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Walnut Creek Magazine

Back to School this Fall?

Jul 15, 2020 09:01AM ● By Harper Klein

With coronavirus cases surging in California and new statewide business closures ordered, school districts are struggling with fall instruction plans as health dynamics change almost daily. The recent rollbacks by Governor Newsom all but guarantee that the Walnut Creek School District (WCSD), Mt. Diablo School District (MDSD), and Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) will open with distance learning when classes resume in August. “We have to get used to a huge amount of uncertainty and learn in real-time,” says Marie Carter Arenson, a fourth-grade teacher at Walnut Acres. “We’re bound to disappoint some parents and we’re bound to let down some of our kids.”

Last April, administrators across the state began planning for how to reopen schools safely, understanding the urgency to get kids, particularly those with special needs and learning disabilities, back into the classroom.

Three potential models emerged for resuming fall instruction: 100% in-person, 100% distance or remote learning, or a hybrid that divides a maximum of 15 students into rotating two-day-per-week learning blocks. With Group A, for example, attending school Monday and Thursday, and Group B on Tuesday and Friday, leaving Wednesday open for teachers to disinfect classrooms and create online curriculum and record videos. When not in the classroom, students will engage in remote learning.

“These crises have shown us just how important brick and mortar schooling is for our society. It was clear right away that there is no way to make remote learning equitable given the different situations students have at home,” says Arenson. “Teachers want to return to school, but we want to do it safely. Parents are concerned with their kids' safety and the need to work.”

Tasked with their new roles as “front-line workers,” teachers we spoke to for this story (both on and off the record) are grappling with personal safety and risk of infection with the need to get back to teaching in the classroom.

“I’m hearing a lot of frustration from teachers who say they have never worked so hard adapting to remote learning, dealing with new technology, and recording lessons. They miss their students and just want to give them a hug and pat on the back. And parents face the back and forth toggle of being a teacher, and being a parent, plus finding time to work,” said another teacher. 

Simple tasks like constructing a log cabin out of a shoebox for a social studies project take on new complexities when described by video, especially for students who don’t have the materials at home. “Underserved families face a unique set of challenges just trying to get food on the table,” says Arenson, “how do we make sure these kids don’t get left behind.”

Not only do the logistics of preparing classrooms for social distancing pose significant challenges, teachers also fear young students may be asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19. “School is a collective good, while we want what is right and best for our kids, we have to consider what is best for everyone. How do we get the kids caught up who are falling further and further behind and keep teachers safe?” says Randy Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, representing 1.7 million teachers and school-related personnel, in a recent interview with Inside the Hive.

“Most educators agree the hybrid model presents the best approach, but it takes a lot of planning to teach this way,” says Weingarten. “And it takes a lot of money to get schools ready to welcome kids back to safe environments. Since the federal government has not given schools the financial resources required to make classrooms safe, are parents and local districts expected to prop up these efforts with hand sanitizer donations?”

Weingarten says the following guardrails must be in place for school districts to reopen safely for any type of in-room instruction: 

* Cases in a community must be going down, not up, and we need to see a 14-day decline in positivity rates.

* Public health departments must have a testing and a tracing infrastructure in place.

* Six-feet distancing, proper ventilation, proper cleaning, masks, and schools operating at fifty percent capacity.

* Money for adequate protective gear and teaching supplies.

* You have to see declining cases, you have to test almost daily, you have to trace, you have to isolate, and you have to be able to shut down if things are not working out.

Everyone agrees that the path forward is complicated and will require patience, flexibility, and resilience as school districts navigate evolving paths forward.

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