With just over seven weeks left in the school year, the Mountain View-Los Altos High Union School District will allow students to return to campus for in-person instruction for the first time in more than a year.
District officials detailed Monday how more than 2,000 students will return to campus after spring break on April 19, with a modified schedule that includes four full days of in-person teaching each week. Bringing teachers and teens back to campus comes with strict safety protocols, including hard restrictions on leaving campus during lunch.
Students have the option to stick with remote learning, which has been the only option over the last year at Mountain View and Los Altos high schools. Schools shuttered in March 2020 following the spread of COVID-19 cases in the Bay Area.
An earlier iteration of the plan devoted far less time for in-person instruction, and was criticized by parents and students as a weak half-measure for those eager to return to school.
And while the revised schedule puts students on campus for four full school days, it's not going to look normal, said Associate Superintendent Teri Faught. Face masks will be required at all times, desks will be spaced for social distancing and the cafeteria will be closed. Student activities will be closely monitored, requiring a closed campus that prevents students from leaving during the day.
"We are not coming back to a traditional school," Faught said. "The classroom is not going to look traditional, at lunch time it's not going to look traditional. Getting in a car and going to lunch with your four friends is not allowed during this time."
Last month, all district students were required to pick whether to attend school full-time or stick with remote learning. The split was nearly even, with 2,352 (52.1%) opting to return to campus and 2,164 (47.9%) picking virtual learning. The district is prohibiting students from creating their own mix-and-match hybrid schedule, and are asking that students returning to school commit to four full days each week.
Like many school districts, Mountain View-Los Altos is asking its teachers to juggle instruction of both students in the classroom as well as students over Zoom. Teachers are expected to be even-handed and engage with both groups of students during so-called simultaneous teaching, Faught said.
Both groups -- which she described as "roomies" and "zoomies" -- should have rich interactions with one another, which means kids in the classroom will still need to frequently use Zoom.
"We do not want to create an exclusive environment where these students are separated and no longer have an opportunity to learn together, to collaborate together and to talk together," Faught said.
The first two weeks of reopening will have unusual schedules, with half-day instruction on the week of April 19 and one day set aside for students to take the SAT during the week of April 26. Otherwise, students will attend odd-period classes on Monday and Thursday, even-period classes on Tuesday and Friday, and will learn remotely on Wednesday.
Prior to March, district officials had not picked any specific plans for reopening high school campuses for the 2020-21 school year. Instead, school board members in February approved what it called stable groups on campus. Students who opted in could go to school and see classmates, but only had access to the same online instruction as remote students.
Since then, the number of new COVID-19 cases in the area has plummeted, and state lawmakers created significant funding incentives for school districts that move quickly to reopen. District officials estimate they will receive $4.6 million in funding for reopening.
Local elementary school districts -- where the risk of spreading the virus is considered less severe -- have moved quicker than Mountain View-Los Altos. The Mountain View Whisman School District resumed in-person instruction on March 18, while students in the Los Altos School District returned to campus back in October 2020.
Teachers and education workers have been eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine since Feb. 28, adding a layer of protection for staff returning to campus along with high school students later this month. Hazardous working conditions for teachers had been a sticking point for months as state and local officials sparred with union groups over plans to reopen sooner.
Faught said teachers at Mountain View-Los Altos seem to have a lot of "good energy" getting ready to return to campus, and that some of it comes down to mental preparation for working in an unusual environment.
"There's this excitement, this build-up of energy of starting to return to campus," she said.