Photo: Daniel Willis
School districts across California announced closures this week, while few rural schools remain open.

Even without a statewide mandate, nearly every district in California is closing its doors this week to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Now, the few mostly rural districts that remain open are figuring out how to move in that direction.

At least 6,065,337 students in California, representing more than 99 percent of all K-12 students in the state, are affected by school closings as of 12:00 p.m. on March 18. And 99.6 percent of the state’s school districts (939 districts, or 99 percent) have closed or announced they will close due to the virus. 

“The rest will likely start to shut down,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a press conference on Tuesday, shortly before the state released updated guidance for schools that includes more details on how to handle school closures, such as serving meals and offering distance learning. The state has already said they will reimburse districts for lost school days due to the virus.

Southern Trinity Joint Unified is one of the last districts to hold off on closing down completely. Officials there are preparing to close if necessary, but strategies that other districts are using, such as grab-and-go meal pick-ups, will be a challenge for the district that is located roughly 70 miles away from the closest supermarket and enrolls students that live up to 30 miles away. 

“We are preparing for a shutdown. It’s bound to happen,” said superintendent and principal Peggy Canale, who said the district is on a “soft closure” for now, where operations will continue but students can choose to study independently at home. “But we have a high poverty level and want to make sure kids get the meals they rely on. We don’t want to disrupt what we have going on before we need to.”

For the few districts that are still open, deciding when to close is a balancing act between students’ immediate needs at the school and preventing any spread of coronavirus in their rural communities, some of which do not have healthcare facilities nearby.

State leaders are already responding to the rapid school closures across the state. On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom made an executive order to reimburse schools for days lost to prevent the spread of coronavirus, including covering costs to provide meals. State legislatures also recently approved $100 million to cover cleaning costs for K-12 schools and childcare centers. 

But the governor has refrained from explicitly telling all districts to shut down. 

“Santa Clara county’s conditions are extraordinarily different from Tulare, extraordinarily different from Madera and Colusa (counties),” Newsom said at a press conference, when asked about why he had been reluctant to close all schools. “So while it may be fanciful and comforting by perception standards for some to have one size fits all (referring to closing all schools in a state), that’s not the reality on the ground.”

No cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Trinity County. But across the state, there have been 598 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 13 deaths, according to the California Department of Public Health, prompting massive closures that have affected everything from the stock market and food supply to class time and playdates. 

Canale has been regularly checking for the latest news and guidance around how schools should respond to the global pandemic, and says she is concerned that keeping doors open longer could potentially spread the virus. The plan is to close if recommended by the county health officials, the protocol that most districts up and down the state have been following. 

“I want everyone to stay healthy. That’s top priority. We have a large elderly population here so we are concerned about all of them,” said Canale. “We disinfect and clean every day, we provide food and we are social distancing. And we are trying to keep a sense of normalcy.”

Some parents have already begun pulling their kids out of school due to concerns around the virus. The district is offering those students independent study, where teachers prepare work for students to complete at home and keep up with their studies. About 15 out of the district’s total enrollment of 95 students are currently choosing independent study. 

Further south in Inyo County, school is still open for Heather Burror, a second grade teacher at Big Pine Elementary School. Now her district is figuring out contingency plans for if they might have to stay closed after a planned spring break next week. 

Burror said she is happy to be with her students, so they can continue to learn, easily access meals and maintain some normalcy during an already stressful time. But she shares Canale’s worries about feeding students who may live far away from campus if the school closes. Nearly 77 percent of students at Big Pine Elementary qualify for free or reduced lunch. 

She’s also concerned about the potential for the virus to spread, even though no cases have been confirmed in Inyo County. 

Several students who are part of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe have started to do independent study to reduce the risk of infecting older family members, who are more susceptible to coronavirus, she said. 

“Even my young students are concerned about it. They hear a lot about coronavirus from their families and on the news,” she said. “They know a lot of other schools in the area have closed.”

The district said on its website it will continue to follow Centers for Disease Control and the California Department of Public Health on if it should close. 

Meanwhile, other rural counties and districts are beginning to pull the trigger on their school closure decision. In Alpine, county superintendent Matthew Strahl announced Wednesday that the district would officially close through April 13, which includes spring break. 

As other districts were closing throughout California, teachers in Alpine were busy this week putting together take-home paper work packets for students, because many do not have access to the internet at home. Teachers will also be hosting office hours throughout the week where parents or students can call to check in and get help if needed. 

The district has organized a food drop-off schedule so bus drivers take lunches to designated points throughout the community where students can pick up food and drop off assignments.

“We are the biggest employer in the county and we have to make sure we can get everything for our kids,” said Strahl. “I lived in Lake County during wildfires and I’ve dealt with emergencies. So with this I thought we need to look at it ahead of time, just in case. I’d rather be prepared.”

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