After three hours of public comment and deliberation, the Board of Education voted unanimously on Tuesday night to approve a plan to transition elementary school students from distance learning to an in-person/hybrid learning model starting Nov. 3. Families and teachers may still opt for all distance learning if they are not comfortable returning to a classroom setting. The move comes after The Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD) said on Oct. 1 that school districts in Alameda County could consider reopening elementary schools starting Oct. 13.
“I’m confident we can reopen safely,” said Superintendent Randall Booker before rolling out a draft reopening plan. “Our district has made tremendous strides since March.” (See the full plan HERE.) He emphasized that families will need to remain flexible as the district makes adjustments between now and the expected reopening date on Nov. 3. Despite this forward movement, it was clear that teachers, classified staff, and some parents continue to have concerns about the safety and health protocols in place for a return to school and that the green light to proceed in no way means school will resemble anything close to normal.
As with all things related to school reopening and COVID, the devil lies in the details. Questions about COVID testing protocols, health screenings, quarantining of sick students, on and off ramps for hybrid and distance learning, and more, dominated the board’s question time and public comment. Trustee Sarah Pearson noted she had compiled a long list of specific questions from families and that APT and CSEA had both submitted their own to the Superintendent. Booker said he will hold separate town hall meetings for staff and families before reopening. APT President Gabe Kessler said teachers wanted to see more mapping out of various scenarios and procedures and noted that the lack of a plan to test students was viewed as a problem.
Booker said families and staff will be surveyed this week to ascertain how many elect to remain in distance learning mode or move to an in-person learning/teaching model. That number will in turn affect class rosters, cohorts, and teacher assignments. (Last week Palo Alto Unified School District voted to approve a phased reopening plan with what appeared to be almost 40% of families opting to stick with distance learning.)
All three elementary school principals at the meeting made clear that they were, for all intents and purposes, asking families to choose a model for the full year, and that the jigsaw-like nature of determining where students and teachers end up made it unlikely they could guarantee placement in a specific cohort or with a specific teacher. Teachers will either be assigned to an in-person class or distance learning, not both, said Booker.
Beach Principal Michael Corritone said there may be opportunities at natural transition points such as after a break for a family to switch in or out of one mode if necessary, but Havens Principal Anne Dolid emphasized that those requests could only happen if there was space available in a particular cohort. (A student who opts for an in-person model and gets sick can still return to their assigned cohort when they are no longer ill.)
The approved bell schedule — the result of months of negotiating between the school district and teachers’ union — remains unchanged. Mondays remain virtual for all students and the amount of time students will be on school grounds will be a little more than two hours a day to avoid extended contact and to allow for extensive deep cleaning between am and pm cohorts. There will be no lunch on any campus. Per Alameda County Office of Education guidelines, students and staff will be required to wear face coverings, observe 6 ft. physical distancing, stick to social cohorts, follow health screenings, and cleaning and disinfection protocols.
“It will only work if we all work together, there has to be trust and responsibility,” said Trustee Andrea Swenson, echoing the idea of a social contract first circulated by Trustee Sarah Pearson and others this summer.
“This feels smart and measured,” said Board president Amal Smith at the meeting’s end. “This is exactly what we’ve been asking for. We all want our kids back in school.”
The meeting focused on elementary schools only. The Oct. 1 Alameda County press release says it “will consider permitting middle and high school students to return to in-person education in four to twelve-week phases as local disease conditions allow. This phased approach will allow us to gauge the impact of elementary school re-opening on transmission.” Booker told board members that he did not expect high school to be on a path to reopening until January and did not directly address middle school plans.
The next regularly scheduled school board meeting is Wednesday, Oct. 14.