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  • 08/11/2020 1:27 PM | Cheryl Casagrande (Administrator)

    Some California districts, teachers struggle to agree on distance learning

    Labor agreements could determine whether students receive quality instruction

    DISTANCE LEARNING

    AUGUST 11, 2020
    JOHN FENSTERWALD
    1 COMMENT

    Add fraying nerves of school district and teachers union negotiators and parents worried about distance learning to the collateral damage of the pandemic.

    Never, say those involved, have talks over teacher working conditions been this challenging.

    Related

    Some California Teachers Asked To Return To Empty Classrooms During Distance Learning

    “A changing reality has created the biggest obstacle to negotiations,” said Shannan Brown, executive director of the San Juan Teachers Association, which represents teachers in the San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento County.

    Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in July that school districts would not open for in-person instruction in counties with rising Covid-19 infection and hospitalization rates. There are currently 38 counties on the state’s monitoring list.

    The prospect that a return to schools may not happen until winter or beyond has raised the stakes of getting distance learning right. There’s strong agreement that it must improve on the slapdash version that many students experienced when schools closed amid the pandemic in March.

    “We anticipate staff responsibilities and expectations to be more involved and rigorous than those required under the emergency school closure,” said the California Teachers Association in the preface to a sample contract sent to local teachers unions.

    But bargaining on what distance learning should look like, along with disagreements over side issues, like paying for teachers’ child care, has proved problematic, and agreements don’t go far enough, said Wesley Smith, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators.

    “I am encouraged by some agreements, but overall, I am worried for our students’ learning,” he said. “We cannot afford to lose a year and three months of quality academic instruction. If we don’t have the rigor and intentionality that we have with in-person instruction,” then there won’t be quality instruction for all students, he said.

    An underlying, often unstated, tension has been disagreement on which reopening and distance learning issues can be bargained. All districts have a contract with teachers that spells out the length of the day, instructional time and staffing issues like job transfers. Most districts view curriculum decisions as their prerogative.

    At the same time, changes in work conditions are bargainable, and a pandemic, forcing a shift to district learning, poses a huge change. So that has created gray areas and a lot of push and pull in negotiations. Prolonged talks in some districts have delayed the start of teacher training in distance learning.

    “School districts must guarantee the safety and health of students and employees and negotiate when working and learning conditions change,” CTA President E. Toby Boyd said in an interview this week.

    “There has been no other experience I have had where the line between what is negotiable has been as terribly blurred,” said Gregory Dannis, president of San Francisco law firm Dannis Woliver Kelley, who represents more than a dozen Bay Area school districts. “And CTA has been advising locals to push the line because of the impact on safety.”

    Changes in work day hours, restrictions on recording lessons and how — and if — teacher evaluations are performed are among the issues covered by existing contracts that appeared in union proposals for distance learning, he said.

    In a 10-page sample contract with language demanding safety protections and setting working conditions under all reopening scenarios, the CTA said, “It is an understatement to say that bargaining, and reaching lasting agreement, in the current environment are very difficult.”

    “Chapters have the moral high ground in this fight. Use that to the advantage of our members, students and communities,” the document said.

    And cite the existing agreement to your advantage, it advised. “Almost everything the district may want to do or attempt to change will likely already be covered by your collective bargaining agreement, if not directly at least tangentially. Make informed decisions” about whether to agree to changes or to enforce existing rights.

    Bargaining appears to have gone better in districts with strong working relationships, such as San Juan Unified, with a history of collaboration. “What is bargainable was not really an issue,” Brown said. District leaders and teachers broke into work groups “as partners” and co-created drafts of side letters to the contract in Google Docs for joint editing.

    “Both parties have been working to create clarity and consistency on what is expected in a way that helps our system be better and not gain an advantage over each other,” she said.

    But in districts with longstanding tensions, negotiations have been acrimonious. In Oakland Unified, the teachers union started school on Monday without an agreement on some fundamental issues. The district is proposing to maintain the current 6½ hour work day, while the Oakland Education Association is proposing to reduce it to 5, with 1½ hours of teacher wellness activities. The union is proposing to adopt the state’s minimum instructional hours, while the district wants to add 45 minutes in grades 4 to 12, including more live instruction.

    Working less than current requirement would be a contract violation, but, with talks continuing, the district hasn’t pressed the issue.

    Citing a lack of progress after two months of talks, Chris Evans, superintendent of Natomas Unified, near Sacramento, pushed back the start of school by two weeks and sent out an email to 1,200 employees on July 23, criticizing the teachers union for playing “games” and threatening to impose a distance learning plan consistent with the terms of the existing contract. That prompted quick talks and a memorandum of understanding on remote learning by the end of the day, Evans said.

    Within the past week, a number of large districts and their teachers unions — Los Angeles, West Contra Costa and San Diego — have announced they’d struck deals. And more are expected.

    In other districts, with the opening of school quickly approaching, teachers and district administrators are feeling the pressure of the clock and the anxiety of parents who want normalcy and predictability in their children’s schedules.

    For weeks, negotiators have been haggling over variations of the same questions:

    • How many minutes of instruction should there be daily?
    • How many of those minutes should be live and teacher-led versus independent student work?
    • What activities constitute instruction?
    • Should teachers record their online lessons for those students who miss them — and can districts legally order them to do so?
    • What should be the schedule for the rest of the day: office hours, teacher training and preparation time, social and emotional activities to address students’ mental health?
    • What does quality online learning look like and how can you write a memorandum of instruction to encourage that without being so prescriptive that it interferes with good teaching?

    In terms of daily schedules, the differences among the ratified agreements involve the range between the minimum time for instruction, a floor that the Legislature set in June, and the maximum workday in existing contracts, generally 6½ to 7 hours.

    Minimum requirements for instruction

    Having heard parents’ complaints that in many districts students had little direct contact with their teachers last spring, legislators set minimum standards for instruction for 2020-21 in a bill accompanying the budget: 3 hours and 50 minutes a day for first to third grades and 4 hours for fourth to 12th grades on a 180-day school calendar. The standards do not spell out how much of that instruction is live interaction between students and teachers.

    A coalition of civil rights and student advocacy organizations had urged Newsom and lawmakers to require a minimum of three hours of daily face-to-face instruction. But the Legislature did not distinguish between live interaction, including small group discussions, and students’ independent offline work, so that became a contentious negotiating issue.

    The Legislature also required that districts take daily attendance, set up procedures to reach students who are online fewer than three days each week, and include efforts to teach English learners.

    “Virtual instruction involves a huge learning curve for both teachers and students, and remote instruction did not go well last spring,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, which is tracking reopening plans for hundreds of districts and charter school nationwide. “MOUs have to ensure things go better this fall.”

    She said an agreement ensuring students get what they need would include at least 3 hours of live online instruction daily, professional development for all teachers, regular check-ins and virtual home visits with students and a parent or guardian, intensive tutoring support for struggling students, plus diagnostic assessments.

    Agreements reached over the past week in San Diego, San Jose and San Juan contain many of those elements, although San Juan gives teachers more flexibility to determine the mix of online and offline learning.

    What matters most, said Brown, is a student’s engagement time throughout the day to meet their specific needs — whether individual meetings with social workers and counselors, small group sessions for English learners and other resources beyond the classroom, she said.

    Yet for all of the energy and time it took to reach a deal on distance learning, agreeing on when to physically return to school promises to be even more contentious. That issue, for now, is simmering.

    Teachers and administrators all say they want to return to the classroom as soon as it is deemed safe. But who determines what is safe, for which students and how many of them, and under what conditions?

    In an agreement reached Wednesday, Palo Alto teachers and the district agreed on all issues concerning distance learning. But they continue to disagree on the school year; the Palo Alto Educators Association wants in-school instruction to begin no sooner than January; the district wants the option to begin in October, if Santa Clara County is no longer on the state watch list for high infection and coronavirus hospitalization rates.

    Superintendent Don Austin wants to be able to bring students with disabilities, foster students and other high-priority students back to school early in small groups. The union has rebuffed the idea.

    San Jose Unified Deputy Superintendent Stephen McMahon has expressed a similar interest. It is among a few districts that are asking teachers to conduct remote learning from their empty classrooms, to enable them to access high-speed broadband, tech support and to signal to students that school is still open and awaiting their return. Many other districts had proposed the same idea, including Los Angeles Unified, but retreated amid strong pushback from teachers fearful of possible Covid exposure. At the same time, United Teachers Los Angeles negotiated to send children of teachers to school for district-funded child care.

    Last week, CTA president Boyd said his organization would oppose any waivers for K-6 schools to open in counties being monitored by the state for high rates of the virus. Under state guidelines issued last month, districts can apply to open elementary schools under certain conditions even in counties on the state’s monitoring list.  Boyd reiterated that schools should not be reopened unless they are safe to return to.

    The CTA’s requirements for safety — masks and social distancing in schools, continuous deep cleaning, inspections of ventilation systems, monitoring of student and employee health by nurses and trained medical personnel — are extensive and would require more funding, Boyd said. The state is not close to meeting another requirement: extensive contact tracing of individuals exposed to someone who tested positive.

    Due to all those factors — plus teachers’ continuing fear of exposure — districts can expect another tough round of bargaining once their counties come off the state monitoring list.

    “Concentrating on distance learning helped to move us forward in the short run, but issues around the return to school will be there 6 weeks from now,” said Dannis, of Dannis Woliver Kelley.


  • 08/10/2020 2:06 PM | Cheryl Casagrande (Administrator)

    Los Angeles is ground zero for the interpretation of California’s new charter schools law

    L.A. Unified's school board is expected this week to approve a policy detailing how the district will implement AB 1505.

    CHARTER SCHOOLS

    AUGUST 10, 2020
    MICHAEL BURKE

    CREDIT: GREEN DOT PUBLIC SCHOOLS

    An English Language Arts class at Ánimo Jefferson Charter Middle School in Los Angeles. Officials with school's operator, Green Dot Public Schools, are disputing a new L.A. Unified policy that would make it more difficult for Green Dot to expand. But LAUSD leaders say they are simply complying with state law.

    With the upcoming school year already upended by the coronavirus pandemic, charter schools in Los Angeles are facing more uncertainty as they comply with a new state law.

    California’s new law imposing greater restrictions on charter schools, which took effect last month, faces pushback from charter schools in the district that’s home to the largest number of charter schools in the state. At issue is a draft of a new 80-page policy detailing how Los Angeles Unified plans to implement the law. The policy will be in front of the school board for a vote on Tuesday.

    L.A. Unified’s policy, which was developed by its charter school division and reviewed by the district’s general counsel, is likely to set the stage for how other districts across the state interpret the new law, Assembly Bill 1505. The law gives school boards more power to reject new charter schools and changes the process for renewing charter schools.

    Cassy Horton, a vice president of the California Charter Schools Association, in an interview with EdSource called L.A. Unified’s policy “deeply concerning,” saying it threatens to essentially put a moratorium on new schools and close some existing schools. Horton and other charter school supporters dispute the district’s interpretation of the law, arguing that the policy would add restrictions that they say are not in line with the new law, such as allowing the school board to consider the facilities a charter school plans to use when deciding whether to approve it. 

    District leaders, however, say their policy is consistent with the law, which has ambiguities that leave it open to interpretation. For example, the law allows school boards to deny a petition for a new charter school if the school is “unlikely to serve the interests of the entire community” but doesn’t define in detail what constitutes community interests, leaving much discretion to school boards to make that determination. 

    “Language is very subjective nowadays. Unless you say you must do something, there are exceptions,” Richard Vladovic, president of the L.A. Unified school board, said at a recent board meeting. “But as I read the law and I read the proposed implementation, it followed the law.”

    The policy is being praised by the California Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers across the state and has called for limiting charter school growth. The final version of AB 1505 was viewed as a compromise between the CTA and the California Charter Schools Association after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s staff negotiated for months with both groups. 

    L.A. Unified’s school board is expected to vote to approve the policy this week, but other key factors that will play a role in how the policy is ultimately implemented won’t be settled for months. 

    Two board seats, in Districts 3 and 7, are up for election this November and one of the biggest issues framing the races will be charter schools and how to handle efforts to expand school choice.

    By next year, L.A. Unified and other districts will also likely get additional guidance from the California Department of Education, which is currently drafting regulations to help districts interpret and implement the law. 

    Disagreements over L.A. Unified’s policy may also be settled in the courts. Julie Marsh, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, said she has “thought all along that we will see litigation” sometime in the future.

    “I think there’s plenty of opportunity for litigation down the line, whether it’s around being denied a petition based on fiscal impact and the way a district interprets that, whether it’s based on a disagreement with the way the district determined serving the interest of the community or whether it’s over a school getting denied renewal,” she said. 

    Charter school critics say L.A. Unified’s policy will benefit the district by giving the school board more authority to regulate charter schools, which have grown rapidly in Los Angeles. With 277 charter schools, the district has more charter schools in its jurisdiction than any school district in the nation. 

    Erika Jones, a board member for the California Teachers Association and a teacher in Los Angeles, said she’s hopeful L.A. Unified will be able to limit the growth of charter schools under the district’s new policy. 

    “We can’t sit here and deny that L.A. Unified is oversaturated with charter growth,” Jones said. “To have the district be committed to holding themselves accountable to the community they’re serving, I think that’s important.”

    Last year, Jones served on a state charter school task force convened by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond that helped inform the final version of the law. The task force also included individuals from charter school operators, other unions and superintendents. 

    CREDIT: GOV. NEWSOM'S FACEBOOK FEED

    Newsom holds AB 1505 after signing it last year. Directly to the right are Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell and State Supt. Tony Thurmond. California Charter Schools Association CEO Myrna Castrejón is third to the left and CTA President Toby Boyd is second to the left.

    With so many charter schools within L.A. Unified, the district essentially has a “dual school system” that puts district schools in competition with charter schools, according to board member Jackie Goldberg, who is often critical of charter schools.

    “We have one system that has never had much accountability,” Goldberg said, referring to charter schools. “And now it does, finally.”

    But charter school leaders argue that the district’s policy would add regulations that do not follow the letter of the law. Their biggest concern is that the policy allows the school board to consider a charter school petitioner’s facilities plan and reject the petition if it determines that the plan doesn’t benefit the community where the school proposes to locate. That applies to both new charter schools and existing schools that try to move to a new facility. 

    Marcia Aaron, CEO of KIPP SoCal, one of the largest operators of charter schools in L.A. Unified, said KIPP schools often start out in temporary locations before moving to permanent sites. Now, she said it will be more difficult for schools to change facilities if L.A. Unified’s policy is implemented as currently written. 

    Aaron described a hypothetical situation where KIPP has financed and built a new facility for an existing school to move into, only to have the facilities plan rejected by the school board. Aaron said KIPP would then be left paying for two facilities: The facility where the school is already operating and the new building. 

    “And the ramifications of that are significant, because you can’t afford two sites,” Aaron said, adding that some KIPP schools in Southern California “have had to move four or five times in their lifetime.” 

    The new policy may also make it more difficult for charter schools to share campuses with district schools, known as co-location. If a charter school wants to co-locate on a district campus, the charter school must provide “detailed information and analysis regarding the specific” district site where it wishes to locate, according to the policy.

    The district will then have the option to reject the charter school’s petition if it deems that sharing space with a charter school isn’t in the best interest of the district school. The district could come to that conclusion if, for example, the presence of a charter school would limit the ability of students in the district school to access science and computer labs. 

    The union representing teachers in the district, United Teachers Los Angeles, has called for a moratorium on new co-locations during the coronavirus pandemic. The union argues that co-locations would make it more difficult to follow public health protocols, such as physical distancing, since students from two schools would be sharing one campus.

    Goldberg said the district has no choice under the new law but to consider facilities because of Proposition 39, the state law approved by voters in 2000 that requires districts to offer facilities to charter schools that are “reasonably equivalent” to other district facilities.

    “If there’s no Prop. 39, we couldn’t include facilities, but there is Prop. 39, so you have to include facilities,” Goldberg said. “How could you not include facilities? What if you don’t have any space where they want to be?”

    Some existing charter schools in Los Angeles feel at risk of being shut down completely under the new law.

    Based on their performance on the California School Dashboard, existing charter schools are grouped into one of three categories: high-performing, middle-performing or low-performing. The dashboard is the state’s system for assessing school performance based on multiple factors, including test scores, suspensions and college readiness.

    Under the law, high-performing charter schools will generally be renewed and low-performing schools will generally not be renewed, unless they can convince the school board that they are making significant progress. School boards have more leeway with middle-performing schools, which are by far the biggest group of charter schools in L.A. Unified. A school board can deny renewal to a middle-performing school only if it determines that the school “has failed to meet or make sufficient progress” and that closing the school is in the interest of the students, according to the law.

    When evaluating middle- and low-performing schools, school boards must give significant weight to measures of academic performance on the dashboard, such as standardized test scores. Charter school advocates want the district to also consider student growth — data the district collects that measures how individual students progress from year to year

    Charter school supporters hope the California Department of Education will encourage districts to consider growth data. The department is currently developing regulations that are expected to provide more clarity to school districts as they move to implement the law. 

    Thurmond wrote in a memo to the State Board of Education dated May 29 that department staff “has reached out to stakeholders to solicit written feedback on the areas where regulations may be needed and is in the process of reviewing comments.” A department spokesperson said in an email that the department is expected to propose regulations to the state board by January.

    Cristina De Jesus, the CEO of Green Dot Public Schools, an operator of 15 charter schools in Los Angeles, said growth data is the best measure of academic performance at Green Dot schools. Eleven Green Dot schools in Los Angeles are deemed middle-performing while four fall under the low-performing category. 

    “I will say that each of the schools that we have, I stand behind the excellent work that’s happening every single day, and a closer look at year-over-year student growth actually tells that story,” she said. 

    MICHAEL BURKE/EDSOURCE

    Apex Academy in Hollywood. The school, which shares a campus with Bernstein High School, could be denied renewal in 2022, its executive director Alfonso Paz acknowledges.

    To avoid being closed, low-performing schools will have to demonstrate to the school board that they are “taking meaningful steps to address the underlying causes” of their low performance, the district’s policy states. They must also present “clear and convincing data” that demonstrates either increases in academic achievement or strong postsecondary outcomes, according to the district’s policy. 

    Alfonso Paz, executive director of one of the district’s low-performing charter schools, Apex Academy in Hollywood, said he is “100% concerned” that the school will be closed when it is up for renewal in 2022. Apex Academy in 2019 scored below average on several areas of the dashboard, including graduation rates and student performance on both math and English standardized tests.

    “It is literally the death knell for us if we don’t fight back,” Paz said.

    School board member George McKenna said he believes many of the low-performing charter schools are trying, “but their results are embarrassingly low.”

    “I’ve tried to help them by saying we’ll give you another shot at the apple,” McKenna said in a school board meeting last month. “But we’re down to the core now.”

    To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.


  • 08/10/2020 2:03 PM | Cheryl Casagrande (Administrator)

    Rural California schools prepare for possible in-person teaching

    BY RICARDO CANOAUGUST 6, 2020

    A fifth grade class does classwork outside while social distancing at Bishop Unified in Inyo County over the summer. Photo courtesy of Bishop Unified School District

    IN SUMMARY

    While many school districts in the state’s more populous areas have been essentially forced to start the school year teaching remotely, more sparsely populated have options.

    Students lined up in front of six tables spaced 20 feet apart across Bishop Union High School’s sprawling front lawn. School employees processed their registration packets, braving triple-digit heat on a sunny Tuesday afternoon.

    Kids mingled for the 15 or so minutes they were there. They purchased yearbooks, picked up ID cards and only took off their face masks when it was time to show a photographer their smiles for their annual pictures. 

    Occasionally, the voice of Wanda Summers, the principal’s secretary, boomed friendly reminders through the intercom. Remember to maintain social distancing unless you come from the same household, she said. Make sure your face masks cover your nose. 

    “A little bit of normalcy is what it seemed like,” Summers said. “It’s our registration day. We do this every year.”

    Reopening decisions

    The vast majority of California’s public and private schools will begin the new academic year remotely as coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to mount. But a handful of schools, such as those in Inyo County’s Bishop Unified School District, will be among the first in the state to reinstate physical school reopenings, offering case studies on when and how to safely bring children and adults back to campuses.

    More than 97% of California’s 6.1 million K-12 students live in the 38 counties on the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list, effectively shutting the door on in-person instruction until their counties stabilize infection rates and stay off the list for 14 days. The other 164,000 students live in the 20 counties not on the watch list. 

    In Bishop — an Owens Valley town at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains in a remote county that has largely avoided the virus — classrooms will be in session.

    Wearing face masks and sitting spaced apart around a horseshoe table, the Bishop school board last Thursday decided in a 4-hour meeting to give parents in the district of 2,000 students an option of full-time distance learning or hybrid scheduling, in which students attend class in person for part of the week and learn remotely for the other portion. 

    “We’re privileged to be in a county that has a low (positive test) rate and we have this opportunity to do it. A lot of places in the state don’t even have the option,” said Taylor Ludwick, a school board member and veterinarian.

    “There are risks in every business … and they’re scary,” he said. “It’s not an easy proposition to wrap your mind around, but I think the stakes are too high for these kids to not go to school.”

    Rural differences

    Back-to-school season in California and the rest of the country is happening at a time when dozens of states are experiencing surges in cases, prompting thousands of school districts, including 12 of the nation’s 15 largest systems, to begin the year remotely.

    Schools in at least two other states had students test positive for coronavirus within a day of reopening. Students’ return to school has been raised as a possible cause of a coronavirus resurgence in Israel, as well. Without federal help, a sustained decline in cases and extensive testing and contact tracing measures, school officials around the country have cast doubt on whether schools can safely reopen and stay open.

    California’s massive public school system is home to the nation’s second-largest school district as well as hundreds of small districts, some with as few as five students, each with diverse communities.

    The challenges rural districts in Bishop and Lone Pine face in reopening might not apply to large, urban schools in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. But just about every California school district and community at some point this year will likely be in the same shoes as Bishop, grappling with the decision over whether and how to physically reopen schools once they have the green light from the state public-health authorities.

    “We’ll find out if they will provide more comfort or anxiety for the rest of the state as these schools go back in session,” said Tim Taylor, executive director of the Small School Districts Association. “Everybody’s thinking of worst-case scenarios. Maybe when we get schools started, these example schools that are going face-to-face can provide us with some relief and reduce our anxiety.”

    Many of the state’s rural schools have additional space to spread out classrooms and meet social distancing guidelines requirements, partially because of declining enrollments in remote communities, Taylor said.

    As has been the case throughout the pandemic, there is a wide variance in how the 200 school districts in the 20 counties not on the state watchlist are choosing to start the new year.

    In Northern California’s Lake County, for example, four of the six school districts decided to begin the year with distance learning, with plans to phase into a hybrid model.

    “Everybody’s thinking of worst-case scenarios. Maybe when we get schools started, these example schools that are going face-to-face can provide us with some relief.”

    TIM TAYLOR, SMALL SCHOOL DISTRICTS ASSOCIATION

    In Shasta County, the Redding and Shasta Union High school districts will offer in-person instruction, with the latter planning to have students in class five days a week. Shasta Union does plan on requiring students and teachers to wear masks, configuring classrooms to be more spread out and forbidding personal contact between students, among other rules. 

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    Six of 15 school districts in El Dorado County will offer hybrid scheduling, with the rest beginning under full-time distance learning. Buckeye Union Elementary, about 45 minutes east of Sacramento, is the largest California school district currently not affected by reopening restrictions. The district’s 8,900 students will begin with distance learning and school officials will consider physically reopening campuses once El Dorado County can test people for the virus and process results within 48 hours and its infection rates fall below 100 positive cases per 100,000 residents.

    Mariposa County Unified School District, about 170 west of Bishop, will also begin under full-time distance learning. In a July 27 letter to families, superintendent Jeff Aranguena said that while the state provided “guidance and mandates for when a school or district must close its campuses, both the governor and (California Department of Public Health) have not provided mandates and metrics for when it is safe to reopen.” 

    Schools, he added, still need more direction to make responsible decisions for reopening.

    Part of the Mariposa district’s distance learning decision had to do with the wariness that the county — home to Yosemite National Park where recent evidence of the virus’ presence has surfaced — could likely end up on the state’s monitoring list. Another factor was that the district simply did not have all the logistics figured out to bring students back in person by August 20, the first day of school.

    The district, which started last school year two bus drivers short, still doesn’t have enough drivers for the additional routes that would be required to transport students under social distancing practices. Some small, remote schools such as Yosemite National Park Valley Elementary — with 34 students — could potentially bring students back sooner.

    “We have a lot of hurdles to get through to get to that point,” Ceci Archer, executive assistant to the district’s superintendent, said.

    Applying for waivers

    The Lucerne Valley Unified School District lies in San Bernardino County’s high desert, a school district of 750 students in the geographically largest county in the U.S. The community in the district would like to physically reopen, but its path to doing so is difficult. 

    San Bernardino County is on the state’s watch list, but even schools in those counties have a path for reopening classrooms for K-6 students through elementary school waivers

    Schools can submit waivers, which the state introduced in its July 17 rules for reopening schools, if they can attest that they have support from local teacher and employee unions and parent and community groups. Though county health officers will make those case-by-case calls, the state is recommending that counties should not consider approving any waivers if their infection rates are above 200 cases per 100,000 residents.

    “Rushing into reopening schools is simply reckless.”

    JEFF FREITAS, PRESIDENT OF THE CALIFORNIA FEDERATION OF TEACHERS

    Peter Livingston, superintendent of the Lucerne Valley Unified School District, said the process effectively prevents his district from offering in-person instruction despite strong support from the district’s teachers, parents and employees.

    Livingston applied for a waiver to physically reopen Lucerne Valley Elementary the same day Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled the new mandates in a long-shot attempt to begin the Aug. 6 first day of school on campuses for the youngest students. About 87% of teachers support a hybrid or full return to campus, Livingston said, adding that 6 in 10 families surveyed said they wanted in-person learning.

    But while there are about 55 confirmed coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents within Lucerne Valley’s 750 square miles, according to figures the county health department shared with Livingston, the county as a whole had a rate of 239 cases per 100,000 residents as of Saturday.

    “We’re being lumped into the category of the large metropolitan areas down by San Bernardino, and we’re far from that,” Livingston said.

    The state introduced these elementary school waivers pointing to research that shows children age 12 and under are at lower risk of contracting, spreading and suffering severe complications from the virus. The waivers, however, have come under fierce pushback from the state’s two teachers unions and some school facilities experts who noted the waivers’ approval don’t consider critical factors such as whether classrooms have proper ventilation.

    “Rushing into reopening schools is simply reckless,” said Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, calling the waivers “a major mistake.” 

    “Decisions about reopening schools must be guided by a singular goal of keeping our students, our families, and our communities safe,” he said. “Unfortunately, the state’s recent guidance and waiver allowances fall short.”

    Teacher buy-in

    In Bishop, Superintendent Katie Kolker said the district learned many lessons from operating socially distant summer schools. For one, she said, “students need frequent mask breaks.” They need time to be outside, distanced, without their coverings. An elementary school principal suggested that students have lanyards around their masks so they’d be less likely to misplace them, a practice that quickly caught on.

    Kolker isn’t sure whether larger cohorts of students will maintain their distance during unstructured parts of the day — like lunch — without supervision, but adding more adults or a hall monitor to keep tabs doesn’t seem appealing, either. “People policing at all times is not going to create a very welcoming environment,” she said.

    The former guidance counselor and alternative school principal has wondered both how students with unstable living conditions have fared during the pandemic and how depressed and anxious Bishop students are.

    “If we weren’t trying really hard (to reopen), we’d be doing a disservice to our community because these kids, they need us,” Kolker said.

    Stacy Van Nest, a math teacher at Bishop High who’s also the school’s athletic director and president of the district’s teachers union, said many logistics still need to be hammered out. The key question yet to be completely resolved is how teachers in the district will balance in-person classes while overseeing students in distance learning. 

    Though the district is considering dipping into its reserves to hire more teachers to reduce workloads and lower class sizes further, “the bottom line is we’re all doing more,” Van Nest said.

    About nine in 10 teachers were on board with trying to offer hybrid classes, Van Nest said, though Kolker acknowledged some teachers are concerned about returning in person.

    “Our teacher working conditions are our students’ learning conditions, so we want to make sure that it’s the best that it possibly can be for everyone,” Van Nest said.

    An Aug. 18 in-person start, though less than two weeks away, is far from guaranteed. Complicating reopening plans, the local county health department on Monday warned that a rise in cases could land Inyo County on the state’s monitoring list if cases keep growing.

    Sometimes, it feels inevitable that the district would have to shut down campuses again, Kolker said. Even a temporary in-person return to schools would help build relationships among students and teachers, making distance learning a more satisfying experience. Unpredictability, she said, will be a constant theme this school year.

    As Tuesday’s registration day wound down at Bishop Union High, Summers and the school registrar quickly leafed through the packets families turned in. Most of the school’s 650 students opted for in-person instruction, she said.

    Summers, the president of the local classified employees union who will celebrate her 60th birthday in late August, is a “little apprehensive” about physical school reopenings, noting her age puts her at risk. An informal survey of school employees found many supported the district’s efforts, but were most concerned by the sheer uncertainty of what will happen once schools reopen.

    When students return to Bishop Union High for the first day of school, they will see signage posted on walls telling them which directions they should be walking in. Several handwashing stations will be placed across campus. Hand sanitizer will be in every classroom. A thick wall of plexiglass now separates Summers’ desk counter from visitors. 

    “I think we’re on the road to being thoroughly prepared,” Summers said. “But can you really be thoroughly prepared for this?”


  • 08/05/2020 2:14 PM | Cheryl Casagrande (Administrator)

    California health officials list conditions for an elementary school waiver

    County health officials would require schools to satisfy a long list conditions.

    CORONAVIRUS

    AUGUST 4, 2020
    JOHN FENSTERWALD
    5 COMMENTS

    PHOTO: MYUNG J. CHUN/LOS ANGELES TIMES/POLARIS

    Sean Brandlin, 8th grade social studies at El Segundo Middle School after his school closed last spring.

    The article was updated on Tuesday, Aug. 4 with comments from the president of the California Teachers Association and the state's top health officials.

    The California Department of Public Health issued information Monday on what it would take for elementary schools to open for in-person instruction in counties where schools otherwise would be closed because of high rates of the coronavirus infection.

    The new requirements are extensive, and the sample application form is lengthy. County public health directors will have latitude to phase in schools’ plans and limit the number of schools that can open in their counties.

    Related

    California Districts Can Seek Waiver For Elementary Schools From Ban On In-School Instruction

    The state document also recommends, with a passage in bold print, that county health departments prohibit any exceptions in counties where the numbers of coronavirus infections are more than 200 cases per 100,000 population. That’s twice the rate of the current threshold that puts counties on the school closure list and would rule out elementary school waivers for 14 of the 38 counties currently on the state’s monitoring list. They include hot spots Kern (429 cases per 100,000) and Los Angeles (338 cases per 100,000) counties, along with Riverside, San Bernardino, San Joaquin and Santa Barbara counties. Fresno County is close to the threshold.

    At a press conference Tuesday with Gov. Gavin Newsom, Dr. Erica Pan, the state’s epidemiologist, went further than the report. Pan said flatly that schools in counties where cases are above the 200 threshold would not be eligible for waivers.

    Also on Monday, state health officials published guidance that will permit some youth sports to resume. School-based and club sports will be permitted if 6 feet between individuals can be maintained with a stable cohort of participants, such as a class of students. Sports and other outdoor activities that require close contact are not allowed. Events that promote congregating — such as tournaments — are also not permitted. The guidance comes after the California Interscholastic Federation announced last month that fall high school sports would be postponed until 2021.

    The possibility of obtaining an elementary school waiver from countywide school closures appeared as a one-paragraph footnote on the first page of a five-page guidance that the state issued July 17. The document detailed the process for re-opening schools in counties that have been placed on a minimum 14-day monitoring list because of criteria measuring the spread of the coronavirus.

    There was immediate interest from small private schools, dependent on tuition. Traditional school districts in rural counties and districts interested in sending to school small groups of children who have struggled with distance learning — foster children, English learners and students with disabilities — could be candidates as well.

    “There is widespread interest; most private schools resume campus-based instruction at the earliest date conditions are deemed safe to do so,” said Ron Reynolds, executive director of the California Association of Private School Organizations.

    Reynolds characterized the safety protocols for the waiver as “appropriate, rigorous, comprehensive and thoughtful — in line with what I had expected.”

    “Erring on the side of caution is warranted, but with a path forward if conditions are met,” he said, adding, “Some schools will find (the conditions) harder to accept than others; private schools encompass a wide range of views.”

    In a statement Tuesday, E. Toby Boyd, president of the California Teachers Association, made his view clear: CTA opposes granting any waivers for reopening.

    “We have said all along, California cannot reopen schools unless it is safe. That applies to all schools on county watch lists or not, and to school districts seeking waivers from adhering to California Department of Public Health guidance,” he said in a statement.

    Boyd disputed the evidence that young children are less likely to infect others. “Now, with the cases of children who have been infected with Covid-19 in childcare right here in California, in Texas, as well as the students in Georgia, we can NO LONGER SAY, kids aren’t transmitters,” he said. And he warned that granting waivers to schools with the resources to open safely “would exacerbate the racial and economic inequities that exists in our schools and communities.”

    The guidance lists conditions that must be met in applying for a waiver. They include:

    • A school or district must publish a school’s reopening plan online and, before applying, consult with parents, community organizations and teachers or, in the case of school districts, employee unions. Although CTA and the California Federation of Teachers oppose waivers from school closures, the guidance doesn’t require their consent to apply. Schools must provide proof that they did seek their perspectives with the applications.
    • Applications should be submitted at least 14 days before the planned date to reopen.
    • The application will apply only to TK to sixth grade, even if the school includes seventh and eighth grades. “Based on the current best available scientific evidence, Covid-related risks in schools serving elementary-age students (grades TK-6) are lower than and different from the risks to staff and to students in schools serving older students,” the department said in an FAQ accompanying the guidance. The school must show evidence that it would comply with all the safety and hygiene requirements for opening elementary schools, as listed in the CDPH/CalOSHA Guidance for Schools and School-Based Programs. These include a 6-foot social distancing requirement, face covering requirements, staff training and family education and student and staff testing.

    In Santa Clara County, where the county superintendent of public schools and the director of public health sent out a letter inviting public and private school officials to apply for the waiver, the Diocese of San Jose plans to apply on behalf of all Catholic schools in the region, and the Khan Lab School, an in-person small private school, is pursuing a waiver to teach children outside in tents, founder Sal Khan told EdSource last week.

    San Jose Unified, the county’s largest district, and Palo Alto Unified have no immediate plans to pursue a waiver, administrators said.

    Napa County Superintendent of Schools Barbara Nemko, said Tuesday that 11 private schools in that county indicated they would apply for a waiver. However, the county public health department notified them that no waivers would be considered until later in August or September because of fast-increasing incidents of coronavirus, she said. No public schools have indicated an interest in a waiver, she said.

    The Mercury News reported Wednesday that Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties would not consider waiver applications until data on the pandemic decline.

    Also during the press conference Tuesday, Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s Health and Human Services secretary, said that California has learned from other states about transmission of the virus, especially among young children. He said some outbreaks in other states have occurred after children participated in indoor activities such as singing and chanting without face coverings, which has led California to recommend moving some activities outdoors or avoiding them altogether.

    In addition, he said California has learned that it is best to keep as much distance as possible between students, to minimize mixing among groups, and ideally to keep groups very small at four to eight people.

    EdSource reporter Theresa Harrington contributed to updating this article. 


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