Spike in coronavirus cases means some schools won’t open at all this fall

Photo: Brian Feulner/San Francisco Chronicle/PolarisKai Sanchez, 14, takes an online Spanish class from one of her teachers at Half Moon Bay High School on April 1, 2020 Though most California students are learning from home this year, most school districts in the state have reverted back to A-F grading.Photo: Brian Feulner/San Francisco Chronicle/PolarisKai Sanchez, 14, takes an online Spanish class from one of her teachers at Half Moon Bay High School on April 1, 2020 Though most California students are learning from home this year, most school districts in the state have reverted back to A-F grading.As coronavirus cases spike across California, some school districts are making the decision to keep campuses closed to most students and to educate them online next school year.
Districts in Los Angeles County, which has more coronavirus cases than any county in the state, are preparing for the possibility of classes being completely online at the start of the school year. In neighboring San Bernardino County, its school district this week announced classes would resume next month online. 
In Northern California, East Side Union High School District in San Jose, the region’s largest high school district, as well as a few others, have made similar calls. West Contra Costa Unified, which serves 32,000 students in the East Bay, announced this week it will allow only a limited number of special needs students to return to campuses when the semester begins August 17. As conditions allow for a safe return, buildings will be open to small groups of students with a support system of adults for each group to ensure social distancing. The hope is to eventually expand to full in-person instruction for all students when it is safer, said Superintendent Matthew Duffy in an email to parents.
Coronavirus numbers have peaked in recent weeks in California, reaching 304,297 cases of Covid-19 and 6,850 deaths as of July 9. 
Health concerns associated with the increased number of coronavirus cases have put school districts’ plans in flux, with many planning for different instructional models they can move between depending on the number of coronavirus infections in their communities or direction from county health officials.
“I want to be very clear, we want students at school,” West Contra Costa’s Duffy wrote in his email. “We need students at school. Many students need to be at school for a variety of reasons: more engaging educational opportunities, socio-emotional support, access to meals and health care. However, with the rising number of Covid-19 cases in California since the easing of restrictions, it is clear that asymptomatic transmission in close quarters is a key concern. In all good conscience, the safety of students and staff must be our top priority.”
Oakland Unified announced Friday that the school year will start Aug. 10 with students learning from home. All students will work from home for up to a month while the district prepares school sites for safe operation during the pandemic. This also will allow staff to have additional safety training and other professional development, according to a press release from the district. However, the plans are not final, as negotiations with the teachers union are ongoing.
“You might think that with Covid, this decision would be easy, but it’s not,” said Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell in a statement. “We want to have our students back in class as soon as possible and welcoming them back to school has to be safe. But there is inherent tension between the ever-changing science, keeping students and staff safe, and providing the services that students need.”
East Side Union High School District in San Jose is beginning the year with distance learning, with a full day of online instruction four days each week.
Schools will be open for counseling and in-person instruction for homeless and special needs students. Students without broadband access can study and use space in libraries to access the internet. There will be some opportunities for small group instruction, such as a music class.
 Superintendent Chris Funk said that surveys showing between 40% and 48% of students, parents and staff didn’t feel comfortable returning to school guided the school board’s decision. The district serves four of the zip codes with the highest numbers of Covid-19 infections in Santa Clara County, where mainly low-income persons of color live, he said.
“High school kids are not that different from 21-to-25-year-olds who are raising the coronavirus rate,” he said. “They can transmit it to each other and expose teachers to the virus.”
Alum Rock Union School District, also in San Jose, will continue distance learning for about 90% of its students in the fall, with in-person instruction available for students who are homeless, in foster programs, have special needs, or who are recent immigrants who have little fluency in English and who need additional resources, officials said at a virtual presentation this week. The district will reassess in the spring whether more students can return to on-campus instruction.
San Bernardino City Unified, about 60 miles east of downtown Los Angeles in San Bernardino County, has decided to start the school year with distance learning and no in-person classes.
Harold Vollkommer, interim superintendent of that district, wrote in a message to district parents that the school board unanimously approved that plan at a recent meeting. He also said that, at some point after the beginning of the school year, the district may begin offering “in-person check-in and support services for small groups of students” and could eventually transition to a hybrid model. But that’s “if and only when we can do so safely.”
“The date for this transition has not been determined and will be made in the context of our community’s needs in consultation with the department of public health and based on final approval by our board,” he added. “And for those families who desire distance learning for an extended period of time, we will offer that program as well.”
Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County’s public health director, told district superintendents in a private phone call this week that every district should “have plans in place to continue distance learning for 100% of the time,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
“Given where our numbers are, we would be irresponsible if we didn’t say to you that you have to have the backup plan ready,” she said.
Administrators at the county’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, have so far made no decision on whether to reopen campuses next month. But Superintendent Austin Beutner said this week in a televised address that it’s “reasonable to assume” that instruction will have at least some online components.
The union representing teachers in L.A. Unified, meanwhile, has gone a step further and called for campuses to remain closed when the school year begins Aug. 18.
“We all want to physically open schools and be back with our students, but lives hang in the balance. Safety has to be the priority. We need to get this right for our communities,” Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said in a statement.
In nearby Pasadena Unified, administrators were planning as recently as last week to reopen schools in August with a mix of in-person and virtual learning, Superintendent Brian McDonald said in a message to district families.
However, based on community feedback to that plan, Pasadena Unified is now surveying parents to determine their interest in going fully online rather than implementing a hybrid model, spokeswoman Hilda Ramirez Horvath said. 
The California Teachers Association, which represents 310,000 of the state’s teachers, sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and other top state leaders this week, which expressed concern about whether school districts would be ready to return to school safely in the fall. CTA leaders said that many local districts don’t have the necessary resources or capacity to ensure that safety measures are in place to ensure students and teachers don’t get sick.
“Since schools closed in March, CTA has said that the health and safety of our students and educators must always be our top priority and our guiding principle during this crisis,” said the letter signed by CTA President E. Toby Boyd, Vice President David Goldberg and Secretary-Treasurer Leslie Littman. “Much is still being learned about the Covid-19 virus. The recent surge in the infection rate and the closure of indoor activities in 26 counties gives us pause around the state’s preparedness for safe in-person school instruction in a short six- to eight-week time frame.”
While some families are voicing safety concerns, others are urging districts to reopen five days a week to meet the needs of working parents.
Eureka Unified School District in Placer County’s Granite Bay community is planning to reopen its schools for in-person instruction five days a week, with other options for students with health concerns. Placer County, located east of Sacramento, had 982 cases of Covid-19 on July 9, a 70% increase over two weeks.
“Our parents want five days a week, which I think a lot of school districts have found out,” said Ginna Myers, director of curriculum and instruction for the Eureka Unified School District in Placer County. “They are concerned that their kids are losing out on the social emotional aspect of school, as well as concerned about learning loss.”
EdSource reporters John Fensterwald and Theresa Harrington contributed to this report.
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