During an emotionally charged virtual West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) school board meeting Wednesday evening, where a multitude of parents advocated for the return of in-class instruction, school board trustees decided to move forward with exploring a hybrid model of reopening.
The hybrid model will have a soft launch where students start with distance learning and then move toward both in-class and distance learning if permitted at the time by state and county health regulations. Trustees tabled the approval of the district's draft reopening plan/guidebook, which was released only hours before the meeting.
With health guidelines changing almost daily and the potential for the county to return to stricter health guidelines, the board said the plan would have to be flexible. The proposal for reopening, outlined by WSCUHSD Superintendent Toni Beal, suggests that students start with distance learning and later move into the hybrid model of instruction after Sept. 8.
Beal said a “soft launch” into hybrid learning would give the district time to prepare classrooms, train staff, gather Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and make other logistical changes such as closing water fountains and installing water bottle fill stations, and placing 6-foot tape markers around schools. She also said a soft launch would give the district the opportunity to reassess the public health situation to determine if moving forward with a return to class would be appropriate.
Around 100 or so district stakeholders were present for the July 8 Zoom meeting, and folks had a lot to say about the situation.
The word from many parents was that they are ready to have their children return to campus for some form of safe, in-person instruction sooner rather than later.
In the meeting chat box, which parents asked the board to open so people could easily ask questions similar to a town hall format, Anna Bradbury opined that she does not support the soft launch idea.
“I do not support the soft launch, if this is the system then let’s start out right away and mitigate problems along the way,” she wrote.
District parent Maggie Jenson felt the same and worried that, if the district starts with distance learning, it will remain that way.
On the other hand, teacher Jessica Glentzer said she can appreciate the three-week time frame where students would be involved in at-home learning while teachers and staff prepare for a hybrid environment.
“As a teacher, I absolutely can appreciate that three weeks to get lesson plans designed and presentable for optimal hybrid/distance,” Glentzer said, noting that it would be a useful grace period.
Another participant who responded in the chat box said implementing a hybrid model through a soft launch seems reasonable.
“A soft launch seems appropriate considering all of the changes the schools are forced to make in such a short period of time. The proposal only asks for a three week delay,” the meeting attendee said.
For instance, since both Analy and El Molino High School have smaller classrooms than other school sites, Beal said there would have to be adjustments made in order to allow for 6-foot social distancing.
“Most high schools have classrooms that are 900 square feet or more. We have quite a few of our classrooms that are not only under 900 square feet, but are under 800 square feet and we actually have some that are under 700 square feet,” Beal said. “The reality of that is that size limits the amount of students that we can have in a cohort (a stable group of students who attend school on specific day so that they don’t mix with other groups) because we cannot bring in a large group of students into a larger classroom and then expect that when those kids move, they are not going to overload the smaller classrooms.”
She said staff have been playing around with furniture arrangements and other alternatives to see how this issue can be addressed.
Jennie Bruneman, the district’s director of maintenance and operations, noted that while Santa Rosa City Schools is planning a more speedy move toward hybrid learning, it’s important to remember that the WSCUHSD is small, and that it will take time to implement all of the needed preparations for on-site instruction.
“I feel compelled to tell you, to tell everyone, that the amount of work that it is going to take to set up classrooms safely, to procure every piece of PPE and Plexiglass, remove furniture, set it up, deal with the cleaning protocols, deal with mass deployment of technology, hotspots, we are struggling. We are not Santa Rosa City Schools. We do not have a staff of hundreds of people to help us,” Bruneman said. “We are doing this on a barebones staff and we are working around the clock. We are trying to make very good and safe healthy decisions for our students and our staff and it’s not being done overnight.”
While opinions varied on the soft launch concept, most parents agreed that students need some type of in-class learning, as well as an improvement to distance learning.
Jenson expressed her concerns with distance learning and said that her internet connection may not have enough bandwidth to support the at-home learning of her three children.
“I have a daughter who will be coming back to Analy as a sophomore and I have a son who will be coming to Analy as a freshman. The freshman students who won’t be able to actually attend classes this fall is heartbreaking... I am a working professional, I have three kids, I live out in the country and I don’t even think we have the computer bandwidth to support three kids doing Zoom sessions while we’re trying to do Zoom meetings and support our families,” Jenson said. “The biggest problem I have with this is just watching the mental and physical health of our kids deteriorate ... I think a hybrid model is a smart move for fall, but let’s get our kids in a classroom.”
El Molino boosters club president, Leslie McCormick, echoed Jenson’s thoughts.
“What I am seeing at my house is tragic,” she said, her voice wavering with emotion. “We need
Cheryl Witteman also urged the board to follow through with hybrid learning and candidly shared her kids’s struggle with distance learning and isolation.
“We need in-person class. Similar to what other parents have said, my high-performing daughter has really struggled with distance learning and depression and I suspect she is not alone,” Witteman said.
If the hybrid plan ends up going into effect, students may see class sizes of 12 students. Depending on how many families voice interest in the hybrid model, school populations would be divided into three stable cohorts and would regularly rotate from in-person to distance learning so that students could receive two days of in-person instruction per week.
In terms of safety mitigation measures, social distancing, face masks, temperature taking, symptom screening and daily disinfecting of classrooms would take place.
Beal said students, families and staff will be resurveyed the week of July 13 in order to garner up to date community input (the last district survey was conducted in May). The district will then later confirm a learning scenario for the school year and will post up to date information on their website and district Facebook page, as well as notify families.
School board trustees recognized that the monumental change in learning has been difficult for both students and teachers, and that both want to return to some sense of normalcy, however, due to the fluid situation and the reality of COVID-19, plans must be adaptable and may be subject to change.
School board vice president, Kellie Noe said of the situation, “None of us are in an easy spot.”