But as COVID-19 surges across the state, major districts from Los Angeles and San Diego to Oakland are announcing plans to bring kids back to their home computers instead of the campus, and worried teachers are forcing others like San Jose to reconsider a return to the classroom.
With districts expected to finalize plans in the next week or so, pressure is mounting to at least start the year with teaching online. A Bay Area News Group survey of 91 local districts found about 20 already are planning to start instruction online. Many are still deciding.
“In early May, many teachers including myself thought that we would go back and felt comfortable,” said Chandru Vittalbabu, a speech-language pathologist at Vargas Elementary School in Sunnyvale. “Now, with the surge of cases since June, most teachers are very concerned about going back.”
On Tuesday, Vittalbabu submitted a letter to Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody signed by more than 1,300 parents and teachers throughout the county urging her to close schools until the pandemic is under control.
Also Tuesday, 39 teacher unions in Alameda and Contra Costa counties announced standards they say must be met before schools can reopen safely, similar to those voiced in Santa Clara, Marin, Solano and other counties.
Keith Brown, president of the Oakland Education Association and a teacher at Bret Harte Middle School in Oakland, which will start the year Aug. 10 teaching online, said districts aren’t prepared to safely welcome kids back to class.
“We want to return to the classroom because that’s where learning takes place,” Brown said. “But we want to make sure our schools are safe.”
Concerns range from the recent rise in cases, boosting the likelihood of infections, to questions whether schools will have the means to provide physical distancing, sanitizing and other measures to keep the virus in check, Brown said.
“In Oakland and Alameda County with rising numbers of COVID cases, it’s not safe for our students, families and educators and school staff to physically return to the school site,” Brown said. “We need to make sure we’re able to have the needed testing and contact tracing. We need investments in our schools to make sure we have the needed equipment, proper classroom ventilation, proper soap and hand sanitizer, also to make sure we have physical space for the physical distancing — that’s very important with middle school students.”
The Sunnyvale district has yet to finalize plans for the fall, but Vittalbabu’s letter outlined a number of practical concerns about bringing kids back to class. Recommendations call for increasing ventilation, but many classroom windows don’t open. Kids “physiologically are unable to sit still for hours,” making social distancing difficult. “Hybrid” instruction models that would have kids in class for some days or parts of days and learning online for others will likely require working parents to put them in after-school day care, “which increases transmission risk.”
Amber Wacht, president of United Teachers of Santa Clara, whose district is resuming online learning this fall, said a recent scare underscored the concerns about returning to class. She was among the 45 people forced to quarantine after a district meeting in June on reopening plans because one of those who attended tested positive for the virus.
“Even though we do our best and try to do safety precautions, there could still be exposure,” Wacht said.
Brown said this week’s decision by the state’s largest districts in Los Angeles and San Diego against returning to the classroom next month will likely spur others to follow.
“It will influence other school districts and it should, because we’re in California and this virus is not going away,” Brown said.
Such a decision, however, means a return to the online “distance” learning that, for many districts, went poorly. Parents like Martin Rauchwerk of San Jose, whose son will be a junior at Leland High School, felt their district, San Jose Unified, was wasting time pursuing a “hybrid” partial return to class. He wanted to see more effort spent on making sure online learning — which would be needed as a backup in a resurgence of cases — is done better in the fall. He organized an online petition with some 500 signatures urging the school to focus more on improving its distance learning game.
After its teachers union balked last week at returning to class, San Jose Unified is surveying parents and plans to revise fall plans this week.
“I didn’t think they should have spent one minute thinking about being in class,” said Rauchwerk, who has another son attending UCLA, where he says online learning has been fine.
Brown said he’s confident online learning won’t be as bad as in the spring.
“When we first went into distant learning in March, it was a new territory for us,” Brown said. “There were so many things teachers had to learn. But now there’s been more training being offered over the summer and teachers are sharing best practices, so there have been improvements.”
“Distance learning’s not perfect,” Wacht said. “But it’s the safest right now.”