‘A successful start’: Tahoe Truckee Unified School District officials happy to be in-person
“My favorite sound in the world is people on the playground,” said Principal Stephanie Foucek of Tahoe Lake Elementary School.
Foucek said she hadn’t heard laughter from the monkey bars since before the primary school’s early days in spring 2020 and Zoom classes last fall.
“It is awesome to be back together,” Foucek said of her faculty, staff and 326 students. “It’s hard to describe how great that feels.”
The Tahoe Truckee Unified School District returned to in-person learning for full class days on Sept. 7. The 2021-22 school year began after the district’s educators and students endured 18 months of remote and hybrid learning models amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Foucek said although the district’s engagement endured through collaborations with other agencies in the area, the return to in-person education came as a relief to those fatigued by the fragmentation of the pandemic.
The first joint action of the school year was, in fact, to delay its start.
Administrators delayed the start of the school year one week — to Sept. 7 — because of the Caldor Fire’s required evacuations.
Despite the town’s smokey skies in early September, Kelli Twomey, coordinator of communications with the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, said students and faculty were in good spirits.
“For the majority of kids — there’s a very small group that chose independent study — I’ve been visiting, and they’re just happy to be back, happy to be in the classroom,” Twomey said. “This has been a successful start of the year. We feel good about it.”
According to Twomey, despite the imminent threat of the Caldor Fire, enrollment was up 172 students districtwide at the start of the school year. Four thousand, two hundred and forty-four students attend 12 different schools within the district, ranging from Lakeside to Truckee.
Twomey said during the peaks of the COVID-19 crisis, she witnessed the enduring benefits of her district’s collaborative nature. Although the student body and their supports managed to endure via Zoom classes and then abbreviated school days, Twomey said everyone is glad to be back.
“Research shows that students learn better when they are in school,” said Kim Bradley, the head of the district’s Wellness Center. “Teachers can give students more individualized instruction, keep them on task, minimize distractions and offer more creative, hands-on learning opportunities.”
Bradley said attending school in person helps create healthy peer-to-peer connections and improve social skills, which, in turn, improve one’s ability to empathize, problem solve and cope with stress.
“It was difficult for many teachers to keep students engaged during distance learning with the multitude of distractions on students’ computers, messaging friends, or whatever else may have been going on in their home environments,” Bradley said.
KEEPING PEOPLE SAFE
Although school is in session, some students dealing with the still-present threat of COVID-19 have been unable to make it to class.
Foucek, the Tahoe Lake Elementary principal, said there were positive cases found since the school year began three weeks ago, but none that resulted in her definition of an “outbreak” — three or more new cases in the span of 14 days.
“I don’t think we’re anywhere near the numbers that could be considered an outbreak,” Foucek said.
Foucek reported that at one point 7% of her total student body was absent, an unusually high proportion.
“We have had positive cases,” Foucek said. “In general, since the start of COVID, our attendance has been impacted.”
Foucek said that the administration’s obvious priority is to ensure its students’ and faculty members’ wellbeing. She believes a portion of the absences are not necessarily from sick students, but those quarantining post-exposure, just in case.
“Most years we encourage every child to be in school every day,” Foucek explained. “Now, anything even remotely symptomatic and we recommend parents keep their child home so absolutely there’s an impact on attendance. It’s important to follow through on that to keep everybody safe.”
Concerns for student’s safety go beyond the threat of COVID-19.
Bradley, manager of the district’s designated Wellness Centers, said there is potential for children’s experience of trauma to worsen during the COVID-19 pandemic. The district’s wellness program has taken time to understand the concept of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) — or, in other words, forms of abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction occurring in those under 18 years old.
Bradley said school psychologists have not made a sweeping observation of the student body’s mental wellbeing since the start of the school year. The diversity of experience in the area pre-COVID-19 was only magnified by the pandemic’s economic fallout.
“Everyone’s experience has been very different, so for some children their experience of the pandemic may have contributed to an ACE score but for others, it would not be,“ Bradley said. ”Some children thrived by being home. It all depends on their home environment and their family’s experience of the pandemic.“
According to Bradley, the Wellness Center was created by the school district, Nevada and Placer counties, and the Community Collaborative of Tahoe Truckee partners and youth to help meet the mental health needs of students in the North Lake Tahoe area. The program is comprised of two Wellness Centers at North Tahoe High and Truckee High, individualized wellness programming at Sierra High and the Community School (Placer County Court School), and — as of this year — outreach and education to North Tahoe Middle School, Alder Creek Middle School and the elementary schools.
Bradley said the pandemic’s economic fallout may exacerbate ongoing issues for disenfranchised students, but the district took care to reach out to them individually.
“Our Coordinated Care Teams identified students who were not attending classes regularly, and then admin reached out to families and conducted home visits to check on students to see how they were doing during distance learning,” Bradley said of the district’s vehicle of social-emotional and academic support. “Students experienced a number of challenges, such as bad internet, crowded living spaces and having to watch their siblings while their parents worked, which made it difficult for some students to fully participate in distance learning.”
Foucek said a statewide grant related to COVID-19 enables the district to use “enhancement paraprofessionals” — or another instructor — in their classrooms to offer differentiated learning where necessary. A personalized education model is always useful, Foucek explained, but may be particularly useful post-crisis.
“We really do work to identify specific student needs by student,” Foucek said. “The level of instruction is very tailored to their needs to help them grow, and we’re really seeing great growth.”
Foucek said her kindergarteners through fifth graders are motivated, engaged and “settling in well” in the classroom.
Foucek said she knows from experience this last year to not get anyone too comfortable, but hopes that the pandemic has turned a corner.
“I hope we’re on the other side, or a downhill slope,” Foucek said. “It really is just wonderful to be here five days a week, all of us together.”
Foucek said the small size of the North Lake Tahoe region has helped the administration conduct targeted outreach to those they know need it.
“We have great resources in the community when families need help,” Foucek said. “It was true before, during and now.”
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun and The Union, a sister publication of the Sun
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Educators within the Tahoe Truckee Education Association and the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District have reached a settlement to give teachers a 5% wage increase retroactive to July 1.