In special session, District discusses conditions for reopening schools in August

(image from Special Board meeting Zoom session May 19)

As parents, students, and teachers muddle through the end of the 2019-2020 school year, PUSD leadership is setting their sights on August, trying to plan for a school experience that will look anything but “normal” and is full of unknowns.

As outlined by Supt. Randall Booker Tuesday evening during a special School Board meeting, the stakes are high and the challenges and considerations are many, but the District is beginning the process of planning for a combination of in-person teaching and some distance learning, knowing they may need to pivot back to all distance learning if the public health situation changes.

Over 300 parents and teachers logged on to view at least part of the Zoom session.

In emails to the Board and during public comment, they shared concerns and questions that touched on the inadequacy of distance learning (wifi problems in homes, younger students not engaged with virtual classroom sessions, does not play to teacher strengths, students having login issues during an AP US History test, Schoology hard to navigate), the importance of re-instituting a grading policy (important for scholarships and as a motivator) whether or not masks should be required for students at school (most agreed this was important), and a strong desire to maximize in-person learning as much as possible (having different schedules for lower grades, using parks and outdoor spaces when possible.)

Booker noted that this was the first in a series of discussions that will take place over the next six weeks or so, during which the District will partner with parents and teachers to test the assumptions and considerations he laid out in his presentation. He said he plans to present a blueprint for reopening to the Board at the June 24 meeting.

According to the presentation, opening Piedmont schools is predicated on these five assumptions:

  1. COVID-19 will still be present during the 2020-21 school year. Severe illness and even death will continue to be a threat. He noted a second wave of illness could result in school closures of up to 4 weeks.
  2. Once the government-specified requirements are met, PUSD can return to in-person learning, with appropriate modifications. Booker noted that the most critical guidance they are waiting on from State and County officials is around group gatherings as it relates to school environments. This will affect the layout of classrooms, where kids intersect on campuses, bell schedules, recess, meal distribution, physical barriers to protect staff and teachers, and more.
  3. Student learning outcomes going into the 2020-21 year will be uneven, and individual start-of-year assessments will be important. He said this is the case in normal times, but the effects will be more pronounced due to SIP this spring.
  4. The prevalence of COVID-19 cases will be constantly monitored, and we [PUSD] will need the flexibility to switch quickly from in-person to online instruction, or a combination of the two. This means some students will need to receive instruction in quarantine or if an outbreak occurs, quickly switch to online learning.
  5. There will be significant financial impacts and possible reduced enrollment in the district due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Notably private schools may see increased enrollment, and demand for distance learning in PUSD may increase if families don’t feel safe bringing their children back to school.

Booker noted that even with the implementation of health safeguards, some families and teachers will not feel safe returning. PUSD will survey staff and families regarding their plans and will then need to make accommodations for this category.

What might a school day look like? Feedback from teachers and parents indicated that in-person learning was superior to distance learning and that efforts to maximize that experience in a safe way were at the top of their minds. Booker shared three possible scenarios:

  • Example 1: Limit the number of students in classrooms to 50% of normal.
    • Divide all classes into two equal groups: 
      • Example: one would come to school on Monday and Tuesday, the other on Thursday and Friday with deep cleaning on Wednesday.
    • All teachers provide each group with two days of direct instruction and support, and three days of assignments to complete at home each week.
Example 1: Limit the number of students in classrooms to 50% of normal. (PUSD slide show)
  • Example 2: Limit the number of students in classrooms to 50% of normal.
    • Divide all classes into two equal groups: 
      • Group 1 attends Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday
        • Friday reserved for off-site staff meetings and onsite cleaning
      • Group 2 attends the following Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday
    • Group 1 will then have 10 days off before coming back to school (4 days on campus … 10 days off campus)
  • Example 3: Limit the number of students in classrooms to 50% of normal.
    • Divide all classes into two equal groups – AM/PM: 
      • Example: All students attend school each day.  AM students are at school 8:30am-11:30am.  PM students are at school 12:30pm-3:30pm.
    • All teachers provide each group with 3-hours of daily direct instruction and support, as well as daily assignments to complete at home each day.

Click HERE to view the full presentation

Board members were clear in noting that health and safety issues were their top priorities in planning for the reopening. Prioritizing safety means more health screenings, mask-wearing, and signage related to health. There will be hand-washing stations, routines around hand-washing, ways to keep belongings separated, monitoring of County health trends.

Dr. Sarah Pearson, a pediatrician, supported the idea expressed by at least one parent during public comment of trying to establish some kind of “social contract” among PUSD families that would lay out public health guidelines everyone would agree to follow. “Please don’t take any flights this summer, please quarantine if you do, please wear a mask, and socialize with as few people as possible,” she said by way of example. “The more we can all do the hard thing and limit social interactions, it will make a difference,” she said.

Board President Amal Smith concluded the meeting by noting the challenges could also be viewed as opportunities. “I expect to hit another dark period come fall and winter and the idea of Piedmont becoming a center of excellence for distance learning is compelling,” she said, referencing a suggestion made by a parent during public comment to invest in better distance learning tools. She reiterated the importance of in-person learning. prioritizing the safety of teachers and students, emotional wellness and social connection, then learning goals. She agreed that grades for the Fall were important, and that a standardized and predictable curriculum was needed.

“There will not be a perfect solution, and there will be disappointments,” she cautioned.

PUSD School Board President Amal Smith

“We recognize there will be a range of opinions regarding how to move forward, and we are starting to hear a lot of them,” said Booker. PUSD families are being asked to give the District feedback through a tool called Thoughtexchange that will be shared by email.

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