With Alameda County making its way onto the red tier of the state's color-coded coronavirus monitoring list last week, Pleasanton Unified School District is planning a small cohort supervision pilot program to support prioritized groups of students with remote learning onsite.
The pilot is not an instructional program but will allow staff to provide physical supervision and support for certain students at PUSD sites. Only teachers can instruct students, and will do so remotely, but classified staff will be physically present and supervise during distance learning.
Superintendent David Haglund told the Board of Trustees during Thursday's online meeting, "The goal outside of the special needs cohorts is to have somebody there that can make sure that (students are) logged on, can make sure they're staying engaged with their teacher -- so supervision of the learning as opposed to delivery of the instruction."
Haglund explained the state gives the ability of districts to reach out to students who are struggling with accessing remote learning, even if they're in the most restrictive purple tier.
"There's a real wide category there because you struggle with accessing remote learning for a lot of reasons," he added, including students who lack access to technology and the internet, or struggle to access the curriculum.
Certain groups such as English learners, disabled students, foster and homeless youth and those in poverty "were identified as groups that would fit into those small remote support groups," according to the superintendent.
"The bottom line is, we have the ability to open up small cohorts, less than 16, including the adults in the room," Haglund said.
The district is aiming to have specific groups of students on campus by mid-October. Only a maximum of 25% of the campus can be engaged in the pilot at any one time, "so you can't just bring everybody back," Haglund said.
"Reopening schools is not allowed at this point in time -- these small cohorts are, but it's limited in the number of students that you can bring back," he added.
During a presentation Thursday night, assistant superintendent Janelle Woodward said, "There's a possibility it may be able to happen earlier, but that does depend upon a number of factors."
The Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD) has indicated that it would withhold approval for reopening until a plan ensuring safety for students and staff is in place, including proper cleaning, staff testing and contact tracing, and triggers for switching classes or schools back to remote learning if needed.
Both the state and ACPHD are responsible for issuing the initial 'go-ahead' to school districts, but Trustee Mark Miller noted during board discussion that "it's up to the school district to finally make the decision whether or not we're ready to reopen."
"It may seem like it's easy, we've passed these criteria, but there's still so many hurdles to get past before we can do what we all want to do, which is bring kids back to school," Miller said.
Only a limited number of students in small cohorts will be allowed for the program, and Woodward said how many and which campuses host it "will depend on staffing so that we can adequately support our students with the type of learning environment that we would like to provide."
Ed Diolazo, assistant superintendent of student support services, called the pilot "an opportunity to start thinking about how do we bring our students back to school." Though targeted at specific student groups, Diolazo said staff must think about who would be best served by the program.
"We don't know yet who we're bringing back, but that's a big component of this, is really thinking about who are the students that we want to target to receive these specialized supports," Diolazo said. "Students with disabilities, it's a range, it's a spectrum of services we provide … we're trying to determine who are those students that fit this model."
Diolazo said staff are "leaning towards our students in our special day classes, our moderate severe population, our mild moderate population of students, mainly because of the structure they're already in."
"They're in the stable groups, they're in what we call self-contained classrooms, they can travel together, eat together, have the same staff that support them, so we're leaning towards that student population in special education as one of the students that we will target to return into this cohort," he said, adding, "of course parents have to agree to it, we're thinking about how to staff it … that's what we're really thinking about."
The pilot program could also be an opportunity to bring back students receiving vision, speech and language services as well as occupational therapy.
Mandatory COVID-19 testing for staff "is a bigger hurdle," according to Haglund, who said the district is "currently pursuing options, as is the county, as is the state, to try to figure out the solution to solve that particular problem."
Trustee Valerie Arkin said, "I know it's a challenge, so I'm assuming the county just does not have the capacity" and asked if the recent infusion of CARES Act funding could be used to pay for testing.
Assistant superintendent of business services Ahmad Sheikholeslami replied, "We're trying to look at it from multiple fronts, and the CARES Act dollars can be utilized for testing. However, at $200 or so a test, and doing 25% a week, those dollars will quickly be depleted."
The district has also contacted the county, but Sheikholeslami said "they currently do not have the capacity to do the level of testing we need."
PUSD has also initiated drafting a request for proposals (RFP) "so we can go out to the private market and ask them to see if there's capacity," he added.
Staff has also been "forward thinking" about the district's HVAC systems, which were recently evaluated by a contractor, according to Sheikholeslami. Since then, all elementary schools have adjusted their HVAC systems to the maximum fresh air intake their units could handle, which would be at 50%.
"However, the challenge now that we face is to acquire and install the recommended MERV-13 filters," Sheikholeslami said. "Some of these regulations and procedures just came out last week, so many school districts are now, and other businesses, are scrambling to upgrade their filter systems, so that is an area that we are actively working and trying to acquire.
"Additionally, initially even HEPA filters, and these standalone units are also pretty much backordered due to both the fires and other situations," Sheikholeslami added.
Board President Steve Maher asked if classrooms would need to be reconfigured to maintain physical distancing, to which Sheikholeslami replied, "We'll most likely have to move furniture around so we can have the distancing that's required, so we've been looking at thinning out the classroom furniture and that kind of stuff."
Haglund then clarified that "the purpose of the stable cohorts is so the physical distancing is not as important.
"If they're in stable cohorts and there's no new kids coming in, the county does not require the same type of physical distancing of the students," Haglund said.
Sheikholeslami also added that plexiglass partitions reportedly used in other classrooms are not being considered: "The face masks are the preferred method because the aerosol can move around the room."