When Mountain View Whisman School District set a reopening date for March 18, Lori Brody was relieved to hear that her son and daughter would finally see their friends and teacher in person at Bubb Elementary School — even if they would only be back in classrooms four days a week for the few months left in the semester.
Brody had advocated to reopen schools in September. Her son Steven, who typically "loves school" and continues to keep up his grades, is in third grade and already disillusioned by his education, she said.
"He wrote a note where he now says he hates school," Brody said. "And that's scary from a 9-year-old. He's losing his desire to learn."
Steven was excited to go back to campus. But on March 15, days before Steven and his sister Marissa would return to campus, Brody said she received a message from the district saying that her son's schedule would be for two days of in-person instruction and two days of remote learning, while her daughter would be back in school all four days.
Brody and Steven felt blindsided, she said.
"He sits there and says things like: 'This is not fair. They teach us to be fair to everybody, but they're not being fair,'" Brody said. "(Steven) uses the word 'fair,' I used the word 'equity.'"
Steven is not alone. In correspondence to parents from the district, when some campuses reopened mid-March, "95.65% of all students" were able to attend school four days a week, according to district superintendent Ayinde Rudolph. The remaining 4%, which included Steven, would be placed in two cohorts, where group A comes to campus on Monday and Tuesday, and group B comes on Thursday and Friday.
Brody calls them "the forgotten 4%."
The district faced a few constraints in its attempts to accommodate all families who chose to send their children back to classrooms, among them a memorandum of understanding with the teachers union that stipulates a 16:1 classroom ratio and adherence to the 6-foot distancing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rudolph told the Voice via email.
(Just a day after the district reopened, the CDC revised their recommendations to 3-foot distancing for K-12 students in classrooms so long as they're wearing a mask.)
"Given these constraints, there are some classes and grade levels where there were simply not enough spaces for every student to be in the classroom for 4 days," Rudolph wrote.
The ensuing parental pushback is one of countless examples of the complexities of reopening schools during a pandemic — as guidelines are constantly shifting — and the desperation some parents are feeling after more than a year of remote learning.
"Our daughter's pretty miserable," said Denis Anscomb, another Bubb Elementary parent, whose daughter Milly is in the same third-grade class as Steven.
Anscomb is one of a handful of parents who have critiqued the thinking behind the district's decision to maintain the 6-foot distance guideline and the classroom ratio. Milly is in the same cohort as Steven, attending class in person on Mondays and Tuesdays.
"On a Friday, when there's bring your stuffed toy …. all the class is there with their little stuffy toys, and (Milly) is sitting at home," Anscomb said. "It's been much more mentally challenging, if you'd like, to have a daughter to be part of a small group of excluded people when the majority of people are learning four days a week in class, than it was when everyone was in the same boat."
Anscomb and Brody were told by the district that, given the limited space in class, parents who are essential employees were given priority to have their kids at school four days a week.
"After (students of essential employee parents) were placed, we assigned as many students to in-person (who requested it) as we could in the most equitable and fair manner possible," district spokesperson Shelly Hausman said in an email to the Voice.
Hausman did not respond to the Voice's question seeking details on what "the most equitable and fair manner possible" actually entails.
In an email to one parent, Superintendent Rudolph wrote that the district cannot go beyond the 16:1 ratio unless the district moves to a less restrictive reopening stage or renegotiates the MOU between the union and district.
Like other school districts, Mountain View Whisman is following a self-mandated tier structure — similar to the one California created with its colored tier system — that determines the extent of which campuses will reopen. It is not a system prescribed by the county. Currently, the district has decided to remain at Stage 3, which entails: "some school campuses could open for targeted populations"; "blended and distance learning in effect"; and "reduced, A/B schedules."
"Mountain View could have flipped that switch if it chose to," Brody argued.
Rudolph addressed the demand from some parents about removing the 6-foot rule in a March 19 board meeting, saying "moving from 6 to 3 (feet) may be a tall order" and it doesn't change the fact that the MOU with teachers stipulates a strict classroom ratio.
Sean Dechter, president of Mountain View Educators Association teachers union and a fourth grade teacher at the district, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Hausman indicated in an email to the Voice that parents were notified of the possibility of their students being in class two days a week to keep classrooms from exceeding 16 students.
Though district leaders maintain that the reopening process has been transparent, with involvement from staff and parents, Brody said she felt parents were not told ahead of time and that the process of choosing which students would go back for just two days a week "was all done behind closed doors."
"Sometimes I'm to the point where I'm letting Steven log off just because, and I'll go do things with him," Brody said. "Because it's not fair for him."
For Anscomb, one of the more frustrating things is to watch neighboring districts follow a different reopening process and timeline — a sentiment common throughout the pandemic, when states followed their own COVID guidelines, when nearby counties moved ahead on opening more businesses, and, when local students found out that other districts would be holding proms.
"I don't understand how if I lived 100 yards in a different direction across the road, the kids would be in school," said Anscomb, who resides on the border between Mountain View and Los Altos. "Yet in Mountain View … somehow things are happening differently."
Schools in the Los Altos School District, which encompasses parts of Mountain View, reopened its classrooms for in-person learning last fall.
The Mountain View Whisman district did not detail which schools or the exact number of students who were affected by the limits, but Brody said she knows of children from first, third and fifth grades at Bubb, and a fifth grade class at Huff Elementary School, who have been left out of being in classrooms four days a week.
Rudolph said in an email that parents were offered "learning support pods" facilitated on campus by after-school care providers. But for Brody, offering learning pods misses the point.
"I don't want babysitting," she said. "I want my child in the classroom with his friends, with the other classmates learning from the teacher, not on Zoom."
Brody and Anscomb both emphasized that they commend teachers for having to juggle in-person and remote students at the same time. It was also another reason why they disagreed with the learning model the district had put in place.
"I can't believe the teachers are sitting there having to manage, really, multiple sets of student groups … It doesn't seem like it's achieving anything," Anscomb said. "It seems to be layering on to the admin, and it seems to be layering on misery, with almost no recognizable upside."
With just a few weeks left of school, Brody and Anscomb are skeptical that the district will make any adjustments to its plans. In a last-ditch effort to reunite her son with his classmates for a whole week, Brody tried to schedule something on the final week of school, when there is no instruction, to bring all the students together on campus for social activities.
Brody's request to the Bubb school principal was promptly denied.
"Watching my son deal with this is hard," Brody said. "Any parent never wants to see their child have to go through so much pain. You want them not to know about the outside world and what it could do to them. Unfortunately, the outside world has hit them like a brick."