Most counties in the San Joaquin Valley have been on the state’s COVID-19 watch list for months, and are still restricted under the state’s new rating system. For counties where the virus is deemed “Widespread,” schools are not allowed to reopen for in-person lessons, but some schools in Tulare County are partially reopening under the jurisdiction of day camps.
One of them is Visalia-based Central Valley Christian Schools, a private school that serves kindergarten through 12th grade students.
Larry Baker is the school’s superintendent.
“I view what we’re doing as kind of an enriched distance learning,” says Baker. “A good share of our learning is happening still at home.”
The school is reopening as a day camp and has established a staggered schedule where only a part of the student population is on campus at any given time. Kindergarten through eighth graders will attend for only two hours in the morning or afternoon from Tuesday through Friday. High school students will attend one full day a week on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday.
School resumes Wednesday and the first few days will be completely online until next Tuesday when some students return to campus.
“When they’re on campus, we expect all students to be wearing face coverings,” says Baker.
The school has also broken up its classes into small groups: elementary students will be 12 to a class, and high school students will be in groups of ten, with teachers going from class to class instead of students.
Baker says in light of the pandemic, enrollment has declined slightly. The student population is just under 880, he says, and last year finished with 885 students. Some students have also opted for an independent study option the school is offering, where all work is done from home and they don’t attend any lessons on campus.
Baker says the school’s size is one reason he believes they can pull off holding in-person lessons. “Our high school [population] is like 320, 330 and so we are fairly flexible that way and nimble you might say,” says Baker. “Also, another factor might be that we don’t have this strong teachers union. Our teachers are chomping at the bit, they want to be in contact with students.”
Baker says he’s in touch with the health department and is ready to notify parents should a student or family member test positive.
Carrie Monteiro with the county’s Health and Human Services Agency says while the state does allow day camps to operate, it’s of concern that schools are reopening as day camps because Tulare County doesn’t have regulatory authority over them.
“We cannot approve or deny a school operating as a day camp because we are not the licensing authority,” says Monteiro. “Public health officials are concerned and discourage any effort to congregate children from multiple households.”
Based on contact tracing, Monterio says over a quarter of the county’s latest cases have been tied to social gatherings. Of further concern is the high rate of children developing multi-inflammatory syndrome, or MISC, tied to COVID-19 exposure in the county.
“Of the MISC cases in California, 10 percent of the known cases are children in Tulare County,” says Monteiro.
In some ways, she says, the day camp exception by the state is a loophole.
Superintendent Baker disagrees.
“I wouldn't even call it a loophole,” says Baker. “I would just say It was a structure set up by the state department of health to allow us to enrich our distance learning.”
“You know, we don’t want to be, ‘Hey there’s a Christain school, they think they’re above the law.’ That’s the last thing that we want,” says Baker. “Early on, we decided we are not trying to be sneaky about anything,” he adds, saying they’ve shared their plans with the county health department.
Outside Creek School in Visalia has also resumed in-person classes. In an email to Valley Public Radio, Superintendent Derrick Bravo says the start of school has gone smoothly, with students and staff following protocols to sanitize their hands often and wear face coverings.
Under the state’s new guidelines, schools can reopen when counties have been in the red tier, where COVID-19 spread is “Substantial,” for at least two weeks. This would mean a positivity rate of COVID-19 tests between 5 and 8%, and only between 4 and 7 new cases daily per 100,000 residents.
So far, there have been 14,039 confirmed coronavirus cases in Tulare County, 232 deaths, and the positivity rate is over 12%.