Two of Mountain View's public school districts are not planning to have students return to the classroom for in-person instruction in the fall, at least not right away, citing safety concerns and a worrying increase in local COVID-19 cases.
The Mountain View Whisman School District and Mountain View-Los Altos High School District join a growing number of school districts across the state scrapping plans to reopen when the 2020-21 school year begins next month. Local and state teachers' associations have also weighed in, arguing in-person instruction, while essential, is simply not a health risk they're willing to take.
In a conference call with city leaders Wednesday, Mountain View Whisman Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said the writing is on the wall, and that it's "pretty much inevitable" that schools won't be able to reopen when the school year begins. In countries that have successfully reopened schools, the number of cases was going down, Rudolph said, but they're going up in Santa Clara County.
"We went from 2,900 cases on June 26 to 6,900 cases two weeks later -- we clearly do not have this under control," he said.
Rudolph confirmed in an email to parents late Thursday afternoon that schools would not open next month, and will begin the school year on Aug. 17 with "100% distance learning."
Though local teachers and school administrators have long said that there is no replacement for in-person instruction in the classroom, Rudolph said families need to start bracing for what will be the "new reality," which is a dependence on distance learning from home. The largest school districts in the state, including Los Angeles Unified and San Diego, are all keeping schools closed, and it would be unusual to buck the trend as a smaller suburban district, he said.
Media reports from earlier this week suggest that San Jose Unified has not decided whether to ditch its "hybrid" teaching model starting next month, in which students would spend part of the school week on campus. The Palo Alto Unified School District is still planning to have elementary school students and teachers back in the fall.
Rudolph's comments are a divergence from a notice sent to parents earlier this month, which had asked them to pick between two learning options for their child. One was a hybrid approach in which students would return to campus two of the five days of the week, while the other option was for 100% remote instruction. District officials did not immediately respond to requests for the survey results.
The Mountain View-Los Altos High School District ran a survey asking parents, teachers and students whether they would want to return to campus, and the results show the community was deeply divided. About 35% wanted a hybrid model, 25% wanted full distance learning and 25% wanted a full reopening of schools. The remaining 15% were uncertain.
On the same Wednesday conference call, Mountain View-Los Altos Superintendent Nellie Meyer said the district is sticking to distance learning for the start of the school year, but that the plan could change as the school year progresses.
"Given our constraints, we did go with distance learning, but we're going to check in every month to see how we can hopefully increasingly come back," Meyer said.
The Mountain View-Los Altos High School District board is set to discuss and vote on the proposed distance learning plan Thursday evening starting at 6 p.m. Access more information here.
The process to plan for the 2020-21 school year involved more than 150 staff members plus parents to explore distance, in-person and hybrid approaches, according to the district.
If approved, the district will host a virtual return to school, set to take place over the first three days, Wednesday, Aug. 12 through Friday, Aug. 14. Unlike when schools first shut down this spring, students will be receiving letter grades throughout the new school year.
As health guidelines permit, small groups of students with specific needs will be brought back to campus for support and interaction, the district says.
Those groups would allow in-person interactions – as safety guidelines permit – for students enrolled in special education, English learners, and those who were not engaged with schoolwork in the spring. In addition, lab, art, and career and technical classes, as well as physical education, would also be among the priority groups for in-person learning. Face-to-face orientations to introduce students to teachers would also be a priority when feasible.
Staff will also be allowed to return to their classrooms in August or when safety measures permit.
Parents will be asked to pick one of two options for the first semester – Option A, which offers fully remote learning with increased opportunities for in-person learning when permissible; or Option B, which offers fully remote learning for the entire semester. Students won't be able to switch from B to A until the semester is over, and students won't be able to switch from A to B except for medical reasons, according to district documents.
The proposed schedule is fairly structured: Virtual school would run from 9:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. on all days except for Wednesdays, when classes would run from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Odd school periods would be held on Mondays and Thursdays for classes that are an hour and 15 minutes long, and even periods would follow the same schedule on Tuesdays and Fridays – with a dedicated office hours period during the first period of those days – and then each period would meet for 30 minutes on Wednesdays.
The decisions come as teachers throughout the state have raised alarm bells about the health and safety hazards of coming back to campus prematurely, particularly as the coronavirus pandemic appears to be worsening and reported cases are on the rise. Sean Dechter, president of the Mountain View Educators Association, said in an email that just one person -- student, teacher, faculty or administrator -- getting sick from COVID-19 is "one person too many," and that districts must err on the side of caution.
"We would all like to be back in school, but it is our health at risk," Dechter said. "The school campus should be a safe location where education can be fostered through meaningful interactions and a positive learning environment."
Right now, Dechter said teachers are not confident that enough will be done to prevent the potential exposure to COVID-19, and that the district must have better social distancing protocols, better transportation plans and a rigorous cleaning and sanitation regimen for school facilities.
"MVEA does not feel MVWSD has made the needed adjustments to have a safe and healthy return to campus in the fall," he said.
Palo Alto teachers have also made a similar plea not to return to classrooms in the fall.
The California Federation of Teachers (CFT) sent a letter Monday to Gov. Gavin Newsom and top state legislators with even more pointed language, writing that the reopening guidelines put forth by the California Department of Education don't go nearly far enough -- particularly in light of the spike in statewide cases. Reopening should be contingent on whether cases have been on the decline for two weeks straight, and whether testing is more widely available for those who could potentially be exposed at schools, the group argued.
"The teachers and classified professionals of the CFT demand that science, not political pressure, be used to reopen our schools," wrote CFT president Jeff Freitas. "Only a statewide approach reminiscent of a war effort will be able to ensure the necessary precautions and preparations to keep our students, our staff, and our families safe."
With distance learning almost assured to continue in Mountain View through the fall, Rudolph said there will be a concerted effort to improve the quality of remote instruction, rather than the "Band-Aid" approach that was used in the immediate aftermath of school closures in March. This will include better communication with parents, synchronous live instruction from teachers and ways to accommodate small group activities and independent work.