Nearly one year after the COVID-19 pandemic forced its closure, the Board of Trustees unanimously voted to have students return to Pleasanton Unified School District for in-person instruction starting next month.
Following an extensive discussion and public hearing at a special meeting on Thursday night, the trustees approved reopening for students in pre-K to grade 2 on March 4, followed by grades 3 through 5 on March 8. Families will still have the option to continue in remote learning, as required by state law.
"We're almost approaching a year for all of our students being remote," Trustee Kelly Mokashi said shortly before voting. "I'm a person that holds onto dates and I was really hoping we would not make the one-year anniversary of our children being remote. If we accept this motion, it's going to be a huge celebration for our children."
Assuming that Alameda County has been in the red tier of the state COVID-19 case monitoring system for five days, middle and high school students would return on March 11.
Superintendent David Haglund said, "I don't anticipate changing those dates unless we're forced to push it further out because we haven't got to (the red tier)."
New state guidance allows elementary schools to reopen while the county is in the purple tier, as long as the case rate is less than 25 per 100,000 people, but secondary schools must remain closed to in-person instruction while in the purple.
As of Thursday, the average adjusted case rate was 12.6 per 100,000, according to the Alameda County Public Health Department website. The county is currently still in the purple tier but case data has been recently trending downward.
In a statement on Friday, Haglund said the district is "encouraged by the continued downward trend in COVID-19 cases in our county."
"Our ability to welcome back more students to our schools and classrooms continues to depend on our collective efforts to remain vigilant in mask wearing, washing of hands and physical distancing," Haglund said.
"There will undoubtedly be bumps in the road and room for improvement, as we continue to align our campuses to state and county health department guidelines," Haglund added.
The public hearing Thursday evening yielded an assortment of opinions from community members, with several asking the board to consider certain timelines, particularly for teachers receiving COVID-19 vaccines.
Cora De Costa, who teaches biology at Amador Valley High School, said she was "fortunate enough to receive my first vaccination against COVID-19" last week, and asked the board to delay reopening, noting that reported side effects from the vaccine such as fever conflict with the district's current COVID-19 guidelines.
"Being that we cannot return to campus if we have a fever and our bodies require the time to build up immunity, I respectfully request that we return after March 29," De Costa said.
Hart Middle School teacher Emily Longnecker was also concerned about "teachers starting their vaccine and not going to be done with their vaccines before school starts," and then using their sick days "just to make sure that they get their second dose before going back to school."
"I can understand and respect that decision," Longnecker said, adding she was "thinking with both hats" as a parent and educator, but also wondered about "the disruption that will cause to have so many subs."
"I definitely don't want my daughter to have to endure transition, and a transition with a sub," Longnecker said. "I would ask you to consider the timeline, what's the most efficient way to open up. A smooth transition not just for the teachers, but for the students as well."
One parent of a fifth- and seventh-grader also echoed Longnecker's sentiments about giving teachers "just a little bit more time to get the vaccinations that they deserve."
"With teachers just eligible now, this timeline allows for greater vaccination coverage and greater safety for all," she said. "At a time when variants that may be more transmissible to children and women are becoming more prevalent, it seems like a pretty reasonable compromise."
Marilyn Weinstein said, "The majority of teachers who have been speaking in the previous meetings have been pretty vocal with their desire to either keep the plan as it was or not open for an even longer period of time."
Weinstein also stated there are "countless teachers" who have privately reached out "to tell me that they stand with me in my effort to get our kids back in the classrooms."
"I am sorry that you're not as comfortable coming forward for fear of how you may be treated," Weinstein said. "I'm not good at politics in any sense, so I'm not sure what politics are involved there that make you reach out to parents instead of being able to speak, but again, that's what I'm here for tonight."
Association of Pleasanton Teachers President Michelle VerKuillen drew the board's attention to another timeline: "Elementary schools are at the end of their second trimester; many assessments occur during this time so teachers can communicate student progress with their families," VerKuillen said. "It is important to not disrupt this process, so that families can receive this information in a timely manner."
VerKuillen also stated that returning to in-person learning "will be like the beginning of school," and advised parents to "talk with and prepare your children to understand this, to help them prepare for this shift."
As for secondary students, "there are many concerns around a lot of stable cohorts in the hybrid model," she added.
"When we read county guidelines for cohorting, it allows for one educational cohort and one extracurricular. Our educators seek clarity in how movement between classes supports this guideline," VerKuillen finished.
Toward the end of the night, Board President Joan Laursen said, "I believe that staff's recommendation is a measured recommendation, and I wholeheartedly support it."
"We don't believe what we are asking our staff to do is impossible," Laursen said, then adding "it's just a really challenging time for many of us."
Laursen then shared she had "just spent multiple days in the hospital" with a family member.
"I spent the night on a COVID ward in a hospital because they had moved my sister from the skilled nursing facility … and then when she was moved into the palliative care area, I was allowed to spend the night," Laursen said.
Laursen continued, "I'm sharing this only to tell you that we are all afraid, we are all concerned … but we're following the science."