Two distinct approaches to reopening schools are playing out in the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District and its feeder schools in the Los Altos School District.
High schools, where virtually every student has a unique class schedule, face an additional set of reopening challenges, but they do share some common ground with elementary schools: balancing the needs of teachers wary of risking their health and pushback from families desperate to get their children back on campus. Each district has responded differently to the competing concerns as school communities navigate the challenges of learning during a pandemic.
In Mountain View-Los Altos, a more cautious approach that aligns with the teachers union means high schools won't reopen for hybrid learning until Santa Clara County moves to the less restrictive orange tier of COVID-19 rates, which could be in March or later. Parents who are increasingly concerned about the academic and emotional toll school closures are taking on their children, meanwhile, have launched a petition calling on the district to reopen sooner.
The Los Altos School District, by contrast, has been open for partial in-person instruction since late September and is preparing to bring middle schoolers back to campuses next week. (Editor's note: This story was published before the district announced that seventh and eighth graders cannot return to school as planned after new reopening guidance released by the state on Thursday.) The district is moving forward with reopening despite the objections of the teachers association, which asked the board and superintendent last week to revert to fully remote learning until Santa Clara County stays in the red tier for two consecutive weeks or all employees have been vaccinated.
Students in the K-8 Mountain View Whisman School District, meanwhile, remain in full distance learning, except for about 120 students who are attending in-person support pods. The Mountain View Whisman school board is set to discuss reopening on Jan. 21.
As many schools approach an entire year of virtual learning, the state wants to encourage more districts to reopen. Gov. Gavin Newsom last week unveiled $2 billion in proposed grants that would go to schools that resume in-person instruction this spring -- with approval by their local employee unions.
Below are updates on the Mountain View Los Altos and Los Altos districts’ reopening plans and ongoing debate in each community about how to balance two competing needs: public health and education.
The Mountain View-Los Altos district has purchased face masks and hand-washing stations and rearranged high school classrooms so desks are 6 feet apart. On-campus, free COVID-19 testing is available to all staff and students through a partnership with El Camino Hospital. But it's not likely those schools will be full of students any time soon.
In December, the Mountain View Los Altos school board approved a reopening timeline that continues with full distance learning until Santa Clara County enters the orange tier. At that point, schools can reopen for hybrid learning — a mix of online and in-person instruction, though a specific schedule has yet to be hammered out — as well as extracurriculars, clubs and athletics. Students who want to continue with fully remote learning could still do so, and classrooms would be staffed by employees who volunteer to teach in person. The district's orange tier status "really is distance learning for the most part," Superintendent Nellie Meyer said, "but bringing back and phasing in hybrids when possible."
The district's timeline has left some parents and students frustrated, feeling that their urgency to get back to school is not matched by district leadership. They want the district to offer in-person instruction as soon as permissible under public health guidelines, once the county moves from the current, most restrictive purple tier into the red tier. The parent-led petition calling for this has garnered about 550 signatures as of Wednesday.
"The schools have already implemented all of the safety precautions and requirements as mandated by the county. Both schools are offering on-site testing every two weeks. All of the safeguards are in place," Tanya Capuano, one of the parents who started the petition, said during Monday's virtual school board meeting. "Instead of having a conversation on what's not possible, I really encourage you to flip the narrative. What will it take to get students back on campus?"
Julia Tam, the mother of a former Mountain View High School student with special needs, said her son struggled with distance learning. She tried to get him into one of the district's small, in-person cohorts but said a delay due to insufficient staffing meant he didn't get invited to one until November. By then, he was failing all of his classes. He eventually transferred to Alta Vista High School, the district's continuation school.
"I don't know how many kids are out there like that right now," Tam said. "I don't know what it will take to get the teachers to come back."
The only trustee who supported reopening schools sooner was Sanjay Dave, who at the board's Dec. 14 meeting made a failed motion to offer hybrid instruction once Santa Clara County is in the red tier. (He also cast the sole vote against the reopening timeline.) He worried that shifting to a hybrid model later in the semester would be more disruptive to students and advocated for starting that transition sooner.
Trustee Phil Faillace, meanwhile, said the district's reopening plan must respect teacher concerns.
"They are not medical workers. They are not soldiers drafted to fight a war," he said. "They volunteered for a job in which they educate children in a relatively safe environment, and that environment is gone. We have to restore confidence in that environment."
Trustee Debbie Torok suggested that the district bring teachers back to schools first, before students, to help them acclimate to in-person teaching during a pandemic.
"I believe — and maybe I'm wrong — but as soon as a teacher feels comfortable in their classroom they're going to be willing to embrace more of what is ahead," she said.
Asking teachers to voluntarily return to work will likely prove difficult, however. David Campbell, president of the teachers union, said there are very few teachers willing to do so — a "minority that is resigned to the reality we're facing." Only 30 out of the district's more than 200 teachers are currently voluntarily working on campuses in person, according to Meyer.
Campbell said teachers remain concerned about the safety of in-person instruction, even with the likelihood of local educators getting access to the COVID-19 vaccine soon.
Mountain View-Los Altos teachers also voiced concerns, both pedagogic and logistical, about a potential hybrid model, though the district has yet to flesh out specific details about what it would look like. Campbell said it's difficult to imagine creating an effective instructional model that would be able to safely accommodate socially distanced high school classes throughout an entire school day.
He acknowledged that distance learning falls short of the in-classroom experience but pushed back against parents who are worried their children are falling behind academically.
"The rally cry of parents seems to be learning loss," Campbell said in an interview with the Voice. "I don't know who convinced parents that their children are not getting educated. I challenge that."
At Monday's meeting, Campbell shared numerous teacher testimonials about successes in distance learning. He put his student Erin Coyne on the spot, asking if she felt like his instruction has been lacking this year. Coyne, who is Mountain View High School’s student board representative, said she's learning "just as much if not more than I was in the past" but acknowledged that "it varies widely among students based on … how much they can apply themselves."
Regardless of anecdotal evidence, the district’s own data shows academic performance and engagement is down. The number of students who earned D's and F's last quarter over the same time last year has substantially increased, according to the district. On a district survey, only 14% of students said they felt engaged with their classes, while 38% of students said they only felt engaged with one class in the past week. Wellness Coordinator William Blair reported to the board this week about the district's expansion of mental health services during school closures, including a new support group for students.
Los Altos High School junior Riley Capuano, the school's student board representative, told the trustees that she hopes they'll reconsider opening for hybrid learning sooner. She said her distance learning experience has not measured up, and she's watched her peers' mental health deteriorate over the last 10 months.
"If we went back to school, even if we're 6 feet apart, the interactions would be so different and so much more meaningful than we're having over distance learning," she said. "Being cooped up in your home all day is really, really tough. I'm a pretty happy kid usually but I've never struggled more than I have this year because of being fully online."
Each high school is hosting 10 to 13 small group cohorts in person for students who need additional academic support, access to the internet or have other special needs. While the district is interested in offering more cohorts — something several trustees asked for as well — there are not enough staff willing to facilitate them, Meyer said, despite offering incentives to teachers.
Mountain View and Los Altos high schools also resumed outdoor, socially distanced athletic conditioning this Monday for sports that were already in progress before winter break.
Since July, there have been nine students and five staff members on MVLA campuses who have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the district's COVID-19 dashboard.
On Monday night, the Los Altos school board held its own reopening discussion but with a drastically different tone. Trustees and Superintendent Jeff Baier were sympathetic to teacher concerns but didn't budge on the district's plan to continue reopening schools this month.
Los Altos received a waiver from county health officials to reopen schools early, allowing elementary instruction to partially resume in late September. (Bullis Charter School, which also applied for a waiver and shares the Egan Junior High School campus, started its own phased reopening in late September, with middle school students returning in December. About one-third of students in each grade have returned to in-person learning, according to the charter school.) The Los Altos district gradually brought more grade levels back in a phased approach through December, meaning hundreds of kindergartners through fifth graders and their teachers are now in classrooms twice a week in stable cohorts.
Over 700 sixth, seventh and eighth graders are set to return to Egan and Blach Intermediate School two days a week on Jan. 20 under a plan that's been approved by the Santa Clara County Public Health Department. To prepare to reopen Los Altos middle schools, district administrators visited local middle schools that have resumed in-person instruction, including Pinewood School in Los Altos, Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park and the Hillsborough City School District. In Los Altos' blended model, middle schoolers will have some classes in person -- including English, history, science and a guided study class -- while others will be synchronous virtual courses.
In a Jan. 7 open letter to the board and Baier, the Los Altos Teachers Association asked the district to pause reopening. The union cited spiking case rates in Santa Clara County and teachers feeling "being pushed to the breaking point as we attempt to support on-site safety protocols and provide students with meaningful synchronous and asynchronous instruction, while at the same time worrying about our own health and safety on campus.
"Teachers are stressed and fearful, which has taken an immeasurable toll on our
mental health, well-being, and on our ability to provide a quality education for students in a hybrid model," the letter states. "We recognize the tremendous efforts that the district has gone through to implement the safety protocols as required and recommended by county guidelines, but we believe that the ultimate factor in our ability to remain safe on campus is the prevalence of coronavirus in our community."
District officials agreed to resume negotiations with the teachers union on Wednesday, following a request from Los Altos Teachers Association President Ricky Hu.
Numerous teachers urged the board to take into consideration the current state of public health in the county, with cases at an all-time high and ICU capacity perilously low. Emily Simon, a fourth grade teacher at Almond Elementary School, said she's considering taking a leave of absence from the job she feels like is forcing her to choose work over personal safety.
"In the worst of this pandemic I can no longer suffer the emotional pain of the decisions between my jobs and my students and my health," she said. "These are impossible decisions. But returning to virtual (learning) until teachers and staff can be vaccinated or until we return to the red tier is not an impossible decision."
Parents, meanwhile, implored the district to continue with in-person instruction. About 80% of elementary school families have opted for blended learning, according to the district.
Baier acknowledged teachers' concerns but said the district's overarching goal remains sustaining long-term, in-person instruction. The district has spent $2.5 million on health and safety protocols on its campuses, he said, which have been effective in preventing a "surge" in coronavirus cases.
"At times like these it's imperative that we step back and review our information, our local data … and reflect on our own circumstance and then ask: 'Does the data support our anxiety or does the data support our schools are safe places?'" he said. "I absolutely understand the stress yet I also want to make sure we're looking at this through the lens of our reality here."
Trustees by and large agreed. Vladimir Ivanovic said the district's plan should be rooted in guidance from trained public health experts.
"In essence what we're being asked to do is set aside our plan for reopening that's based on guidance given by the Santa Clara County Public Health Department and instead to follow guidance given by teachers," he said. "I don't think that's the right thing to do."
Since September, 17 students and staff members on campuses have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the district. Some cases have been from the same family. The district had to move five cohorts to quarantine in the same timeframe, Baier said.
Teachers also raised concerns at the board meeting about families with students enrolled in hybrid learning who are not following safety guidelines while off campus, including traveling outside the area. The board directed Baier to develop a draft board policy outlining district communication with families about adhering to public health protocols.
Trustee Bryan Johnson said he hopes the district is following up on these reports "aggressively" and urged community members to report people who are violating the guidelines -- or to even email him if they feel uncomfortable doing the reporting themselves.
"Nobody likes to be the person who turns in their neighbor or their friend but for the sake of all our safety, some of us need to be those people," Johnson said.