The Tahoe Truckee Unified School District board of education approved the Coronavirus COVID-19 Update and School Opening Plan in a 4 to 1 vote on Aug. 5. This means students will kick off the 2020/21 school year with distance learning with hopes of being able to return to some form of in-person instruction in October.

Whether that happens, however, will be dictated by closely watched COVID-19 case numbers, with the board slated to review a set of criteria at the end of September and determine whether it will be feasible to start returning students to in-person learning in October. If the numbers say it’s not possible, the board will again review come the end of October with the hope of returning to in-person classes in November. The process will repeat on a monthly basis for as long as necessary.

“Our goal is to get out of short-term distance learning as soon as possible,” said the now officially retired Superintendent Chief Learning Officer Dr. Robert Leri. “Thus, we put these short benchmarks in for evaluation.”

Leri, who said he’s been working “tag team” with his successor Carmen Ghysels on the reopening plan, noted that while the district fared much better than other parts of the state during the sudden pivot to distance learning in the spring — particularly in urban and suburban areas — it was duly noted that there was room for improvement. Yet he was sure to recognize the efforts of those staff and faculty members who made the switch possible over a three-day period, noting that the wheels for the possibility of distance learning were already set in motion prior to the governor’s stay-at-home mandate.

“I do believe this is the safest thing,” Leri said, making it clear nonetheless that the district wants to see the students in the classroom for in-person instruction. “Our goal is to get out of [distance learning] as quickly as possible.”

There’s no doubt, however, that should there be a return to the classroom, things will look a lot different. Classes will be split in half and schooldays would be on an A/B schedule, with half of a class attending on A days and the other class on B days, with distance learning filling in the gaps.

Despite the chaos of these unprecedented circumstances, Ghysels made her official board meeting debut with ease, bringing board members and viewers at home up to speed on SB98, a list of minimum requirements districts must fulfill with respect to distance learning. Among provisions like requiring adequate accommodations for ESL and special needs learners, and ensuring access to necessary electronic devices and internet service, the bill mandates a minimum amount of daily instruction time, varying by grade level: three hours for kindergarten, three hours and 50 minutes for first through third grades, and four hours for grades 4 through 12.

Prior to voting on the plan, board members heard a sampling of the 78 comments received from members of the public, half of which were against the plan to start with distance learning, with another 20% neutral and 30% in favor.

Those against reopening with only distance learning cited reasons ranging from having a special needs child who was making great strides prior to the spring pivot and who needs facial cues and one-on-one interaction to alluding to evidence backing up the notion that children aren’t as severely affected by the effects of COVID-19 as adults. Those comments the district considered neutral were those asking questions or making suggestions.

“We fully support the proposal to begin the school year with remote learning, and we would support a decision to continue remote learning beyond the end of September,” read a comment from the parents of a Glenshire Elementary student. “While we understand that this will be difficult for some, the bottom line is that no decision the board could make this evening will make every parent happy, but only one decision can keep every parent — and our community as a whole — healthy.”

And the safety of the faculty, staff, and students was decidedly the main concern for Leri, Ghysels, and the board members.

“Are we going to lose something by being safe for a month or two months,” questioned board member Gaylan Larson, who voted in favor of the plan. “… I think our students are not going to hurt too much … Locally, we don’t really have a choice … I think it’s the right choice.”

For board member Cristina Hennessey, who cast the lone vote against the plan, the process has been an emotional one.

“I feel like I’ve been handed a big bag of impossible,” Hennessey said prior to reading a statement she’d previously penned. “The decision has been made for us … Sadly, this has come at the expense of our children.”

She proceeded to list the range of activities in which kids are permitted to participate under current guidelines, such as gymnastics, summer camps, and club sports, and expressed that school should also fall under such guidelines as education is of the utmost importance. Though she disagrees with having to start the year with distance learning, Hennessey promised, “Once the vote is passed, I will 1000% percent support the mandate.” She also noted the “silver lining” of the vote in the sense of relief teachers and families will have no longer dealing with the uncertainty of wondering what the start of the school year will bring.

Board member Dianna Driller recognized difficult conversations that were put on the table for discussion over the past few months and stressed the need for all to maintain a positive outlook moving forward because everyone is trying to move forward together.

“There is no stamp that says we’re 100% safe,” Driller said. “We’re going to take it and move on. We have a good solid team.”

For parents not comfortable with the possibility of sending their children back to in-person instruction at all, either for health reasons or other concerns, there will be a full-time distance learning option for students through Cold Stream Alternative School. The details of this are still in the works, Leri said, but those preferring this option will be required to enroll in the program prior to the start of the school year, and it would be a commitment through the end of the semester in January 2021. Students will not be permitted to jump from one program to another “absent a serious and compelling reason.”

TTUSD also recognizes the challenges that distance learning may present for working parents. School officials are working with partner organizations to create childcare options for parents during distance learning at a variety of locations throughout the district. Under current guidelines, although schools are not permitted to open, childcare centers are. Parents will be kept up to date on options as information becomes available.