The decision diverged from staff's recommendation to have only students in pre-K through grade 5 come back to school this year while in the purple tier, once the adjusted case rate reaches less than 25 per 100,000 per day for at least five consecutive days, and for secondary grades to finish the year remotely with some exceptions such as students with individualized education program (IEP) plans.
As of Feb. 2, the adjusted case rate was 28.9 per 100,000 residents in Alameda County over a 7-day average -- a decrease from Jan. 5, which was 31.6 per 100,000 residents adjusted.
Instead of following staff recommendation, the board opted for the plan they adopted in December. Students would come back on a staggered basis, starting with pre-K through second grade, then grades 3 to 5.
In a message to PUSD families, Superintendent David Haglund said secondary students would begin returning to campus the following week, and that specific details for secondary return will be discussed at the Feb. 11 board meeting.
"As we progress through our phased reopening, we will continue to provide access to our small cohort program for students who are having difficulty accessing remote instruction," Haglund said. "In addition, secondary students will continue to have access to sports and co- curricular camps."
A survey will be sent to families to help the district "understand family intentions with regards to returning to school or continuing with remote learning options," Haglund added. "It is important that families complete these surveys as soon as possible, so we can incorporate their feedback into our ongoing planning processes."
Even though middle and high schools are allowed by the state to reopen once in the red tier, staff are hesitant to do so, according to assistant superintendent Janelle Woodward.
"There is lower transmission of COVID in the elementary schools, with less severity of illness in other students," Woodward said. "In the secondary schools, the mixing of students with multiple periods per day likely accounts for higher transmission rates in secondary."
"Creating stable groups that do not mix substantially mitigates the risk of spreading the virus," Woodward added.
Instead, staff focused on strengthening distance learning in the morning and eventually bringing back secondary students in small, stable, fixed groups for in-person activities in the afternoon.
Before voting that evening, Board President Joan Laursen said the plan from staff "feels to me like we're going backwards."
"People were comfortable with the reopening but then suddenly the rhetoric has been changing," Laursen said. "We actually know more now, we have better data about transmission, about how our students and staff are affected and whether or not it's safe to open school with the proper safety precautions, which we have implemented."
Laursen reminded the community that staff has been working "with our students for almost a year in person using the safety precautions, and they're safe."
"This is our job to provide education for our students and to keep our staff and students safe, and we have done that. I'm not in favor of keeping secondary in distance (learning) either," Laursen added.
Trustee Steve Maher echoed Laursen's comments; "I have grandchildren that have been telling me, 'Oh my goodness, when are we going back," Maher said.
Maher also voiced concerns about student mental health and those returning to campus for special reasons being "singled out" by their peers. "I don't want that to happen," he added.
Nearly 50 people including parents, students and teachers phoned in during public comment on Thursday. Many demanded the district reopen for secondary students and provide equal access to in-person learning while some implored the Trustees to wait things out.
District health services assistant Heather Brillhart said the new COVID-19 variants reaching the U.S. and timing of vaccine distributions should give administrators pause.
"The goal is to start vaccinating teachers in mid-February, but if it rolls out as planned, it won't be until mid-April at best that they've reached immunity," Brillhart said. "Please reconsider this proposal, it is not supported by current science nor approved yet by legislature. We are too close to the end of this pandemic to make poor choices now."
Other commenters though said their families have waited long enough.
"When our county was allowed to open schools back in October, who would have thought our district and board would still be talking about this three months later," said Laura Hall. "As we regrettably learned then, if we wait too long to open, we may miss the opportunity."
"Please don't wait until it's too late to allow our schools to open. Please don't wait for some imaginary bar to be reached," Hall said.
Sixth-grader Summer Brown promised to "do whatever it takes" to come back to school.
"I'll bring my hand sanitizer. I'll wear gloves. I'll wear a mask. I'll stay six feet apart. We need to go back to school," Brown said.
Before the meeting that evening, a group of parents held a rally in front of the district headquarters at the corner of First Street and Bernal Avenue, calling for PUSD to reopen all 15 sites. It was the group's most recent demonstration, having recently held another at the intersection of Hopyard Road and Valley Avenue. .