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Schools Anticipate Opening Year With Distance Learning
Escalon custodian and bus driver Joann Marie utilizes the new backpack ionizing spray machine in a classroom at Escalon High School. The school received some funding for the spray system, which can kill the coronavirus on surfaces for 90 days. Marg Jackson/The Times

While Escalon Unified School District is taking extra measures and doing some deep cleaning this summer on all its campuses, the likelihood of the doors opening in August are fading away.

On Monday, July 13, word came in a joint statement from the county Public Health Officer Dr. Maggie Park and San Joaquin County Superintendent of Schools James Mousalimas that they “strongly recommend that local schools begin the new school year providing only distance learning instruction through at least the end of August, 2020.”

In Escalon, janitorial crews have been busy on the campuses with some deep cleaning projects and also are utilizing a new type of spray to enhance cleanliness and safety. However, they apparently will have more time to complete those summer projects.

In a news release issued late Monday afternoon, officials stated that “Due to the rise in confirmed cases of COVID-19 and increased hospitalizations in San Joaquin County,” the recommendation is to keep students out of classrooms and connect them instead via distance learning.

Escalon Unified School District Superintendent Ron Costa said crews had been working steadily to prepare for the anticipated return of students prior to the latest announcement.

“We bought ionizing machines for cleaners for all sites as well as our busses,” Costa explained. “We will do that regularly for classrooms, restrooms, surfaces that are touched a lot by people. We are using a sanitizer that is safe for children but deadly for COVID.”

Worn like a backpack vacuum cleaner, custodians can use the spray on all surfaces.

“This spray that we’re spraying is marketed as being able to kill COVID for 90 days so it’s not something we have to spray every day,” added Costa. “It stays on the surfaces and kills for 90 days.”

That will be beneficial once schools are back in session, though now that date is uncertain.

School districts in San Joaquin County closed in mid-March, joining with others across the state in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus which causes COVID-19.

“At first, the efforts to ‘flatten the curve’ showed promising results. But today the numbers show a surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases that has created a situation that is worse than it was on March 13, when San Joaquin County schools were recommended to close,” Park and Mousalimas indicated in the joint statement issued on July 13.

Additionally, they noted that the ICUs in the seven area hospitals are at 121 percent capacity while children younger than 18 years old account for 642 of the positive case count – which is nearing the 7,000 mark.

“Understanding the virus and its local community spread is essential when deciding when and how to reopen schools for the school year. It is for that reason that we are strongly recommending that schools and districts begin the 2020-2021 school year on a 100 percent distance learning model at least through the end of August,” the statement continued. “We will review this recommendation in mid-August to determine if the situation has improved enough for schools to begin to offer a modified form of in-person instruction in September. Until then, districts and schools should focus their resources, training, and expertise in providing the best-quality distance learning education possible for all students.”

Costa, who had a meeting last week with Dr. Park, said that officials have been preparing for the opening of school but also were aware that those plans could be changed at any given time.

“We want to keep them safe and healthy,” Costa said of students and staff, noting that all schools in the county are being mindful of the COVID numbers and adjusting accordingly.

Meanwhile, business still needs to be tended to, and Escalon school board members will consider a couple of projects at El Portal Middle School at their upcoming meeting, July 21.

“We want to re-roof the gym building at El Portal, and redo the hardscape, the blacktop area where the basketball courts are,” Costa explained.

If approved, he said the blacktop work can be completed relatively quickly and the goal is also to have the roof work done “before the rainy season” arrives in the fall.

With in-person instruction likely being delayed, both could be finished before students return to campus.

“Education is an essential service in our community, and it remains our firm belief that our children are best served by a return to as much in-person instruction as possible,” summarized Park and Mousalimas in their statement. “Beyond the increased educational opportunities that come with being physically in a classroom, children also learn social-emotional skills and receive other supports and benefits from being at school. However, any return to in-person instruction must be guided by the evolving scientific understanding of COVID-19 and the facts of its spread in San Joaquin County. This is why it is important that our school leaders and health experts continue to work together to protect the health and safety of students, staff, and all our communities.”