MVLA board approves in-person return in red tier

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN, CARLY HELTZEL AND OLIVIA HEWANG, PHOTO BY ALLISON HUANG

The Mountain View–Los Altos School District board tonight unanimously approved the plans and budget for an optional in-person return in the red tier of coronavirus restrictions, but did leave room for further amendment later this month. 

Tonight’s development serves as an addendum to the board’s previous approval of a plan that would’ve seen the district take its first steps to an in-person return in the orange tier, presumably speeding up the timetable for a broader hybrid return sometime in the orange or yellow tiers.

Anticipating loosening guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, trustees had considered pushing the approval out two weeks, but ultimately voted to approve the plan at tonight’s meeting in the event that the county moves into the red tier before the end of the month.

Currently, Santa Clara County sits in the purple tier of coronavirus restrictions, needing to fall substantially in the number of new cases per 100,000 residents metric to fall to the red tier.

PLANS

Under the district’s return model, students will work on campus once a week in a “study hall” format, participating in remote classes while physically present in a classroom with other students from the same “stable group.”

In a departure from the current “cohort” model in operation throughout the purple tier, the number of students in a classroom will not be limited to 14, instead only limited by the number of students that can fit in the room maintaining a 6-foot distance.

Stable groups will be assigned to specific “zones” on campus, with no shared facilities, although students within the groups will still be held to distancing restrictions; the extra step of separating the broader groups would in theory provide another layer of safety.

State guidance puts no cap on the size of stable groups, although tentative district plans set the largest group at around 90, for the most part assigned by grade level.

Last week, Associate Superintendent of Personnel Services Leyla Benson indicated to the Post that the district is operating some 15 cohorts across its sites, including cohorts for critical learners, English learners, students with individualized education programs, supervised study, academic support, AVID and the Advanced Scientific Investigations course. It is currently unclear how these cohorts will be affected by these latest plans.

The district’s tentative schedule for the first three weeks of an in-person return in the red tier of coronavirus restrictions (via MVLA school district)

The district’s tentative schedule outlines a phased approach that will bring increasing numbers of students on campus over a three-week period, allowing additional time to hire more substitute staff and work out logistical kinks. 

Substitute teachers will supervise the groups, rather than full-time teachers who will still run remote classes, although District Teachers’ Association President Dave Campbell indicated that some full-time staff may volunteer to supervise groups.

The district’s approved budget for the in-person return in the red tier of coronavirus restrictions (via MVLA school district)

The plan does come with a hefty price tag of $1.2 million, in part funded by federal coronavirus relief aid, largely put toward the additional substitute teachers needed to supervise groups.

That budget, however, was quickly approved by trustees, with the majority of the debate surrounding the return plans themselves.

As bemoaned by a handful of community members during the meeting’s public comment, the study hall format doesn’t allow for any in-person instruction, with the learning experience being essentially the same as remote learning — a far cry from a handful of other high schools across the nation currently participating in full-on hybrid instruction with in-person lectures and activities.

“The benefit is [students] get this social interaction during lunch, during break and after classes,” Distance Learning Administrator Teri Faught argued. “This is our first stage in getting our students back in classes in a very structured environment.”

In a district survey, a majority of students indicated interest in returning to campus if “conditions safely allow,” but a similar majority rejected a hypothetical in-person return similar to the study hall format approved by the board tonight.

OPPOSITION TO BROADER HYBRID RETURN

While the teacher’s union expressed some degree of support for the district’s plans for the red tier — largely because teachers will continue operating remotely, with only substitute staff supervising groups in-person — the union has previously expressed vehement disapproval of any broader hybrid return that’d include in-person instruction, as opposed to the essentially remote model of tonight’s approved plan.

There is currently no indication that any plans for such a hybrid return are in the works, as well as at what point that return could even happen. Superintendent Dr. Nellie Meyer previously indicated that that may happen sometime in the yellow tier, but any plans at this point would be subject to collective bargaining with the teacher’s union.

“I think the vast majority of teachers are pretty freaked out about returning right now,” Campbell, the union president, said in an interview with the Post in January.

Conceding that teachers and students alike are struggling through distance learning, Campbell said that the potential cost of bringing large groups back on campus could be its own “superspreader event.”

“You want me to expose myself, and sacrifice my life potentially?” Campbell said. “I think when you look at the trade off, making it through a couple months and surviving at home is a lot better than going back in person and losing a classmate, losing a teacher, losing a family member because we opened up too soon.”

Los Altos High School science teacher Darren Dressen runs a cohort of students enrolled in the specialized, hands-on Advanced Science Investigation class. 

His 22 students rotate their in-person days so only about six to eight students are in the classroom at one time; they work on their projects in the lab during third period and go to their other classes on Zoom.

Dressen, echoing Campbell’s disapproval of a hybrid return, said he knows several teachers across the country whose schools have tried to return using a hybrid model and had to go back to remote learning due to an outbreak or “logistical nightmares.”

“Everywhere I’ve looked on message boards, it’s a disaster. It just doesn’t work very well,” Dressen said. “So I wouldn’t be up for that type of hybrid learning.” 

Dressen addressed how the different models of hybrid learning, including weekly alternating groups of students on campus or breaking up the day into morning and afternoon cohorts, are ineffective and “messy,” especially with the possibility that students could have to change schedules or switch teachers.

Another teacher who oversees an academic support cohort on Wednesdays, Michael Prehn, said that he knows many teachers would not want to or be able to return in-person because it is too much of a safety risk; however, as Prehn said he is healthy and not in contact with any at risk people, he chose to volunteer as a teacher for the original in-person cohorts.

“I think a lot of teachers would love to be back in the classroom, but for a lot of people, they’re extremely worried and anxious that if you were going to be exposed to a virus, that they could really hurt someone that they love,” Prehn said.

Campbell similarly cited this as one of his greatest concerns with returning — even after being vaccinated, as there is no evidence that vaccinated individuals can’t carry and spread the virus — as the reason why he didn’t sign up to teach a cohort.

“My wife would not let me. It’s just a matter of bringing it home; we’ve had cohorts shut down because people got exposed, we’ve had people test positive,” Campbell said. “I don’t want to do that to my wife. She doesn’t deserve that.”

And although his curriculum has been cut down to the bare bones and the costs of distance learning by far outweigh any potential benefits — such as not having to commute from San Francisco every day — he said everyone has persisted and persevered.

“I’ve been amazed, just absolutely amazed, at how resilient my students are and how engaged they are,” Campbell said. “I love seeing their smiling faces on the zoom. Again, this is not as good as in-person, but I think it’s the next best thing.”

Gil Rubinstein contributed to the reporting on this story.

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