Photo: Paul Chinn/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris
Desks in Samantha Kelly's 1st grade classroom are spaced at least six feet apart at Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy in Sausalito on Sept. 8. The K-8 school was anticipating opening to in-class learning Tuesday but a potential positive test of the COVID-19 virus of a staff member delayed the opening for at least one week.

No issues are vexing superintendents more this fall than decisions about distance learning and reopening school campuses for in-person instruction. Each must weigh a complicated set of high-risk, competing factors, with the lives and health of students, staff and their families at stake.

California health officials have provided guidelines for school districts, but teachers’ unions, parents and local health officials also have a say. Some districts are grappling with unique conditions that affect reopening plans, such as large numbers of students who take the bus to school, or remote geography with weak or no internet access.

But even districts that meet the state’s guidelines might not see students return to campus right away. School administrators, often in response to negotiations with their teachers’ unions, may set more stringent conditions. And parents may not want to send their children to school, despite assurances of safety from school officials.

One major reason to bring students back to school is the reality that distance learning is rife with inequities, and is a struggle for many students. At greatest risk of being left behind are those in special education, English learners, students with unreliable internet access or technology and those whose parents are not available to help because they’re working.

Kyla Johnson-Trammell, superintendent of Oakland Unified, noted the historic challenge facing district officials as they try to craft plans that minimize risk while protecting the most vulnerable students.

“This is not a moment, this is an era that we’re in right now,” she said. “It will require us to continue to exercise adaptive leadership and creativity, while maintaining grace and compassion with one another as students, parents and community, as we are all working to figure this out.”

EdSource reached out to districts across the state to get insights into plans for reopening campuses. What follows is a sample of some of the challenges facing school districts.

Oakland Unified takes on the “rocky waters of Covid-19”

Oakland Unified opened with distance learning on Aug. 10 and plans to continue remote instruction in the near future. That’s because it is in Alameda County, which is rated purple, or Tier 1, on the state’s new four-tiered, color-coded list. That tier indicates the virus is “widespread” and schools cannot reopen for in-person instruction.

However, the county will begin accepting waiver applications from K-6 schools that will allow them to open if approved. It expects the process to take several weeks before any waivers will be approved.

At a recent board meeting Johnson-Trammell said the district is making decisions about how to move forward based on what she calls “the four Ss” — science, safety, staff supports and student learning.

Like most districts, Oakland Unified has created plans for safely bringing back students and staff to classrooms in a phased hybrid approach, in small groups two or three days a week on a rotating basis, alternating with other groups.

Johnson-Trammell stressed that Oakland Unified and all other districts are “navigating the rocky waters of Covid-19.”

The district, which just negotiated an agreement with its teachers’ union to cover distance learning, still needs to come up with a similar agreement on how and when students and teachers might return to class.

In response to parent surveys that showed some families are not comfortable sending children back to schools even if the district does reopen classrooms, the district plans to offer long-term distance learning for those who request it.

In San Bernardino, school district transportation is a big concern

Transportation will be one of the biggest challenges when schools reopen, said Rachel Monárrez, assistant superintendent of continuous improvement for the San Bernardino City Unified School District. She said that compared with many other California districts, San Bernardino City Unified has more children who rely on buses to get to school.

The challenge isn’t social distancing on the bus, since there would be fewer students than normal riding the bus under a hybrid model. The problem is finding a way to screen children so that they don’t get on the bus with Covid symptoms, she said. And if they are showing symptoms, another difficulty is figuring out what to do with them.

“You don’t want to leave a sick child on the corner,” Monárrez said.

Like most California districts, San Bernardino City Unified began the semester with 100% online learning. In order to return to in-person instruction, it would need first to get off the state’s Tier 1 monitoring list, and then approval from its school board, unless the district decides to apply for a waiver to bring K-6 students back to school.

Over the summer, the district developed a plan to phase in in-person instruction should conditions allow. The next step in the plan would be to allow limited in-person instruction for students with high needs, including special education students and English learners. That would require a separate memorandum of understanding with the teachers’ union.

“Whipsawed” by ever-changing guidelines, Fresno Unified has created 19 different reopening plans

Bob Nelson, superintendent of Fresno Unified, which opened with all students in distance learning on Aug. 14, said he does not expect most district students and staff to return to campuses for many weeks because Fresno County is rated purple on the state’s tracking system.

Nelson said Fresno County is not accepting waiver applications for elementary school students, but the district is creating plans that could allow small groups of special education students to come to classes in the next two weeks. But first it must work out an agreement with the teachers’ union for that to happen. It also needs to reach an agreement with the union on its long-term plans for most students and teachers to return to classrooms after the state and county give the green light, Nelson said.

After reaching an agreement with its teachers’ union regarding distance learning, “we’re immediately pivoting toward, ‘How do we start to bring kids back?’” he said. The district has had to create 19 different plans, as the state has continued to change its guidance over the past few months. “To some degree, you end up getting whipsawed.”

Some teachers have expressed a reluctance to return to school, he said, especially those who are over 55 or who have underlying health conditions. However, he said the district has not had a spike in retirements or teachers leaving.

“I think the idea that people would leave the profession in droves is maybe a little overblown,” he said, explaining that many people need their jobs. “There’s also an economic crisis at the same time as the Covid crisis, with economic collapse.”

Those teachers who do not feel safe to return can continue distance learning, since that is also an option being offered to students, he said.

“We’re not going to force all of our faculty members back,” Nelson said.

About three-quarters of parents want to send their students to school, according to a survey taken over the summer. About 90% of families are low-income, including 40% whose household incomes are less than $25,000.

“We support the working poor,” he said, adding that 70% of students are Latino, a demographic group that has been hit especially hard by Covid-19 in the Central Valley.

Nelson said school district liability is a consideration, since some people may be inclined to sue the district if they believe their child becomes infected with Covid-19 on a district campus, while parents with children in special education programs may sue if they don’t believe the district is providing their children with a “free and appropriate education,” as required by law.

“It’s hard,” he said. “There’s some resistance to coming back to work — a lot of fear.”

San Jose Unified stresses strict safety protocols

San Jose Unified Deputy Superintendent Stephen McMahon said parents are divided over whether they want their children to return to school in the district, which started the school year Aug. 12 with 100% online learning. Some parents are working from home, he said, and are able to keep an eye on their children while they virtually attend school. But others work outside the home, and must arrange for child care or have no choice but to leave their older children on their own.

McMahon said one of the biggest issues the district faces is confusion about reopening campuses, which he attributes to the difference in state rules and guidelines for offering child care on school campuses and the ones for in-classroom instruction. State officials are allowing school districts to offer child care for school-age students on their campuses, even those that are closed for in-person instruction. Child care providers supervise those students’ distance learning activities while teachers remain off campus.

Though San Jose Unified has not offered child care services at its facilities since closing campuses McMahon said parents are confused as to why different rules applied to their children at summer camp or in a day care program, which has caused a “tremendous amount of uncertainty.”

California Department of Public Health officials said in August that child care is typically held in smaller groups, bringing together fewer children than there would be in school classrooms. However, they said current health data did not indicate whether on-site child care settings were safer than in-person instruction.

“These guidelines and considerations are based on the most current available public health data, which does not indicate that either setting is safer than the other at this time,” said California Department of Public Health’s public affairs staff in an email to EdSource.

McMahon said, “People are scared, they don’t have firm information, and they hear contradictory information, which only furthers their fears and uncertainties. I think that is our biggest challenge in getting schools open: nobody knows the best practice for adults and young people working together.”

Elk Grove Unified, in the most restrictive tier, is starting early on preparations to reopen

Elk Grove Unified, the state’s fifth-largest school district with 63,000 students, is at least weeks away from reopening for in-person instruction, based on the state’s four-tier monitoring system, said Xanthi Pinkerton, district spokesperson.

The school district in Sacramento County, which has a high rate of coronavirus infections, is in Tier 1 of the new monitoring system, or the purple level, meaning it can’t open schools.

“Having said that, we aren’t waiting until we have the green light to prepare,” Pinkerton said. “We continue to update our plans and preparations for reopening and despite the many challenges we are finding solutions. Key will be reliable testing.”

A staff survey showed that almost half of Elk Grove Unified employees are concerned they would be exposed to Covid-19 if they returned to campuses. But about 64% said they would be comfortable or somewhat comfortable with returning to the classroom to work with children if the district followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health guidelines.

“As for staff, we are working and have been working very closely with our labor partners and the county health department,” Pinkerton said. “We are in regular dialogue with them on all aspects including surveying teachers on concerns about reopening and knowing who has hesitations. Just like everyone plays a role in distance learning, everyone plays a role in reopening.”

Calaveras Unified likely not to return until end of January

Calaveras Unified serves about 2,800 students at two high schools, one middle school and six elementary schools in tiny towns crisscrossing the county. The district will remain in distance learning until at least October, but likely until the end of January, said Superintendent Mark Campbell.

Calaveras County is in the state’s Tier 2, meaning that community infection is substantial but schools can re-open after the county has remained in Tier 2 for at least 14 days.

One of the biggest hurdles to reopening district schools is the reluctance of many teachers to return to schools during the pandemic because of health concerns.

“There will be great hesitation about that [returning to campuses],” Campbell said. “If today were judgment day, we would not be able to pull it off.”

Currently, a few students who don’t have internet connectivity at home are attending classes on campus. Next quarter the district plans to expand that to include foster youth, homeless students and English learners.

The district has ensured all students have computers or tablets, but not all areas of the county have a reliable internet signal, even with Wi-Fi hot spots, Campbell said.

When the schools reopen, it will be a blended program, with each student going to school on campus only for four hours, one day a week, with four days of distance learning. That would decrease the size of classes on campus to 25% of normal, or about seven students in elementary school classes and 11 in secondary school classes.

The goal would be to check in with students, allow them to connect with other students and their teachers and to provide support services like counseling, Campbell said.

The district will follow state health and safety guidelines, including social distancing and the required wearing of masks, when they reopen. Campbell said that parents’ views on these protocols vary greatly, with some parents flat-our refusing to have their children wear masks.

District parents are split on whether schools should reopen, with 52% in favor of reopening and 48% saying they understand the need to stay closed, according to district surveys.

Many parents also want clubs, athletics and other school activities to begin again.

“They want life to go back to February,” Campbell said.

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