Board votes to offer hybrid program this fall

Board votes to offer hybrid program this fall
Posted on 08/19/2020
PCS pine coneDuring a special meeting of the Plumas Charter School board of directors Wednesday, Aug. 12, members voted to proceed with the school’s planned hybrid educational approach this fall. The approach combines modified on-site programs with distance learning. In addition, PCS families have the option of creating traditional independent study plans, which PCS has always supported.

More than 20 stakeholders — including PCS administrators, staff, parents, board members, and teachers — joined the virtual meeting via Zoom.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, parents expressed anxiety about the dangers of COVID-19 in schools and concerns about the difficulty of possible repeated transitions between in-person and distance learning. PCS Executive Director Taletha Washburn said she validates the “increased emotions” right now countywide around educational options and uncertainty.
She also stated that PCS enrollment is close to capacity across all sites and grade levels, based on pre-enrollment documentation received from families at the beginning of summer. “We are not going to be further growing as a result of this (hybrid program),” she said.

Background
In July, PCS administrators had notified families that they were planning a hybrid educational option for fall that would include two days a week of on-site classes and two days a week of distance learning (PCS students already participate in one day a week of independent study). By dividing classes into smaller groups, the hybrid program would allow for social distancing and increased teacher oversight.

This plan was based on information shared during weekly meetings between PCS administrators and the Plumas County Public Health Agency, which promulgates state guidelines but does not itself take a stand on directing local school decisions, said Washburn.

In subsequent weeks, PCS sent two surveys to parents and staff members, to gauge preferences for educational options in the fall. PCS operates four learning centers — the Quincy Learning Center (TK-12), Indian Valley Academy in Taylorsville (7-12), the Greenville Learning Center (TK-6), and the Chester Learning Center (TK-12). Survey information was collected for each site separately, in order to determine how needs and preferences may vary in the different communities served.

Though some families and a few teachers indicated that they would prefer a fully distance learning program, the majority indicated preference for the hybrid option. Families with children enrolled at PCS always have the additional choice to work with teachers to create a personalized independent study plan, and many do take advantage of that option, especially in high school.
On Aug. 4, the Plumas Unified School District governing board voted to implement distance learning, augmented by learning hubs, for all PUSD sites in the fall.

“I totally understand, appreciate, and validate the decision on the school board’s part and if I were in their shoes would have recommended the same decision,” said Washburn. However, based on its small size and inherent flexibility, PCS opted to continue planning its hybrid program, pending board approval.

Discussion
In discussing the educational plan, PCS board members and administrators expressed their goal of being “responsive to local conditions” and meeting “as many needs as possible.” They spoke explicitly about separating any individual preferences they may have for their own families from the needs and desires of the majority of PCS students and families.

Several PCS teachers shared anecdotes that supported the need for in-person learning, even if it is limited. They described a “mental health component” of allowing children to attend school, pointing out how school can help children avoid bad influences and provide additional positive adult role models. “There’s more than reading, writing, and math,” said Greenville teacher and site coordinator Andre Essue.

The PCS leadership team stressed that even if students interact with teachers only two days a week, that in-person time can be vital for establishing learning and relationships. Once that foundation is laid, it is easier to engage students and reinforce concepts through distance learning.

Board president Steve Hill emphasized the fact that PCS is “very, very, very flexible in being able to move between distance and in-person learning depending on conditions.”

Washburn indicated that PCS will be using the Google Classroom application across all grade levels and sites; because assignments will always be available virtually, the plan should allow seamless transition between in-person and at-home learning.

PCS has traditionally offered a strong lineup of enrichment classes, and Washburn acknowledged the importance of these offerings. She said that PCS still plans to offer enrichment classes, but that they “may look different” in the hybrid program.

Before voting, the board members heard reports from each site’s lead administrators, who presented details of how the hybrid program would be presented in each space.

Chester Learning Center
The Chester Learning Center’s program already emphasizes independent study, meaning that fewer modifications are required for the hybrid program. Janae LaGroue, TK-8 lead teacher, and Keri Reed, site coordinator and 9-12 teacher, shared their plans.

Cohorts of about 10 students each will have their own classrooms and desks will be spread out to encourage social distancing. Students will be screened on arrival and required to wear masks if in third through 12th grade. In addition, teachers plan to make increased use of their outdoor classroom area in the Chester Meadow/Olsen Barn area.

Parent workshops and mandatory meetings will be held virtually or in cohort groups to make sure families have the tools to support their students at home.
    
Greenville Learning Center
Site Coordinator Andre Essue expressed his thoughts on the importance of in-person learning and indicated how Greenville Learning Center will implement the hybrid program.

Students will be divided into cohorts and attend on-site classes two days a week with social distancing practices in place, and required face masks for appropriate grade levels. Students will still have their Friday independent study day.

Indian Valley Academy
Some Indian Valley Academy high school students prefer all distance learning or independent study, as is usual for many PCS high schoolers who are attending college via concurrent enrollment, working, or tending to family obligations.

IVA Site Director Ryan Schramel said the largest space in the building will be used for middle school students, in a cohort of 20 or fewer.  “We want to emphasize the middle school program because it’s a critical development period,” he said.

Other grade levels will be divided into cohorts of no more than 25 students each. At home, students will maintain continuity by logging into virtual classrooms using new technology being piloted by IVA, which was discussed in more depth later in the meeting.

At that point, the board voted to accept a monetary donation from a private individual, which would be used to purchase dynamic distance learning technology called Lifesize. Schramel clarified that the donor does not have a financial relationship with the company, but is merely a user of the technology. The donation will allow IVA and other sites to pilot use of the technology this fall.

Transportation to and from IVA, which had been provided by PCS van and a contract with Sierra Charters Shuttle Service, will be suspended.

Quincy Learning Center
“The big constraint is the physical layout,” said Site Director Patrick Joseph. The Quincy Learning Center is currently operating in three locations: 535 Lawrence St. houses transitional kindergarten through second grade, 546 Lawrence St. houses third through sixth grade, and 80 Main St. houses middle and high school.

Joseph shared how Quincy classes will be separated into cohorts, with larger classes being divided in half and split classes (such as the combined first/second grade) being divided by grade. He pointed out that cohorts can be supported with the help of instructional aides.

Use of space will include dedicated entrances and rooms.

“On-site days will be the ‘meat and potatoes’ of learning,” said Joseph, indicating that distance learning will enable teachers to reinforce concepts and check understanding.

Some Quincy families with younger students indicated that they preferred fully distance learning or independent study, which PCS can accommodate. “That’s exactly why we exist,” said Joseph, “in order to provide options.”

Brittini Wade, site coordinator for middle and high school, reiterated that in her building student cohorts will have their own spaces, bathrooms, and entrances. The class schedule will also include dedicated office hours for tutoring, parent meetings, or other support. She also said every student or parent will be contacted individually each week to ensure that goals are being met.

In another agenda item, the board discussed efforts to secure an additional building, 1446 East Main St., for use by the Quincy Learning Center. PCS had submitted a special use permit and pursued a charter amendment to add the facility, which would offer large indoor and outdoor spaces.

However, the time needed for permitting and modifications means that students would not be able to use the space until several months after school starts.

It was decided to cease pursuit of the building at this time, but to table the idea to keep the option open for the future.

Special education
Lori Hahn, special education director for PCS, outlined general plans for special education in the hybrid offering. Though details are not finalized, she said SPED students will stay in their cohorts, maximizing time with their peers. In addition, students with individual education plans (IEPs) will also have extra one-in-one time with teachers and aides because they are “more at risk for academic slide.”

Essue, who is also a SPED teacher, agreed that “time with peers is going to be critical, academically and socially.” Staff at each site will look at the best way to use their facilities, and build on the inclusion model already implemented at PCS.

Health and safety
As a separate action item on the agenda, the board considered a proposed COVID-19 Health and Safety Plan, which outlines the procedures and guidelines the school will follow to protect students, staff, and the community.

“Obviously, there is a significant health and safety component to this,” said Washburn. “There are risks; we don’t know what those will look like.”

She introduced school nurse Danielle Wagner Plocki, who has been collaborating extensively with the county, state, and nurses’ association to compile and create best practice guidelines for the school.

Wagner Plocki reiterated that “health and safety are the number one priority in getting kids back in the classroom,” and that she will continue to “work closely with public health in all of this.”

The complete health and safety plan can be viewed and downloaded using the green button at the bottom of this page. Wagner Plocki highlighted major components during the meeting.

Overall, PCS policies are more conservative than those recommended by the state.

The guide outlines the procedure for dealing with a confirmed case or exposure, the policy regarding face coverings, facility preparedness and disinfecting, hygiene and hand washing procedures, physical distancing requirements and strategies, daily health screening protocols, and required training and education. In addition, flowcharts illustrate the procedures for management of ill students, COVID-19 exposure, and return after illness.

Wagner Plocki acknowledged that “new studies are coming out every day” and “things are changing all the time”; she indicated that she would continue to update the guidelines as needed.

The board voted unanimously to approve both the hybrid learning program and the health and safety guide.

The next regularly scheduled board meeting is set for 3:15 p.m. Monday, Aug. 31. Members of the public are welcome to attend board meetings, which are currently conducted virtually through Zoom. To view agendas and minutes, and find out how to attend upcoming meetings, visit the home page and click the round “Board Meeting” button.

By Ingrid Burke, Public Relations Specialist
iburke@plumascharterschool.org