Starting Aug. 11, the vast majority of children in the Mountain View Whisman School District will be back on campus, masked up and socially distanced in the classroom in a long-awaited return to normalcy.
But for families still frightened by the pandemic and reluctant to send young children who cannot be vaccinated back to school -- particularly in light of rising COVID-19 cases -- the district is offering an alternative. The Mountain View Whisman school board voted unanimously Tuesday to launch an independent study program online, which would enroll kids in a completely separate online school.
The catch is that the classes won't be run by Mountain View Whisman at all, and will be entirely managed by a company called Edgenuity. Everything from instruction and lessons to managing attendance, assignments and academic progress will all be handled by the outside contractor. It also means students will temporarily be displaced from neighborhood schools and choice programs, and there's no guarantee there'll be room to return when families opt for in-person instruction.
Surveys from April found that most parents in the district are confident in sending their children back to school, with 2,996 choosing in-person instruction and only 149 picking distance learning as the preferred option. Of those families looking to stay virtual, 82 indicated they would change their minds once their child was vaccinated. Interest in distance learning was highest among eighth and seventh grade students.
By comparison, last year there was a near-even split between parents who wanted virtual and in-person instruction.
District officials say the numbers put them in a bind: The limited interest in distance learning would require classes that combine grade levels, and the range of math classes that can be offered would be severely limited. It would be both costly and difficult to staff, and could contract to half its size once vaccinations are approved for children under age 12.
But a new state law, AB 130, requires all districts to offer some type of independent study program for students who would be put "at risk" by in-person instruction, as determined by the parent or guardian. The law is compelling school districts across the state to come up with an alternative, and the majority are finding it easiest to outsource the work by contracting with an outside company, said Tara Vikjord, the district's chief human relations officer.
"The programs are really well-established so it's not a reinvention of material, there are programs that have been doing online learning for quite some time," Vikjord said. "They're really rich in data, providing a lot of detail for us regarding student attendance and engagement."
The contract will cost the district $1,600 per student per semester for elementary school students and $2,000 for middle school students, with a current cost estimate of $225,000.
Though board President Devon Conley supported the contract, she said the state's framework for independent study should've been more robust. Only one hour of live instruction is required per day, even for younger children, and she said remote learning will require a lot of engagement on the part of parents and caretakers. In effect, it's really only feasible for parents who can provide child care during the day, she said.
"This is a mediocre solution to give parents an option, but it really gives frankly our most affluent families an option and not anyone else because it requires so many resources to have child care at home," Conley said.
Where trustees struggled is what to do about families who enroll their child in distance learning and later want to return to in-person learning, and whether there will be a spot left open for their child. Board member Laura Ramirez Berman said families are often choosing the independent study program out of necessity, but have to grapple with the added anxiety of not knowing if their child can return to the same school and reconnect with the same friends and teachers.
Given that district enrollment has declined overall since the start of the pandemic, it's "highly likely" but not guaranteed that families switching back to on-campus instruction will be able to return to their neighborhood school, Conley said. But things are different at the district's two choice schools, the Dual Immersion program at Mistral Elementary and the parent-participation program at Stevenson Elementary, where there can be long waiting lists and enrollment is easy to fill.
Once those spots are taken up by new students, it's going to be hard to make more room for families who want to come back, said Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph.
"At the choice schools if you allow that to happen there is no 'going back.' Once we allow someone to go into Mistral, that spot is gone until the kid leaves," Rudolph said.
Though an imperfect solution, board members agreed to temporarily freeze enrollment at the two schools, giving families participating in remote learning a chance to return later this year or the following school year.
Safety for students back on campus
Though Mountain View Whisman schools are using many of the same safety protocols for the 2021-22 school year that were used in reopening schools last spring, there are some key differences. All students will have desks spaced 3 feet apart and will have Plexiglas desk shields, and all students and staff will be required to wear masks at all times -- both indoors and outdoors.
The stringent mask requirements go above and beyond state requirements, in part because of feedback from the end of the last school year, Rudolph said. Parents and staff felt the strict rules around student cohorts limited cross-classroom activities, and that requiring masks outdoors can eliminate those barriers.
Employees will be subject to COVID-19 testing requirements, including more rigorous testing and quarantine protocols for those who remain unvaccinated. About 91% of the staff has been vaccinated thus far, according to the district, but those numbers fluctuate by site. The highest vaccination rates are at Imai (formerly Huff) Elementary at 98% and Mistral at 97%, while the lowest are at Bubb Elementary (84%), Landels Elementary (87%) and Crittenden Middle School (87%). District officials are considering a vaccine mandate, Rudolph said.
Unvaccinated students will be tested on a weekly basis until the rate of COVID-19 community transmission drops back down to lower levels, and the quarantine requirements will be flexible based on whether those involved were wearing a mask during exposure to the virus. If a student was wearing a mask when in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, he or she will not be required to quarantine if they are asymptomatic.
In the final months of the last school year, dozens of students had to quarantine under more stringent rules, including 39 people at Landels Elementary.
School board members agreed to hold off on making any plans for field trips at least through the first half of the school year, noting serious concerns about off-campus activities and the rising number of COVID-19 cases throughout the Bay Area. Conley said it seemed neither "remotely feasible" nor responsible for the district to permit overnight field trips.
"Our main job right now is keeping children safe and that is going to be a challenge in the completely regulated environment of our schools, let alone trying to take children off campus into environments where we don't have control of what's going on," Conley said.
More information on the district's reopening plans can be found online.