. “Aside from wanting to ensure the safest return as possible, many of the guidance documents from the different health departments have changed several times, and we have had to adapt to these changes,” she noted.

TTEA and TTUSD came to an agreement in principle on safety on Sept. 24. “This means that both sides have agreed, and we are just waiting for the MOU to be ratified by TTEA membership,” DeLallo explained. “TTEA is very proud of the work that was done on the safety MOU, and we feel confident that students and staff will be as safe as possible upon a return to in-person teaching.”

But while the safety side of things has an agreement in principle, the instructional end is still in the works. DeLallo said TTEA has been trying very hard to come to consensus, and to meet the needs and concerns of all staff and students. They are working to ensure that all voices are being represented, while maintaining the high-quality instructional program they feel their students deserve.

“We have been working very hard, with the district, to ensure that a return to campus would be safe for students, staff, and the community,” DeLallo said. “We are adamant that any return to school should result in an instructional model that is more than what they are currently receiving from the safety of their homes. A return to in-person instruction that would result in an instructional model that provides less quality time with students and teachers is not something that we can support.”

In an Oct. 6 evening email, superintendent Ghysels noted she will give an update on where things stand on each outstanding item during the Oct. 7 regular board meeting.

“I wanted to let you know that some of these factors are not yet finalized, but we’re close,” she said. “… The good news is that the bargaining teams from TTEA and TTUSD met again today and had a very productive session. Both teams worked hard to find compromise and we came to some important agreements. We are confident we will successfully conclude our negotiations shortly.”

Tune in to the Oct. 7 board meeting 5:30 p.m. at ttusd.org.

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