Walnut Creek School District Reopens Elementary SchoolsFeb 16, 2021 09:00AM ● By Harper Klein
Almost a year into the coronavirus pandemic, the youngest students—transitional kindergarten and kindergarten—in the Walnut Creek School District (WCSD) returned to campus on Tuesday, soon to be followed by children in grades 1-5 on Monday, February 22.
While the pivot to distance learning last march was a lifeline for the education system, with each passing month the negative effects on students’ academic performance, attendance, and overall well-being have continued to mount. Parents report their kids are suffering, don't want to get out of bed, and have lost interest in doing schoolwork. Existing social inequities and disparities, have been brought to the fore as lower-income families have struggled to make it work without the luxury of private tutors and "pandemic pods."
Reopening Strategy for Elementary Schools
In her presentation to the school board last week, WCSD Superintendent Marie Morgan unveiled the district’s reopening strategy which follows state guidance allowing TK-5 schools to reopen in the purple tier if the “adjusted Covid-19 case rate is 25 per 100K/day or lower for five consecutive days, and if you form small groups or cohorts, and the students in the groups stay together.”
Under the hybrid learning model—a mix of in-person and remote learning—students who opted to return to campus are divided into morning and afternoon groups, with stringent health and safety protocols in place. Mainly, masks required at all times, six-feet social distancing, weekly testing for staff, and no parents or non-school personnel on campus.
"Campuses will look different, the number of people on campus will be lower, about 30% of families are opting to stay in remote learning. For example, if you have 300 students total, and 100 opt-outs, then with the remaining 200 students, 100 will be on campus in the morning and 100 in the afternoon. Students will be in cohorts of 14 kids,” explained Morgan.
She also said that parents who opted to keep their kids at home for distant learning will not be permitted to change plans. “We have to hold parents to the decisions they made last November. This was an extremely hard decision, but in fairness to our teachers who are working so hard to make this work, we need to stick with the commitments families made last fall.”
And while many parents are thrilled that schools are finally reopening, for teachers it's a mixed bag of emotions with many privately expressing concerns about returning to campus without vaccinations.
"I've been ready to go back to in-person teaching since last September," said one elementary school teacher who requested anonymity. "Most of our staff feels the same way, that it's best for the kids, but that's not the case at other schools in our district. There has been a lot of pressure from parents to reopen schools. It's my understanding that teachers who do not agree to in-classroom instruction are being offered to take a leave of absence."
Creating safe classroom environments has meant moving desks six feet apart, installing plexiglass dividers, removing extra furniture from small classrooms, and marking floors with stickers. "I have 12 students in my morning group and 10 in the afternoon," one teacher explained. "Each session is 2.5 hours in the classroom with one short recess, followed by an hour of cleaning. Students are assigned an additional two hours of independent work to complete each day before or after school."
Middle and High School Students
Morgan said a plan for middle school students (roughly 1050) at WCI in grades 6-8 is still being worked out, but will most likely happen when the region moves to the red tier. And while teachers at Las Lomas High School returned to campus last week, at present there is no reopening strategy for older students. On February 5, the Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) issued the following update on high schools reopening, "AUHSD schools must wait until Contra Costa County is designated to be in the Red Tier to reopen for in-person instruction when the case rate has dropped to 7/100,000."
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued new guidance last Friday suggesting elementary schools, whose young students are less susceptible to the coronavirus, can reopen for partial in-person “hybrid” instruction even if the area where the school is located has relatively high virus transmission rates."
“As a parent myself, I understand this is one of the hardest decisions you’ve had to make throughout the pandemic about the most precious thing you have,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky. “I want to assure you our strategy is science-based.
Walensky said five widely adopted mitigation measures are key to safely bring students back: universal and proper face mask wearing by students, teachers, and staff; physical distancing to keep kids six feet apart; handwashing and covering coughs and sneezes; cleaning surfaces; and promptly notifying and isolating those exposed to the virus.
"We're finding that there is more risk in a community when schools are not opened," she said. "But I want to be clear that safely reopening schools, and keeping them open, is a shared responsibility among parents, kids, teachers, school staff, and everyone who comes in contact with them."
Mt. Diablo Unified School District
Walnut Creek students in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District are expected to continue distance learning until at least March, however at its February 10 meeting the governing board unanimously approved a reopening plan. "We are aiming to reopen in some form when we get to the red tier," said Superintendent Adam Clark." More on this story to follow.