STOCKTON — Public school leaders are faced with making among the most crucial decisions of their professional careers, affecting tens of thousands of lives in the midst of a surging pandemic and an uncertain future, with some Stockton schools scheduled to open in less than five weeks.


The superintendents of Stockton, Lincoln and Lodi unified school districts along with San Joaquin County Superintendent of Schools James Mousalimas accepted an invitation from the University of the Pacific’s Beyond Our Gates program to participate in a virtual public meeting Monday afternoon, sharing what they are doing to prepare for the resumption of fall classes and answer questions from the community.


"I wish we had all the answers. We do not," Mousalimas said in explaining that the schools have no experience to fall back on, especially in light of the past few weeks as the COVID-19 virus spreads deeper and faster throughout California.


When schools closed in mid-March, it was thought at the time it would be temporary and classes would resume by the end of April.


"In early March, I was a staunch advocate of keeping schools open," Mousalimas said, noting that the scope of the pandemic at that time was not really known. Later that month, the county’s 14 school districts along with the County Office of Education and San Joaquin Delta College made the decision to close, a decision "that was not taken lightly by any means," he said.


As the number of infected people increased, it was decided to close school sites for the remainder of the spring and go to distance learning for all students. Schools adapted as quickly as they could, providing thousands of laptop computers to students and ensuring they had adequate connectivity to the internet, training teachers on virtual instruction, setting up drive-thru lunch programs, and myriad other details large and small that no one could have anticipated.


As school districts set dates for the start of fall classes — Lodi Unified is set to begin Aug. 3; Lincoln Unified on Aug. 6; Stockton Unified will decide this week — Mousalimas likened the future to "uncharted territory. We are trying to make the best of it. We are all working together. We are listening and trying to come up with solutions that best serve our students and our community."


Schools need to resume teaching children the fundamentals of reading, writing, math, science and the arts. They also are critical to meeting the needs of a child’s socialization, nutrition, physical activity and mental health.


But because so much remains unknown about the coronavirus, how to bring students together and keep them safe at the same time is a monumental task.


The local districts are conducting space audits to determine how and where on each campus they can conduct classes and maintain 6 feet of social distancing. They are installing Plexiglas shields in front offices and figuring out ways to use it in classrooms. They are eliminating lunch buffet and salad tables in favor of grab-and-go food that still meets nutritional requirements.


As far as scheduling, they are hoping to hold classes five days a week but looking at different models such as splitting days into AM and PM classes; or having half the students come Monday and Tuesday, conduct a deep cleaning schoolwide on Wednesday, and half the other half of students come on Thursday and Friday.


Stockton Unified Superintendent Brian Biedermann said his team has looked at eight different scheduling models, including a hybrid that allows for a large number of students to continue distance learning from home. A districtwide survey showed that 70% of families want to return to school while 30% plan to keep their children home this fall.


The schools expect to continue after-school activities but aren’t considering additional programs. Don’t expect to see any concerts, dances or other large assemblies this fall. And fall sports — while some conditioning has already started under strict guidelines — may be played without fans or rescheduled for winter.


The options are many and the superintendents all agreed that they must remain flexible and ready to change direction as new conditions arise.


"We are making plans for all different kinds of scenarios. The key is flexibility," Lodi Unified Superintendent Kathy Nichols-Washer said. "We could be starting with a full schedule, or maybe not — stay tuned and we will continue communicating."


Contact reporter Joe Goldeen at (209) 546-8278 or jgoldeen@recordnet.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoeGoldeen.