EL DORADO COUNTY, Calif. — As more schools prepare to return to in-person learning, representatives for some districts that have already blazed the trail are sharing how reopening has gone for them.
Placer County and El Dorado County have both returned to in-person learning, at least in a hybrid model, since fall 2020. Superintendents in both counties told ABC10, despite the initial trepidation things have gone overwhelmingly smooth.
Placer County Superintendent Gayle Garbolino-Mojica said all 16 school districts in the county were reopened for some form of in-person learning as of November 2020.
“We’re kind of all over the map but we have every single school district and charter school open for some degree of in-person for all students, TK through 12th grade, in our county,” Garbolino-Mojica said, adding that the Roseville Joint Union High School District returned to a 5-day schedule in January.
Something that added to the successful return in Placer County, Garbolino-Mojica said, was the creation of coronavirus testing sites at the schools. She said an appointment could be made and a test could be administered within 24 hours’ notice and results received within 36 hours.
“Those sites helped provide the trust that we were taking this seriously. That we will set aside testing for you, so you don’t have to wait to get testing elsewhere,” she said. “If there was a potential exposure, we could then shut down that cohort quickly and make sure we could stop any potential spread that could happen.
In El Dorado County, Placerville-Union School District Superintendent Eric Bonniksen also spoke glowingly about the return to in-person learning.
“We opened in a hybrid format back in August and it’s gone extremely well,” he said.
But as good as it has been to have kids back in classrooms, Bonniksen said seeing the kids back with their friends, repairing the social-emotional side of things, has been even better.
He gives parents a lot of credit for the success.
“They have marched hand-in-hand with us since we first had to shut down on March 13 a year ago and their willingness to do that has been huge for us to be as successful as we have been,” Bonniksen said.
The reopenings did not come without setbacks. Both Bonniksen and Garbolino-Mojica said there were instances of quarantining and isolation, but not on the scale that they originally anticipated.
Bonniksen said two classrooms had to be quarantined for a short period. And that a few times throughout the year students or staff had to quarantine because they tested positive. The distance learning protocols helped in those instances.
“It’s been a relatively smooth transition when those individuals have had to quarantine,” he said.
Garbolino-Mojica chided the California Department of Public Health (CPDH), specifically what she referred to as its “ever-changing policies” for creating issues with the smoothness of their reopening.
“We were able to open up 130 schools in Placer County under the previous guidance that was issued out of CDPH, and we did it successfully,” she said. And then to return back from the holiday break and then now have completely new guidance…that was really hard to navigate.”
Both districts had even better luck getting their teachers and staff vaccinated. According to Bonniksen, it has gone extremely well in El Dorado County.
“We were able to start getting teachers vaccinated in January. By the end of February, anyone within our district that wants to get the vaccine will have had at least their first shot and the vast majority will have had both shots,” he said.
Garbolino-Mojica, too, said Placer County has gotten a solid jump on teacher vaccinations.
“In the last two weeks, we have administered 3,100 doses to educators and childcare workers in our county. That is definitely good news, but we still have a ways to go. Right now everything is dependent on the supply [of vaccines],” she said.
For the schools getting ready to return to in-person learning for the first time, both Garbolino-Mojica and Bonniksen offered an upbeat outlook and advice.
Garbolino-Mojica stressed staying in close contact with the local health department and health officers. She also said transparency, especially in decision-making and the rationale behind it, is key when it comes to labor unions and the community itself.
“I really do have high hopes for what’s going to happen later this spring and summer when I think we as a county and in public education can get back to some degree of normalcy,” she said.
For Bonniksen, thoroughly communicating the safety protocols with everyone is most important, as is establishing good relationships between districts, bargaining groups and unions.
“The better you communicate with staff, the better you communicate with families, the smoother everything will flow,” he said. “Overall I think it has gone as well as we could have expected. It’s a process that most schools can jump on and be able to implement relatively smoothly.”