Citing the continuing COVID-19 public health crisis, the Piedmont Board of Education on Thursday night officially approved a plan to start the 2020-2021 school year on August 17 in distance learning mode, with intentions to transition to a hybrid model “as soon as is safely possible.”
On Friday, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that all public and private schools in counties on a state watch list, including Alameda County, may not open for in-person learning until they’ve been off the list for 14 days.piedmontexedra.com/2020/07/nearly-all-california-schools-ordered-to-shut-down
Furthermore, for schools that are allowed to reopen, students from 3rd to 12th grade must wear masks at schools. Students who refuse to wear masks can opt for distance-learning only. (Read the full order HERE.)
Rising infection rates in the state and Alameda County over the last several weeks have prompted many nearby school districts to move in the direction of all distance learning, even before the Governor’s announcement.
Cases in Piedmont continue to tick up, with six new cases reported in the last ten days.
Board members also expressed an interest in giving teachers the flexibility to engage in small group in-person, safe meetings to support community building and/or targeted instruction as necessary.
The school board has changed course several times since the June 30 meeting,when it first noted a preference for exploring a hybrid model, then one that maximized 4-5 days of in-person learning. However, the spread of COVID-19 throughout the Bay Area in recent weeks has pushed those proposals off the table for now.
“The hardest part for me [right now], as the leader of the district, is to try to make decisions in such unstable times,” Superintendent Randall Booker said. “Conditions are changing so rapidly, and so has the guidance.”
Even in advance of the Governor’s announcement, the new Public Health Director for Alameda County stated that he did not recommend opening Alameda County schools up for in-person learning, Booker said.
“[In-person learning] can only happen in a safe and stable environment,” Booker said. “Based on the current conditions, this is not the right environment. It is not as safe or as stable as we would like it.”
Bringing parents into the education loop
At the meeting, multiple parents expressed frustration with the lack of communication during distance learning the previous spring semester. They requested to be kept more in the loop about their children’s progress and lesson times so they can better support them at home, and more direct emails to parents.
Booker said that the Board had also received multiple emails from parents requesting that they know who is in their children’s class so they could plan lessons with other parents and potentially develop a pod system on their own.
“Typically we don’t release schedules until right before school starts,” Booker said. “I think it would be valuable to release them earlier.”
Booker also acknowledged that the announcement to shift to an all distance learning start to the year may have come as a shock to community members and that although the changing environment makes it hard for him to do so, he will increase his communication.
“The goal throughout all of this is to maintain positive relationships with our community, with our teachers and staff, with our students while recognizing how hard and damaging this time is,” he said, while promising to improve the flow of information.
The transition to in-person learning
The Board started the conversation about metrics, or indicators, to determine the right time to bring students back to the classrooms in a safe way.
“I am a little hesitant [to make any plans right now],” Booker said. “I want to hear what the governor, the California Department of Education, and the California Public Health Department say tomorrow.” [The Governor’s Friday announcement remained somewhat vague, saying schools could reopen based on “public health guidelines” once they were taken off the watch list.]
The Board also generally supported a phase-in system where only the younger students like TK – 3rd graders come back before the rest of the district. “We are much more likely to be able to socially cohort the younger groups of kids,” Trustee Dr. Sarah Pearson said.
Teachers continuing to work behind the scenes
Teachers and district administrators sought to reassure parents that the “crisis learning” that happened in the spring was not going to happen again this fall.
Teachers are continuing to put in long hours over the summer as they prepare for both distance and hybrid models of education, several teachers on the call stated. They are also receiving an increased variety of training.
“Training is going to be varied from receiving a stand-and-deliver type training, to learning about technology tools, to collaborating with fellow teachers to pool what they learned over the summer,” Booker said.
“I will be nonstop dancing when we are able to meet again in person,” PHS English Teacher Dr. Elise Marks said. “[But] I actually think distance learning will be better than in-person in many ways. It will be more normal. We will be able to see each other’s faces which is a big deal.”
A focus on mental health
While reopening through a distance learning model will prevent the spread of COVID, social distancing is isolating, which can negatively impact student’s mental health.
“I think when we have a plan we need to include how to care for the social and emotional health of all our students over every level,” Trustee Cory Smegal said.
One way the district will continue to support the mental health of their students is to continue P.E. through an online platform, Booker said. He also expects the classes to include nutritional health and wellness education.
“It’s going to be so important for our kids’ mental health to get them moving,” Smegal said.
Another factor the Board will consider addressing in future meetings is how to bring back the students who checked out in the spring because they were struggling, Trustee Megan Pillsbury said. “I imagine there will be a large disparity in the fall,” Pillsbury said.
Whether through P.E., helping students to catch up, or adding additional support to the Wellness Center, the district will make sure that student and staff mental health is a priority, Booker said.
“We are guided by science but we also want to make sure our relationships stay healthy,” Booker said. “We want to make sure we provide a healthy environment for not only our students but all of our staff too.”
The increasing importance of a social contract
The Board emphasized the importance of maintaining a social contract between the community and the district. A social contract is an unstated agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits.
Trustee Andrea Swenson said that the Board wants to open up in-person classes, but they were prevented from doing so because coronavirus case numbers went up.
Although Piedmont is a small part of the county, upticks in cases, especially among teens and young adults, will have an impact on whether or not local schools can reopen.
“If we get the numbers down in Alameda county we can get our kids back in school safely,” Swenson said. “I think we can get to this place of safety if our community is following the rules of limiting the amount of social contacts.
I’m asking — please, please, please — community, we all have to act like a team now and follow the rules so we can get back in school.”
“The best thing we can do is to not bring COVID into the schools by being really hyper vigilant about our own personal decisions,” Trustee Sarah Pearson said.
The Board of Education will hold another special board meeting next week, date TBD, to review a distance learning plan.