After months of uncertainty, Superintendent Randy Booker and the Board of Education confirmed on Wednesday night that Piedmont’s schools will reopen in the fall for full-time, in-person instruction. A joint statement expressing this commitment, and signed by the school board, the superintendent, and the unions (APT, CSEA, and APSA) was sent to parents on Thursday.
The commitment comes as COVID-19 case rates continue to drop across the region, vaccinations become more widely available, and new CDC guidance and scientific studies point the way to safe reopening practices. On Thursday Gov. Gavin Newsom said vaccination would be available to California residents age 50 and up beginning April 1. All Californians age 16 and up will be eligible April 15.
Booker also told the board on Wednesday that PUSD and the teachers’ union have started discussions around increasing the amount of in-person time for all students this spring. ”APT has already held emergency staff meetings to gather input from their members, and as we negotiate this week, our hope is to coordinate and communicate any logistical changes, safety procedures, and any agreed-upon schedule changes promptly to our staff, students, and families,“ he said in a memo, noting in the meeting that he hoped to provide an update next week and that the district would convene special board meetings as necessary to approve additional agreements.
“We all share a common interest in expanding on-campus time this spring — without sacrificing the needs of our distance learners,” he said. Although the board did not discuss in detail, Booker said a more robust summer school program focused on “restoration learning” was being planned to address learning loss.
Over 500 sign parent petition
A campaign by parents to reopen schools has ramped up in recent months, spurred by growing concerns about the well-being and learning loss of students in the district and frustration with the district’s leadership during the pandemic. The group, “Advocates for Full-Time, In-Person Piedmont Schools,” submitted a petition to the board on Monday, calling for an “immediate increase in the number of in-person instructional hours for all grade levels for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year” as well as a formal board resolution calling for full-time in-person school in the fall. The petition was signed by some 500 parents and students, and more than three dozen community members.
“We heard you,” said School Board President Cory Smegal, citing the district’s public commitment to a full fall reopening. She said that while the board has unanimously directed the district to increase hours at all levels, it cannot unilaterally direct it to happen immediately, as it requires negotiating with the unions.
“We hear you guys. We hear your advocacy, we hear what you’re going through, what the students are saying. We are not giving up. I know that negotiations are delicate, but we are striving for more hours and more days on campus so we aren’t going to rest until we have that,” said Trustee Hilary Cooper.
Classroom size at upper schools cited as a logistical constraint
After the CDC updated its physical spacing recommendations from 6 feet to 3 feet last week, the California Department of Public Health revised its guidelines on March 20:
“Maximize space between seating and desks. Distance teacher and other staff desks at least 6 feet away from student and other staff desks. Maintaining a minimum of 3 feet between student chairs is strongly recommended. A range of physical distancing recommendations have been made nationally and internationally, from 3 feet to 6 feet.
“Considerations for schools implementing a shorter physical distancing policy between students: focus on high mask adherence—if there are doubts about mask adherence, consider more robust physical distancing practices; consider enhancing other mitigation layers, such as stable groups or ventilation; maintain 6 feet of distancing as much as possible during times when students or staff are not masked (e.g., due to eating or drinking).
Smegal said that she and Trustee Veronica Anderson Thigpen had gone to the middle and high schools to review classroom desk arrangements to see how many more students could fit into the rooms under the new guidelines. A standard size classroom is 960 sq feet, but many at PMS are in the 620 – 640 sq foot range, she said. “Even with 3 feet or 2 feet … there is not a way to accommodate the entirety of a class.” “We’re turning over every stone,” said Anderson Thigpen, in an attempt to bring more kids back on campus.
Booker said some classroom furniture would need to be purchased in order to maximize more single desks in rooms. “We have group tables, and moved away from rows,” some years ago, he said, and will need to purchase more single desks. “But that’s doable.”
Parents who called in to the meeting asked that tents and outdoor space be considered to accommodate more students on campus. (Although the city’s Recreation Department has been using outdoor spaces for its Smart Start activities and classrooms, they are not governed by school regulations.) Booker cited the Field Act — legislation that governs public school buildings — as an impediment to using buildings or structures outside school campuses. (Private schools are exempt from the Field Act.) Smegal and Booker noted these limitations apply to the use of city spaces — an offer Mayor Teddy Gray King had made in a letter to the editor last Friday. (They are, however, discussing ways to partner with the city’s recreation department on a childcare solution for educators.)
Several parents argued that the CDPH 3 foot recommendation was not a mandate and should therefore free the district to prioritize more desks in the classroom, and worried that a strict interpretation of that rule could impede expanding hours this spring and a full reopening in the fall.
Accommodating distance learners
“We still have a host of students in distance learning and we still have to attend to them and provide teachers,” Booker said, noting that may entail hiring additional teachers for secondary schools for the last six to seven weeks of school in order to minimize disruption to existing cohorts. The district will also need to re-survey its distance learning families in case some want to switch to hybrid for the last months of school. (Surveys will be conducted once tentative agreements are in place, Booker said, because he can’t query families until there is a new schedule.)
Whether distance learning will be accommodated in the fall will depend on state guidelines. “My guess is that we have to look at it, but it could be more like ‘Home Hospital’ arrangements,” he said. (California public schools provide instructional continuity when a student is out on temporary disability.) Some districts have already said that they will allow distance learning if deemed medically necessary, but not by choice, he noted.
Parents question transparency of bargaining process
The board heard from more than 30 parents, and several teachers and students, on a range of topics related to the specifics of reopening, including eligibility for summer school programs (under discussion), percentage of teachers vaccinated (unknown), and flipping Mondays to in-person learning days (no promises but everything is on the table).
Several callers expressed concern over the lack of transparency related to negotiations between PUSD and APT and a desire to better understand the obstacles that stood — or may stand — in the way to a more expansive reopening this spring.
“I want to be really clear. We’re not at an impasse with negotiations. I can only be so transparent because I cannot talk about [ongoing negotiations]. We negotiated with our teachers when we were in a deep purple tier — that’s amazing,” Booker said. “Berkeley is coming back in a month — they have not been back at all. We’ve negotiated thirteen contracts in the last year. APT is not the bad guy, we are not the bad guy in this situation. Not once have I heard anyone tonight mention COVID.”
“I’m sorry if there are portions of the community that don’t like hearing ‘no’ for an answer,” he said. “I will bring more information back to the community when I can, but I am confident we will get there.”