News Volume 70, Issue 2

To Open, or Not to Open?

by Sebastian Squire

Graphic by Emma Cypressi

The Acalanes Union High School District Governing board met on Wednesday, October 7 and again on Wednesday, October 21 to discuss the reopening of AUHSD schools, shuttered for almost six months amid the worst pandemic in a hundred years. The district presented a roadmap to reopening that proposed a return to campus under a hybrid schedule on January 5, 2021. The proposed transition reflects student dissatisfaction in distance learning: from lower grades, to increased instances of depression and anxiety. 

“About three quarters [of students] are unsatisfied… with distance learning,” says Kristin Connelly, an AUHSD Governing Board member. “It is very clear that kids are struggling with distance learning. Some kids are struggling a lot.” She also noted that more students are receiving failing grades of D’s and F’s during distance learning as opposed to an in-person school environment. Another Governing Board member, Bob Hockett, said in addition to grades, students are facing critical social and emotional problems. “Students must escape from the isolation [that] so many are experiencing, and once again have a direct connection to the campus, teachers, and fellow students.” Hockett supports allowing students the opportunity to visit campus at least once a week, for “informal instruction, clubs, activities, [and] sports camps” in the near future. A district survey of parents found overwhelming support for a return to in-person instruction, with 78.29% of parents saying they would be supportive of returning to school (21.17% opposed). Support for returning to a hybrid model was also high among teachers, with 88% being in support of returning.

The proposal presented to the board seeks to follow a four stage process, the first of which was slated to begin October 5, with in-person adult special education and day classes. In addition, this phase of reopening also permits in-person sports camps, granted they remain in cohorts. The second of the proposed stages was scheduled for October 13 with the introduction of non-mandatory in-person Academy classes, with travel time included, and allowing some ‘co-curricular’ clubs which seek to aid with both social and academic support. This plan will also open up parts of campus to students who do not have access to technology and quiet spaces. The third stage of the phase begins on November 1, and will allow for co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, and allow students to return to campus for peer interaction events, including but not limited to “ leadership-student body activities [and] class activities.” The fourth and final stage of the proposed model allows for students to return to campus in-person two days a week in two separate groups. The first will meet on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the second on Thursdays and Fridays. No students will be present on Wednesday, which is reserved for campus cleaning. The district notes some of the main benefits of such a system would be the ability to perform “hands on” activities not possible under distance learning, face-to-face interaction between faculty and students, and of course increased social and emotional interaction between students and teachers. Also key to the reopening plan is the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), contact tracing, and hygienics, such as increased handwashing. In order to reduce student density, major changes may be necessary such as changing students’ class schedule and limiting class sizes. This model is subject to change by focus and staff work groups now meeting to finalize the details of the model. Students will also be able to opt out of in-person instruction and stay in distance learning if they prefer. 

Although Contra Costa County is no longer in the ‘purple’ (highest) tier for coronavirus infection, it still remains in the second-highest ‘red’ tier. If the school remains in this tier for fourteen consecutive days, it is permitted to open for hybrid instruction. The Acalanes Union High School District reached this checkpoint on October 13, however, cases have begun to rise in recent days. A representative for the Contra Costa County Health Department, Karl Fischer, said that while the Health Department provides expert guidance to schools, “School districts must make their own decisions about how and when to reopen, and make their own plans for reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission on campus and how to protect the campus community if there is a positive case.” A pulmonary critical care doctor who treats COVID-19 positive patients on a daily basis, Pari Reddy, said, “current data supports that although COVID is transmissible in children, the disease is in most cases [not severe] without long term complications in children without significant preexisting conditions.” When asked if he would feel safe sending his own children back to school he said that it would depend on “the prevalence of COVID in [the] community, [having] access to PPE resources to protect all school staff and students, [enforcing] social distancing guidelines, and [having] a plan on how to manage [a] response to any surge in COVID-19 in [the] school and in [the] community.” 

While schools struggle to navigate the troubled waters of an unprecedented global pandemic, there are actions that community members can take to help. Connelly said, “There’s definitely different volunteer opportunities…We have brilliant experts in public health that have tried to give us good information.” She pointed to recent beautification opportunities taking place for volunteers at Acalanes High School. She also urged students and parents to stay engaged with updates from their school and the district. Hockett added, “I just wish this nightmare would end!”