What the upcoming school year will look like was the lingering question at an online meeting of the Pleasanton school board on Thursday that stretched until the stroke of midnight.
With some academic institutions going exclusively online for the 2020-21 school year, Pleasanton Unified School District has been deliberating what to do about local classrooms, culminating in a lengthy board discussion that evening on three possible learning scenarios for students next school year.
No board action was taken on the issue but Superintendent David Haglund said that no matter the outcome, "As we plan, we've got to be planning for that ability to make adjustments on the fly."
That sentiment was echoed by assistant superintendent Janelle Woodward, who said the district is finding itself at a place "where we'd really like to be able to make decisions. I know I'd feel better if I could tell all of our teachers and all of our parents exactly what we're going to be doing come fall, I think it'd be nice to get to that point."
But "there is a lot of information that we are still learning," and Woodward said the district has been looking at different approaches to reopening from other countries like New Zealand and U.S. states such as Maryland.
"We're really grounding our thinking in documents from the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), from the (American Federation of Teachers), from pediatricians that have written some journals on guidance for schools, so every day we're getting more and more information from the literature," Woodward continued, adding, "that will serve as our baseline and our foundation along with guidance from our state and local agencies."
The most extreme approach to teaching and learning possible for next year would involve schools that are currently dismissed remaining closed while 100% distance learning continues.
Grades and progress marks would be issued and daily schedules would be established; long term independent study would also be expanded. Assessments would also take place online, "or in small groups at school sites."
Woodward said the district has "work cut out to do" in order to "refine, strengthen and build a distance learning program, but we already have the opportunity to take that for a test-drive, so to speak."
After the presentation, Trustee Mark Miller said that teachers have done a "heroic job" with distance learning but the "overwhelming feedback" has been that the model is less effective than in-person instruction.
"I really feel that we need to not ask the question of 'can we bring students back to the classroom,' but 'how can we bring students back to the classroom safely,'" Miller said.
Miller continued, "It just feels like all of those options are going to put even more stress and strain on our employees, our teachers and our staff and our budget, and at a time when we're really facing potentially severe budget cuts. How can we logistically and financially afford to deliver on these models is, I guess, the question we really have to grapple with going forward."
With a hybrid approach, some local sites would remain open but with "enhanced social distancing measures," and only children living in the local geographic area would be allowed to attend. "This is when we can begin to bring some students back but not all students," she said. "We can expect that there's the need for social distancing and that we will not be able to have as many students in the classroom."
Block schedules or staggered classes, instruction or alternate days could help reduce the number of students in class at one time, as well as online classes offered as options in lieu of in-person instruction.
Non-contact athletics like tennis, golf and swimming could potentially resume, "following guidance" from the Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD). Independent study would be expanded for long term and students would receive letter grades as well.
Trustee Jamie Yee shared her concerns about "this mindset that we need to get back to the way it was or figure out how to do what we were doing before, and I think that maybe shuts down a lot of creative, innovative thinking if you approach it that way. I really think this is a chance to re-imagine education."
Noting that "rows of desks do not work for everybody," including teachers, Yee suggested matching up students and teachers into groups based on their preference for in-person or virtual instruction and learning.
Campuses would also stay open under the third hybrid approach but with distancing measures and the district would "restrict attendance to those from limited transmission areas."
Grades would also be given and independent study expanded, though athletics and other activities will be held per guidance from the ACPHD.
School meal delivery, sanitizing and disinfecting facilities, technology support, additional cost for staff, materials and supplies, and letting outside groups use district facilities during after-hours were among the items and impacts considered while the board evaluated the reopening options.
Recently, 640 faculty and staff members participated in a district-wide survey and "thought exchange exercise," during which they shared their most relevant considerations for administration to "keep in mind when structuring the school day or school wing."
Daily campus cleanings and more hired staff to give existing custodians more time and support at their jobs were among the top priorities listed.
The top four thoughts were all related "in some way to health and safety or cleaning" of school sites, according to Woodward. "Clearly what is on our employees minds is there is a desire to help instruct our students but we need to ensure the safety of everybody," she said.
Considerations will also be made for students in special education and those with 504 plans; an exclusive distance learning model would require alignment with the general education model, using additional training to support remote learning. The hybrid model would require smaller groups, PPE gear for paraeducators and others in close proximity, adjusting for transportation needs, and cleaning protocols.
The third option of returning most students to classroom "would be most challenging for students with disabilities, given the current ACPHD guidance --particularly our moderate-to-severe and preschoolers who require handling of close proximity and significant self-care needs (e.g. toileting, feeding and medical) and PPE needs," according to the district.
Returning to campus will also mean looking out for students who may have difficulty adjusting to a longer term hybrid model.
Assistant superintendent of student support services Ed Diolazo said the district will need to not only prepare for the impact of academic loss among students but also "focus on social and emotional loss brought on by social distancing and, for some of our students, realistically, social isolation."
"When we talk about kids who may be feeling like what is this new way of learning, there is some research showing that could be a problem so as staff and educators, we need be prepared for what are supports we're going to provide for students who may have this responsiveness of trauma-based emotions," Diolazo said.
Attendance is one issue that remains unresolved; truancy letters and related attendance meetings have ceased during school dismissal, with staff following up with students and families instead if a student has not been connecting to online classes or completing assignments.
The district is looking to receive guidance from the California Department of Education on the matter, but Diolazo said that staff have been reaching out when they feel some students are becoming disconnected from the distance learning format.
"We do have virtual support to help follow up with students who are experiencing being absent from classes," he said, but ultimately "we really need to rethink how we're going to take attendance."
A mix of thoughts and feelings about reopening local schools from the community written on comment cards were shared during the presentation.
Some residents said their experiences so far with distance learning have been positive while others said that "schools need to be reopened in August" for students' well-being, and "there is no way that 100% distance learning will work for the vast majority of students and its consideration creates an expectation that it is an option worthy of being studied."
An internal steering committee dedicated to the issue of school reopening will be assembled by the end of May. One commenter asked the district, "If teachers, staff and students are not key influencers, will the steering committee's conclusions and advisements be a factor in the decision to reopen?"