After nearly a year of school closures, Mountain View Whisman School District plans to start bringing back students to campuses once Santa Clara County has been in the red tier of COVID-19 case rates for two weeks.
Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph made this recommendation to the board on Thursday with "mixed feelings," particularly given "overwhelming" concerns from teachers and staff about returning to work in person. He said the change in direction was driven by improving public health conditions and growing concern about students who are struggling academically and emotionally while schools remain closed.
"No one wants to put anyone at risk," he said at Thursday's board meeting. "In this case, siding with the needs of kids is something that I'm OK with. ... I think this is the best path forward we have, considering all the factors that are outside our control and thinking about everything we've done that's in our control."
The district is currently only open for about 130 students attending in-person learning pods and until now had not pressed forward with a hybrid learning plan. Two weeks ago, Rudolph was concerned about local coronavirus rates and board members were largely lauding distance learning and positive student achievement data during the closures.
Under Rudolph's recommendation, the district will first reopen schools for pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first grade, sixth grade and special education students; then second, third and seventh grade; and finally fourth, fifth and eighth grade. Families will still have the option of full distance learning, and students learning at home or in person will all be guaranteed four days of live instruction per week. Teachers in classrooms will provide simultaneous remote instruction to students learning remotely. Middle schoolers will be grouped into stable cohorts who stay in a classroom together, while their teachers move from group to group in a staggered bell schedule.
All schools will follow required public health precautions, including social distancing and wearing masks at all times (and students who can't adhere to the guidelines will be moved into remote learning, Rudolph said). Both employees and students will have access to regular, on-campus COVID-19 testing that's already being provided by El Camino Hospital.
The district is targeting a mid-March reopening for the first group of students, but that will hinge on local public health conditions.
"We are still concerned about COVID case levels countywide, but we have done a lot of work with our safety planning and know more about how to prevent COVID transmission than we did this fall," Rudolph wrote in an email to the Voice. "We also recognize that some students really need to come back to in-person learning."
All but one board member expressed support for the new reopening plan, which the board will vote on at a Feb. 28 special meeting. Vice President Laura Blakely said she'd rather wait to reopen schools until the county moves into the orange tier of case rates and is concerned about the additional stress in-person learning could cause for teachers.
The other trustees backed Rudolph's recommendation, pointing to mounting research and health experts who agree that reopening schools with the appropriate health precautions is safe. Several also said they want schools to reopen sooner to address student mental health needs, citing both data and anecdotal stories about students struggling with depression and anxiety.
In an email to the trustees, district parent and Kaiser Permanente pediatrician Allison Collins urged the board to reopen schools as soon as possible. She said she's seen mental health issues, including suicidality, increase among her patients, as well as pediatric obesity and insomnia due to excessive screen time and anxiety -- all of which have domino effects on the children's families as well.
"This is truly an emergency," she wrote. "As a physician, I would argue the risks of not going back to school (physically, emotionally, and socially) far outweigh the risk of of going back."
Trustee Laura Berman said she was disappointed that Rudolph didn't recommend reopening even sooner and is worried about pegging it to the unknown date of when the county moves into — and stays in — the red tier. The county's current adjusted case rate is at 21.5; once that declines to seven, it will move into the red tier.
"I personally think it's time that we open our doors and let students back in the classroom that need to be back and give the power back to some of our parents to make those decisions," Berman said.
As in neighboring districts that are reopening schools, staffing will be a major hurdle. The district plans to survey staff this month to determine how many are willing and able to work in person, but is already considering "creative solutions" for how to serve classes with teachers who won't return in person, Rudolph said. The district only has eight available substitutes right now. Other districts have addressed staffing shortages, Rudolph said, by offering incentives for staff members to become substitutes or increasing pay for substitutes.
The question of when Santa Clara County teachers will have access to the COVID-19 vaccine hangs over all local school districts Rudolph and trustees encouraged advocating for the county to prioritize educators.
The district will send surveys out to families and give them two weeks to choose a learning model for the rest of the school year, and is also hosting focus groups to solicit feedback from staff, elementary and middle school families.