The Mountain View Whisman School District, hamstrung by state guidelines that restrict schools from reopening until the countywide coronavirus case rate drops, is in no rush to plan for in-person learning, citing positive student achievement in distance learning and concerns about health risks.
The school board discussed updates on the district's reopening plan Thursday night, Jan. 21. Only one trustee, Chris Chiang, suggested the district take a more proactive approach to avoid what he said was a missed opportunity to reopen schools when public health conditions were better in the fall.
As of Jan. 20, Santa Clara County's rate is 33.6 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. Under the new state guidance, K-6 schools cannot reopen for in-person instruction in counties with coronavirus rates above 25 cases per 100,000 people per day — unless they were already open at a full grade level, which Mountain View Whisman is not. The district is offering in-person learning pods to about 130 students who need targeted support and internet access.
In an interview with the Voice, Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said the district's stance on reopening is rooted in safety. He continues to be concerned about surging COVID-19 case rates in Mountain View, especially compared to the neighboring cities of Los Altos and Palo Alto where public elementary schools have been open for hybrid learning since the fall and district leaders are eager to bring as many students as possible back to classrooms.
"While I'd love for our kids to be in (school), I want to make sure our kids are safe. That's the first priority for us," he said.
A district survey conducted in September found that 47% of parents prefer distance learning while Santa Clara County remains in the red tier of COVID-19 case counts, though that number dropped to 29% when the county moves to the less restrictive orange tier. The district has not asked families (or teachers) about their preferences again since the fall and doesn't have a set date for surveying them again.
Rudolph gave a lengthy, data-heavy presentation on Thursday that cited positive attendance trends and increases in student reading and math achievement this year as evidence of the district's success with distance learning. District-wide, attendance is at around 95% but several schools — including Stevenson, Castro, Crittenden and Monta Loma — have seen attendance drop since the start of the school year in August. And district enrollment is down this year by about 500 students since last May.
Engagement, measured by students' participation in online classes, is highest among sixth graders and lowest among kindergarten students, according to the district. Latino, socioeconomically disadvantaged and special-education students are largely less engaged than their peers.
Some groups of students are actually doing better this year in reading and math than last year, including English language learners. Across the district, there's been a slight uptick in the number of students who were at or above grade level in reading in December 2020 (64%) versus December 2019 (61%). The number of students at or above grade level in math at those time periods remains the same (57%).
The district does have a phased reopening plan — including a hybrid model with four days of live instruction and potentially live-streaming classes — but no set timeline for when it would go into effect beyond the state's coronavirus threshold. An online "readiness dashboard" shows the district's progress toward requirements for reopening campuses. Mountain View Whisman has exhausted the $2.9 million it received in federal CARES Act funds to purchase personal protective equipment, touchless faucets, soap and paper towel dispensers, WiFi hotspots (both for students to use at home and to enable all school parking lots with WiFi) and Chromebooks.
Successfully reopening schools also depends on staffing. Employees' willingness to return to work in person varies — only 23% of preschool teachers are ready to teach in person compared to 60% of transitional kindergarten and kindergarten teachers, 54% of first through eighth grade teachers, 60% of special education teachers and 70% of classified staff, according to a district survey conducted in September. Substitute teacher availability will also be crucial and remains limited, Rudolph said, noting that Los Altos schools were forced to temporarily close in the fall due to staffing shortages.
Rudolph said there are "diminishing returns" for reopening as the end of the school year approaches.
"If we do reopen, all of us should expect some type of disruption to the learning process because there will be a reacclimation that occurs, that naturally occurs at the start of every school year," he said. "It doesn't mean it's a bad disruption but it ... is something to keep in account."
Chiang suggested that instead of setting potential reopening dates, such as after natural breaks in the school year, the board should agree on a safe metric, such as two weeks after Santa Clara County moves into the red tier, that triggers the hybrid model.
"Pegging it to any particular date is what actually failed us. We lost the opportunity to reopen when there were really low infection rates in the fall," he said. "I think it would allow us to act rapidly, to not lose the diminishing returns." (Chiang teaches at the private Keys School in Palo Alto, which has opened for in-person instruction.)
Board President Devon Conley said constantly evolving information about the coronavirus and local data would make that approach difficult. She worries that families will travel during a week-long February vacation, making reopening schools afterwards risky.
"We could be in the red the day after ski week and then two weeks later be back into very, very dangerous levels," she said.
Other trustees largely lauded the district's student achievement data, calling teachers "heroes" who have adjusted to an unprecedented new way of providing instruction.
Conley asked how the district is supporting the mental health of students who are coping with school closures and other stressors such as family health and economic instability. She pointed to a letter signed by a group of UCSF pediatricians, psychologists and other health providers calling for schools to reopen as soon as possible, citing the worsening achievement gap, social isolation and spikes in pediatric emergency visits for mental health issues.
"Do we have children suffering in silence and we don't know about it? How do we find out about it and support them?" Conley asked.
This could be as simple, she suggested, as creating a communication for teachers to send to parents encouraging them to reach out for help if they're concerned about their children's wellbeing.
District leaders seemed wary, however, of digging into student mental health. Rudolph said that gathering data about student wellbeing would be a "heavy lift" that would require taking something else off staff's plate.
"Adding that would send people over the top," Rudolph said. "It doesn't mean it's not possible; that's just a heavy lift. It's not something we traditionally think about it in terms of school settings."
Mountain View Whisman relies mostly on referrals to outside mental health nonprofits such as Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC) and Uplift Family Services to connect students to support, he said. The district has referred 166 students to CHAC and 47 to Uplift this year.
The district is preparing wellness resources to send to families in the next couple of weeks, Rudolph said.
While Mountain View Whisman is offering the learning pods in person, less than half of families who have been invited have opted into the pods. District staff attribute this to fear of the coronavirus, inconvenience, the programs not being a good fit and resistance from students, especially middle schoolers. Some students attended the in-person groups and then stopped coming, including after some pods had to quarantine due to potential COVID-19 exposures.
Rudolph remains concerned about the rate of positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff in the pods, which is comparable to some districts that are more fully open for hybrid learning. Twenty-one staff members and five students have tested positive since August, according to the district's online dashboard. This is reflective of the city's case rates and also the district's demographics, he said, with a higher Latino student population, parents who are essential workers and teachers coming into Mountain View from other Bay Area counties with high coronavirus cases.
The district is continuing to host online "community check-in" meetings, including one today (Friday, Jan. 22) at 3:30 p.m., and has scheduled a staff town hall for the end of the month.