Anticipating vaccinations, MVLA teachers’ union agrees to April full hybrid return if in orange tier

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN AND CARLY HELTZEL, PHOTO BY TOMOKI CHIEN

Update (Monday, March 8): DTA President David Campbell clarified to the Post that he was mistaken, and the district’s hybrid return is not in fact contingent upon the county being in the orange tier by April 19. Click here for the latest information.

The Mountain View–Los Altos School District will make a full hybrid return on April 19 provided that the county sits in the orange tier of coronavirus transmission, following an agreement reached with the teachers’ union announced last night. 

These latest plans follow months of contentious community debate over the mode and timing of an in-person return, as well as a recent slew of relaxing coronavirus restrictions at the state and county level. 

Although last night’s announcement did not specify the fact, District Teachers’ Association President David Campbell said in an email to the Post this morning that the return is contingent on Santa Clara County reaching the orange tier by April 19.

Currently, the county sits in the red tier, with a positivity rate and health equity quartile positivity rate that in fact qualify the county for the orange tier. The county’s adjusted case rate, however, holds it back.

In a departure from the “stable groups” model that students will return to campus under next week — where students will attend online classes in a study hall–type setting, largely supervised by substitute staff — the mid-April return will see students rotating through classes, receiving live in-person instruction from teachers. 

Superintendent Dr. Nellie Meyer told the Post this morning that the schedule will have “a.m./p.m. components,” and students will attend classes every week.

A draft model of an “a.m./p.m.” schedule presented in November had the student body split into two groups, with each on campus for half the day and participating in remote learning for the other half.

The district’s announcement last night specified that students will continue to have the option to remain in full distance learning while retaining the same schedule of classes and teachers; logistical specifics, such as how teachers will instruct students in person and online, will likely be fleshed out at the board’s March 8 study session.

The hybrid return, Meyer said, will be mandatory for all teachers, with the exception of those who have health concerns and doctor’s notes who will be permitted to continue teaching from home in an unspecified capacity.

According to Campbell, the union — which had previously expressed a vehement disapproval of any hybrid return — changed its tune following the county’s expansion of vaccinations to phase 1B, which includes teachers.

Campbell said that in an earlier survey conducted by the teachers’ union, 72% of MVLA teachers said they would not return to campus without the vaccine unless the county moved into the yellow tier, which signifies “minimal” spread of coronavirus.

“What changed was that teachers started getting their first vaccine dose,” Campbell wrote to the Post. “That brought a lot of hope to those who were scared to return.”

Perhaps one of the most notable arguments for returning students to campus throughout the past year has been the toll of distance learning on the mental health of students, a point which dozens of students and parents have cited at the district’s board meetings. 

MVLA Board President Fiona Walter echoed that argument in late January in an interview.

“The mental health toll that this is taking on students is enormous,” Walter wrote. “This much togetherness for families, even with really strong relationships, plenty of space, good Wi-Fi, etc., is very difficult. Now imagine it with a couple of families sharing an apartment and many siblings all trying to use the Wi-Fi concurrently … It’s just untenable.”

Throughout the purple tier, the district operated some 15 cohorts across its campuses for critical learners, English learners, students with individualized education programs, supervised study, academic support, AVID and the Advanced Scientific Investigations course.

While Campbell recognized the difficulty of online learning for both students and teachers, he and the union opposed a hybrid return for months, previously maintaining that it would be unlikely for the schools to return at any point this semester.

“Nobody is arguing that students aren’t struggling. Nobody’s arguing that teachers aren’t struggling,” Campbell said in an interview in January. “The argument that can’t be made is that it’s a good idea to get somebody sick. Nobody will defend that argument. And by forcing us to go back sooner than it’s proven to be safe, it’s just dangerous.”

But ongoing negotiations with the district about evolving federal, state and county guidelines along with teacher vaccine eligibility led the union to the orange tier compromise. 

In January, Campbell said that even with the vaccine he would be hesitant to return in-person, citing a lack of scientific evidence that proves whether or not the vaccine prevents transmission of the virus. Campbell said that many teachers, including himself, have concerns about bringing COVID-19 home to their families. 

“We still need to be cautious on campus,” Campbell wrote earlier today. “We need social distancing, we need masks, and we need air flow in our classrooms. We need students to be careful when traveling to and from campus — leaving campus doesn’t mean that it’s a no-mask zone. We all need to do our part in protecting ourselves and our peers.” 

He did, however, express a degree of cautious optimism. 

“We are pleased to bring teachers and students back on campus,” Campbell wrote. “Although we recognize that it’s going to require a lot of adaptation for all involved.”

“This conversation has been ongoing for many months with the end goal of students and teachers on campus in their classrooms,” Walter wrote to the Post this morning. “Yesterday it all came together and I’m very excited to be moving forward.”

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