The online-only learning thrust upon them in mid-March to ease the risk of the COVID-19 pandemic went poorly. Her district’s plans to combine in-class and online instruction in the fall are lacking in detail, and were thrown into further question Friday evening when news broke that teachers were refusing to return to the classroom. With coronavirus cases surging anew, the specter of school outbreaks is increasing, and a new round of shutdowns could happen at any time.
“There’s a huge amount of concern and anxiety among parents,” said Parakala, a parent-teacher association member whose daughters attend Williams Elementary and Leland High School.
Many districts around the state have yet to announce fall plans as they await further guidance from local and state health officials, but will have to make a decision in the next couple of weeks to prepare for a new school year. Others have settled on plans that either abandon in-class instruction for now or mix some online learning with some days in the classroom for fewer kids to reduce the spread of the disease. It’s not clear how any of that will work.
What’s clear is school kids will again become lab rats in an educational experiment as grownups grope for a sensible balance to the various risks to learning, health, and the economic needs of working parents.
“There are quite a lot of challenges and no perfect solutions, and time is getting short for coming up with a game plan,” said Michelle Smith McDonald, spokeswoman for the Alameda County Office of Education, where 14 of the county’s 18 school districts had yet to announce a fall plan as of Friday.
And those that have made an announcement are all over the map.
The Alameda and Berkeley unified school districts are planning a combination of online and limited in-class instruction, assuming it is cleared by local health authorities. The San Lorenzo Unified School district is planning to begin with online “distance” learning and phase in partial in-class instruction in October. Oakland also plans to begin the year with online classes and phase in some in-class instruction.
In Contra Costa County, the Liberty Union High School District is also pursuing the hybrid approach combining in-class and online learning, while the Brentwood and Oakley union school districts will stick to online distance learning at home. West Contra Costa plans to start with distance learning and return to class “when it is safe.”
In Santa Clara County, San Jose’s Alum Rock Union and East Side Union High school districts announced most students will start the fall school year in virtual classes from home. The San Jose Unified School District where Parakala’s kids attend was initially planning for “as many students as possible returning to campus for in-person instruction.” But the district is now reassessing after its teachers union said teachers don’t feel they would be safe if they returned to class.
Adding to the confusion, the science surrounding COVID-19 is constantly shifting. And as the U.S. approaches a national election, public health policy has become politicized, with fierce debate over the value of economically devastating lockdowns and face masks initially called worthless but now deemed crucial to controlling the virus’s spread.
President Donald Trump last week urged schools to return kids to campus this fall, and criticized U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for school reopening as “impractical.”
But the politics of school reopening don’t cut neatly across the political divide, with state officials in heavily Democratic California also urging reopening. McDonald said many districts feel the state is pressuring them through the terms of a recently-passed budget “trailer” bill — AB77 — to offer at least some in-class instruction.
Even so, the California Department of Education is leaving it to local districts and health officials to develop their own models for resuming learning in the fall. Spokesman Scott Roark said the department agrees “the best place for children to learn is in the classroom,” but also that “schools can only reopen for in-person instruction when it can be assured that students, teachers, and staff have the resources and measures in place to protect their health and safety.”
A growing number of studies indicate that children face the lowest risk among age groups for COVID-19 — no Californians younger than 18 have died from it — and are less likely to transmit the disease. But there’s little agreement over what a safe reopening should look like.
Health officials suggest schools that reopen adopt measures like those for businesses — face masks, regular testing, temperature checks, disinfecting and hand-washing, desks spaced apart, fewer kids on buses, no eating or playing together. But schools aren’t built to run that way, a factor that motivated some to return to online schooling.
Other doctors say such a dystopian school environment is unnecessary.
“There’s no data to support masks or spacing among children when they have no significant risk from this disease whatsoever,” said Dr. Scott W. Atlas, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, adding that schools can make accommodations for high-risk students and teachers.
But many of the state’s unionized teachers aren’t convinced reopening plans will protect them.
“When I think about me being in a classroom with sometimes 40 students, it does not seem like that would be safe,” said Maimona Afzal Berta, a special education teacher at San Jose’s Fischer Middle School who supports her district’s distance learning plan for the fall, even though “it’s not going to be perfect.”
Parents like Parakala aren’t sold on one plan over another and want more details on how in-class instruction will work, as well as assurance that the online fallback will be better than it was in the spring.
“There are more questions,” Parakala said, “than answers.”