Four days in-person, 3-foot social distancing and I.T. upgrades: Here’s what to expect from MVLA’s hybrid return

STORY AND PHOTO BY TOMOKI CHIEN 

Students in the Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District can expect four full days a week of in-person instruction starting April 26, a significant expansion of the district’s previously announced proposal.

The district’s latest schedule, presented at its March 22 board meeting, calls for students to step back on campus for two half-days a week on April 19 where they’ll rotate through classes as in a normal school year, later transitioning on April 26 to four full days on campus. Wednesdays will remain asynchronous.

Families can still choose to remain in distance learning under the district’s Option A model, which the vast majority of students are currently enrolled in, or its self-guided Option B model.

Students that return to campus for the hybrid return will retain their current classes and teachers, participating in the same classes as Option A remote students via Zoom — just in a physical classroom with their teacher.

Also embedded in the plans, which still need to be ironed out in negotiations with the teachers’ union, is the fact that classroom configurations will be based on the 3-foot social distancing standards released by the CDC last week.

Just recently, a handful of students returned to campus for the district’s “stable groups,” participating in remote classes in a study hall setting, supervised by substitute staff.

Bob Fishtrom, director of information technology services, is confident that the district’s networks will be able to support the April hybrid return.

On March 14, the Los Altos High School Talon reported that students in classrooms would have to turn off their cameras in order to ensure stable network connection at school, which teachers in that same report expressed frustration with.

In an interview, Fishtrom said that that’s no longer the case. 

“We ran a test Monday at Mountain View — we had 18 Chromebooks on one wireless hotspot with cameras on and streaming video and we were fine,” Fishtrom said. “I think the challenge that we’re going to have to iron through is how the audio’s going to work. I’m not worried about the video part anymore.”

He added that his team plans to run a similar test at Los Altos next week.

Fishtrom said that he anticipates students and teachers having trouble with audio latency that could cause echoes and feedback during class, which he said is inherent when using a platform such as Zoom. 

To combat that, students should generally keep their microphones muted when not speaking — a practice which school Zoom etiquette already requires regardless. The I.T. department will send out a full list of those best practices later this month after testing for specifics.

“We want to release everything at once and make it simple and clean … so teachers feel like ‘Okay, I’m going to follow these steps in the event that my audio messes up,’” Fishtrom said. 

He warned that the first few days of the hybrid return may be “a little rocky” as teachers and students acclimate to the new environment, but said that he’s spoken to personnel at the Palo Alto Unified School District — which already has high schoolers in full hybrid instruction — to hopefully learn lessons that he can apply to the April return.

“We expect WiFi to be far better than it has ever been, but we also need all staff and students to follow best practices,” he wrote in a later email. “WiFi is a science; we know we’ve made awesome improvements and sometimes when connections are a challenge, it is not necessarily the WiFi.”

Fishtrom also noted that a student’s experience on Zoom using a Chromebook is “far different” than that of a student using a Macbook or Windows machine, given the weaker processor and memory of Chromebooks; he said that he’s looking to purchase Chromebooks with more robust processors and memory to distribute in the future.

Through the pandemic, Fishtrom’s team has taken advantage of empty campuses to complete an extensive round of upgrades to the district’s networking infrastructure, including upgrades to “state-of-the-art” switches to support an increasing number of smart devices, software installed on all devices to protect against another ransomware attack and reconfiguration of switches and WiFi access points for more reliable internet connection.

“We’re here to support, we understand our role — we’re all in this together,” Fishtrom said. “We’re going to do our best to make it work for everybody, and we understand how important it is to put out the best we can.”

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