Life is progressively returning to normal for Pleasanton Unified School District, after the Board of Trustees voted Thursday evening to have middle and high school student cohorts on campus four days a week.
The unanimous decision will combine morning and afternoon cohorts of students enrolled in the hybrid instruction program and have them on-site four days a week effective April 19. Secondary students in hybrid learning, as well as preschoolers, have attended school in person two days a week since reopening.
"I know that it's very difficult for the teachers to be shifting and adjusting," Trustee Kelly Mokashi said before voting during the special board meeting. "It'll be like a third new day of school starting all over, so I know it's going to be a lot of work and preparation. I really think that this is a win-win for our students."
Students started returning to PUSD part-time on March 4; other local districts have expanded from two days a week to four since then, including San Ramon Valley Unified School District, for students that opted in for in-person instruction -- families were able to keep children in remote-only learning for the rest of the academic year amid the pandemic.
Daily schedules for both hybrid and remote programs will not change, nor will daily schedules for elementary students, who already attend school four days per week on an AM/PM schedule and receive additional time with specialists for science, music and P.E.
One parent and a student who phoned in during public comment Thursday both supported reopening secondary sites, while some PUSD staff and Association of Pleasanton Teachers President Michelle VerKuillen were opposed.
Though she agreed everyone "wants what's best for students," VerKuillen said she wondered "with this latest rush to change things yet again, with having been back in person for just a couple of weeks and with only 36 days left in the school year, if all the proper questions have been asked and all the unintended consequences considered for this latest proposal."
Because most students 16 years old and older are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine until mid-April in Alameda County, VerKuillen added most of them will not be vaccinated or fully vaccinated until the end of the school year, and asked the board to reconsider.
"My first priority as a teacher is to ensure my classroom is safe emotionally, socially and physically," said Harvest Park sixth-grade block teacher Laura Bolin, who then listed several reasons why she opposed combining cohorts, including the difficulty of keeping students 3 feet apart all day.
"There's a false perception in the community that class sizes will remain small," Bolin said, adding "many classes will be well over 18, and some will be over 25," including 22 students in her own block classes.
Secondary student Devansh Pandey argued that combining cohorts would give students "significantly" more hands-on laboratory time in science classes and improve group work in math.
"School reopening is incredibly important, and as someone who is going back to school right now, two days a week is, unfortunately good but not enough," Pandey said.
Parent Laura Hall said, "Schools are not super spreaders and this needs to be done to show teachers and the community that school can reopen safely."
"Why can't secondary go full day to all periods? Two hours of instruction a week for one subject is hardly what I call an education," Hall said.
Elementary kids go to school at PUSD four days a week but for less than three hours, which Hall also said isn't sufficient.
"Why can't they go longer; why can't they go full day? If desks are only 3 feet apart, why can't they get an hour in longer?" Hall said.
A motion to combine preschool cohorts the same as secondary cohorts failed in a 2-2 vote, with Board President Joan Laursen and Mokashi voting Yes, and trustees Steve Maher and Mary Jo Carreon opposed. Trustee Mark Miller was absent on Thursday night.
Carreon said she felt "really uncomfortable" about combining preschool cohorts, and read from a letter signed by multiple preschool teachers opposed to the plan.
"I feel really uncomfortable with them saying right here, they said, 'Please note most of our students are not able to wear masks because they have special needs, they are exempt'," Carreon said.
Maher shared his concerns about ensuring small children with special needs wear their face masks and maintain social distancing as well during the school day. He wondered if staff needed more time or other resources before changing course.
Mokashi said, "Thinking how to double their time with their teachers for that need of engagement is really powerful for me, which makes the 4-1 model very attractive. But some of the concerns we're talking about here -- the masking, the social distancing -- I think we just need to consider support structures."
Mokashi also wondered "what the core issue is from the teacher perspective."
"Is it the concern of the masking and that there's a sense of unsafety, or is it really, truly really more of a management to their specific learning needs and the adaptations they have to do in the classroom with their students?" Mokashi asked.
"Maybe there's some flexibility on what that looks like, but that to me is the driving force," Mokashi added. "They're 3- to 5-year-olds; their life has been impacted significantly for this last year with the pandemic. We want to help get them back to that lost mitigation of instruction time that they've suffered."
Carreon replied she was "just concerned because I feel like they're the experts, and they said that there was a meeting and they thought they came to an agreement, and then after the agreement it was something completely different than they talked about."
"These are the experts and I just want to be able to trust the people who are actually working with them, so that's my only concern," Carreon said.
Combining preschool cohorts has different challenges than for secondary grades, but Laursen said the district has additional dollars that could be allocated and that "perhaps something can be done to mitigate the mask wearing and some of that with additional supervision, but I'd really like to see the students with their teachers the four days."
The board ultimately voted 4-0 to expand to four days a week for secondary students, but kept preschool programs at two days a week in person.
At the end of the meeting, the district presented their reopener proposals in order to initiate formal negotiations with the APT for the 2021-22 school year, as required by the California State Collective Bargaining Act. The items included salaries, peer assistance and review, and the district calendar.
According to public documents, APT's "interest in exploring and modifying" the articles of agreement with PUSD this year concerns hours of employment, class size, salaries, and the calendar.