What's the Plan for Schools Reopening?

Luciana Peixoto of Pleasanton wants her kids to go back to school full-time.  When schools shut down in March, her job performance suffered because she had to focus much of her attention on helping her two 13-year-old boys. Schools, she says, can reopen if they teach students proper hygiene.

Meanwhile in Alameda, Nicola Taggart’s decision to enroll her kids in a distance learning program offered by her district came easy: Her husband’s serious heart condition makes him vulnerable to complications from coronavirus and his doctor recommended their kids not be in a classroom until there is a vaccine.

Families across the Bay Area all have a different story. This is one reason why many schools are struggling with plans to reopen. When you add to the mix a rising number of COVID-19 cases and pressure from President Donald Trump to fully reopen schools, school leaders are overwhelmed.

Nonetheless, public and private school officials across the Bay Area are scrambling to come up with plans with the first day, which is only weeks or days away. At press time, most schools were starting to opt for remote learning full-time, at least for the beginning of the school year. Others are giving families the choice of a hybrid model (part distance and part in-person learning) or remote learning full-time for the entire school year.

On July 17, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced reopening guidelines for public and private schools, saying campuses can open when their county is off the state’s COVID-19 watch list for 14 consecutive days. When students do return for on-site learning, Newsom set guidelines: staff and students in third grade and up must wear masks; there should be temperature checks; physical distancing; hand washing stations; and regular COVID-19 testing for staff. 

If five percent of a school’s population test positive for COVID-19 within a 14-day period, the school should shut down, Newsom said. If 25 percent of a school district is infected, it should close. Distance learning, he said, should be rigorous and challenging and all students should have access to computers and Internet. The state earmarked $5.3 billion for schools to use for distance learning and reopening.

The governor’s announcement may ease the fears of California educators who have urged state lawmakers to not reopen campuses until the number of coronavirus cases goes down.

"Many local districts and communities don’t have the necessary resources or capacity to maintain even the most basic prevention measures," California Teachers Association President E. Toby Boyd said in a statement. "We’re talking about not having the room to provide for physical distancing by 6 feet, limiting contact and the other important preventative actions such as personal protective equipment, testing and tracing, or adequate ventilation and cleaning supplies."

Online Learning 

The Bay Area’s largest school districts will start the year with distance learning. San Francisco Unified School District will on Aug. 17 with online learning and later phase in bringing students on campus with a hybrid model. Oakland Unified has a similar plan that involves starting the first four weeks online and bringing back students in phases if the spread of the coronavirus slows. Students in San Jose Unified School District will spend the first six weeks of the school year learning from home.

Currently, Palo Alto Unified plans to have elementary students return to a hybrid schedule that involves splitting students into smaller cohorts for in-class instruction three days a week as well as online learning. Palo Alto’s middle and high school students will do mostly distance learning with some in-classroom opportunities. However, by the first day of school, many of these plans for reopening could change depending.

Peixoto, whose sons attend a Pleasanton Unified School District school, says her opinion to open schools full-time was not popular among other parents. 

In mid-July, the district decided to start the year on Aug. 11 with all online learning. Once Pleasanton starts bringing students back, they will have a choice between a hybrid model or independent study that would involve checking in with a teacher once a week. Students in sixth through 12 grades also have the option of enrolling in a virtual academy operated by an outside organization that would require a year-long commitment.

"My husband and I work all day. I have to stop what I’m doing a lot because I have to cook for them and help them. I constantly have to make sure they are doing their school work and not playing video games," Peixoto says. "Anything is a risk. If they allow people to travel or go to the dentist, why not go to school."

Janelle Woodward, Pleasanton’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, says she feels for the parents.

"Not all of the needs of parents are the same. Our parents are incredibly supportive. I just want to keep our staff and students healthy and safe," she says. "I just want our families to know we are actively listening. We hear what our families are saying."

Students, Woodward says, should have what they need for distance learning. They were all given Chromebooks and hotspots in the spring, and the staff has learned a lot since schools shut down in March.

When students do come back to campuses, they can expect a lot of changes, she says. There will be health screenings, masks worn by students and staff, social distancing and activities like athletics will look a lot different. "I know that no matter what, our kids will get a great education," Woodward says.

In Alameda, Taggart, with mixed feelings, is preparing her 15-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son for a year of virtual learning.

Alameda Unified School District offered families a "Flexible Learning Program" designed to flow between distance learning and in-person instruction depending on public health conditions or remote learning through an outside organization that would require students to sign up for a year. 

Taggart had to apply online for the virtual school and it required a letter from her husband’s doctor. Kids with medical conditions are chosen first, followed by students who have a family member in a vulnerable category.

While Taggart says she knows she made the right decision because of her husband’s health, she’s worried about her kids.

"We had to make the decision to opt our students out of the district for year and that is a tough sell to our kids," she says. "I don’t even know what the platform for the virtual program is, which makes it hard. But the good thing is I can put them in a consistent program, and it may be better than what they experienced in the spring. For this next year, there is no way of knowing what it is going to look like. I just have to let go of control."

Juggling Jobs and Schooling

Taggart, who owns a business that helps clients balance work and life, is worried about how continued distance learning will affect working parents. Many companies, she says, are not prepared to support employees who will be scrambling when school.

"There is a huge childcare and working-parent crisis right now that I don’t think companies have wrapped their heads around," says Taggart, who advises employers on how to support their employees. 

Unfortunately, she is finding that much of the load falls on moms. In her experience of talking to clients, women tend to juggle work and kids, while men compartmentalize and go into work mode. As a result, women’s job performance may suffer because they end up caring for their children when needed. In her personal life, Taggart has had a discussion with her husband about how they are going to manage a school year with two kids learning from home so she isn’t overloaded.

"We’re all trying to tread water. Individuals are going to have to think about what they are going to need to get through this time and then they need to talk to their employers," she says. "Companies need to have the conversation about how they are going to support employees. If they don’t, they are going to end up with a lot of burnt-out parents, especially women."

Many families in the San Lorenzo Unified School District have two working parents who need extra planning time if their kids are home. This is one reason why Superintendent Daryl Camp sent out a letter in June notifying families that students would start the year on Aug. 20 with 100 percent distance learning followed by phasing into a hybrid schedule of in-person instruction with partial online learning in mid to late October. 

"We felt we owed it to our community to give them as much as a heads-up as possible so they can plan," Camp says.

In July, the district was still working out the details. Staff and the community were surveyed about distance learning last spring and improvements that need to be made, as well as preferences for on-campus instruction when that time comes.

Since spring, Camp says they have learned a lot about how to improve distance learning. After teachers put together remote learning plans in a hurry in March, there was little, if any, new learning and expectations of students were lower. That will all change this year, Camp says. 

Most returning students in the district, he says, should have the technology they need for distance learning since Chromebooks and hotspots were distributed in the spring. The district also received some health and safety supplies from the state, such as face masks and shields, Camp says. 

At the start of the school year, he says he wants teachers to build relationships with students and get a sense of how they are doing emotionally.

"I think before we can even get to the learning, we need to see what the students’ needs are. All students are different," Camp says. "Teachers will find out what students need to be successful."

Stratford School, a private school with locations throughout the Bay Area including San Jose, San Francisco, Sunnyvale, Fremont and Danville, provided its families with three possibilities for reopening, depending on what happens in the next few weeks. Those options are traditional on-site instruction with no capacity limitations, distance learning or a hybrid schedule with students divided into two groups that would be on campus two or three days per week.

When students return, Stratford plans to have daily health and temperature checks, social distancing and small groups, increased cleaning and sanitation, frequent handwashing, and face coverings for students and staff.

As far as events, sports and extracurricular activities, Stratford Chief Academic Officer Jeanne Huybrechts said in an email interview that she was uncertain what they would be permitted to do. She said they have hosted virtual events like parenting workshops, open houses, campus tours and activity playdates.

The school, Huybrechts says, has taken steps to address students’ social-emotional health.

"While distance learning is an effective methodology when done well and when health and safety conditions leave no other option, it is not an ideal long-term substitute for the interpersonal, social and emotional benefits of traditional school," Huybrechts says. "In the development and deployment of distance learning plans, our highest aspiration was to provide continuity and connection for our students – a sense of normalcy that comes from daily interactions among teachers and students."

Dress Rehearsal for Reopening 

Some schools had a chance to do a practice run for reopening with small groups of students in summer school.

At Sunrise Middle School, a charter school in San Jose, summer school started on June 22. 

Director/Principal Teresa Robinson says there were no more than 12 students per teacher and they could not mix with other classes. Students and staff had their temperatures taken before school, everyone wore masks, and there was a lot of handwashing. On the first day of school, some students made hats with pool noodles attached to them to help them understand the distance they needed to keep from others. Usually students ate in the classroom and each group would take turns eating under a tree.

"The students were happy to be back and they were not complaining about wearing a mask or washing hands. This was a good dry run for fall," Robinson says. "Children are not learning nearly as well online and we’re trying to play the catch-up game. I’m proud of teachers for following all of the safety rules and I’m proud of our kids for being so resilient."

Bayside Martin Luther King, Jr. Academy in Sausalito brought back students who were having difficulty with distance learning on May 20. 

Superintendent Itoco Garcia says things have gone smoothly.

The students are split into cohorts, each having its own arrival and dismissal times. When students arrive, their temperatures are taken. Each cohort has dedicated bathroom and recess times. Lunch is delivered to the classrooms where there are sanitation stations. All desks are 6 feet apart and students don’t mix with other cohorts and adults at the school.

"Safety is a huge issue at schools even when we’re not in a global pandemic. We go through multiple trainings each year," Garcia says. "Things happen all the time at our schools across the country. The best thing schools can do is have safety protocols in place. There is always a risk. Under COVID-19, what level of risk that is acceptable for each family may vary family to family."

He says they are planning to have on-campus learning five days a week in the fall, as well as offer a distance learning option for students who have compromised immune systems or for those who don’t feel comfortable returning to school.

But he was quick to say that some districts may not have the resources to open safely. Sausalito Marin City School District is a basic aid district, which means its property taxes meet or exceed the revenue limit and the district gets to keep that excess money. Unlike many public schools in the state, Bayside Martin Luther King, Jr. Academy, Garcia says, already has smaller classes and additional resources, making its situation much more manageable.

Roberts School, a private preschool in Menlo Park, reopened on June 10 with a small group of 12 children. 

Director Elisa Barrett says her advice to schools that are in the planning phases of reopening is for their staff to work as a team. Everyone needs to clean a lot and the school should have a regular routine.

At Roberts School, the routine involves parents dropping their kids off in the driveway, their temperatures are checked, they put away their belonging in a cubby and then they wash their hands. The staff reviews how to wash hands every day. Most of the day is spent outside, except for nap time. The kids bring their own lunches and snacks. 

"Social distancing gets tricky because they are little children," Barrett says. "Some kids just want to hug people all the time. We just keep telling them to put their arms out to keep apart."

She does worry about the emotional and mental well being of students at the school.

"A couple of kids were stressed out at first," Barrett says. "They kept talking about the virus. I had one boy, when I took his temperature, he said, ‘Is it okay?’"

Teresa Mills-Faraudo is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.