After some weeks of uncertainty about the fate of student learning amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Sequoia Union High School District has announced that students will return part-time to school campuses this fall.
The district, which includes Woodside and Menlo-Atherton high schools, will conduct a mix of online and in-school classes, known as a “hybrid” model, according to a June 25 letter released by Superintendent Mary Streshly.
The announcement came after two contentious and widely watched virtual school board meetings. At the board’s June 10 meeting, over 300 community members tuned in to the livestream and over 900 submitted public comments, with many parents and students imploring the school district to open campuses in the fall.
District leaders presented a final report to the school board at its meeting on June 24. The board voted 4-1, with board clerk Carrie Du Bois dissenting, in favor of the hybrid learning model.
“The recommendations in the final report took into consideration the voices of staff, parents, and students and proposed a multi-stage reopening plan that is responsive to health conditions as determined by the San Mateo County’s Health Director in partnership with the Superintendent of the San Mateo County Department of Education,” Streshly wrote.
According to Streshly’s letter, students will begin the fall semester on Aug. 17 — five days after the originally slated date — in a transition phase in which students rotate on-campus attendance in order to train students and staff on new safety procedures.
After the transition phase — which may last a few weeks — students will remain in stable cohorts, with a blend of online and on-campus learning and only 50% of students on campus at a time. Wednesdays will be fully online, with A/B rotations for the other days. Schools will survey students with health questionnaires and do temperature checks upon students’ arrival on campus.
The hybrid plan only applies to fall semester at this juncture, and Streshly wrote that it could change depending on local health orders.
"While we are looking forward to seeing our students on campus in the fall, it is important to remember that our current plans may change in the event our county issues new health directives, as SUHSD is required to adhere to updated orders," she said. "We understand that last minute changes in plans can cause upset and other difficulties, and we commit to sending out a community update by August 1, 2020 to confirm our targeted schedule of August 17 for starting school."
The chance for students to return to campus this fall contrasts sharply with the spring semester, which saw all students learning completely from home for three months. After Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all California schools to close in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, students and staff at district schools had to scramble to adapt to a new, fully online learning environment, often with mixed results.
In public comments submitted for the Sequoia Union High School District’s June 10 board meeting, many parents and students complained that the fully online spring semester was a challenge for both teachers and students.
One commenter, district parent Karen Paluska, said that her son had difficulty learning through online instruction. "Remote learning is not working," she wrote. "Our children's education, especially in high school, is way too important for us to sacrifice an entire year to remote learning ... To learn the core content, kids were expected to watch videos and read things to essentially teach themselves. We know that our kids are not prepared to teach themselves subjects like Algebra 3 or chemistry — this is why we're sending them to school in the first place."
Spring 2020’s at-home semester also impacted students’ extracurricular activities. High school sports were cancelled, along with beloved traditions like prom. And for Menlo-Atherton and Woodside high school seniors, graduation day came in a way that they never expected: Through the computer screen in livestreamed ceremonies, or in the form of car parades that kept families at a distance.
Following Streshly’s letter, Menlo-Atherton High School Principal Simone Rick-Kennel wrote to parents, reinforcing the district’s plan for the fall and offering perspective of her own.
“Reinventing school this way is a huge undertaking and we'll be working most of the summer to make it happen safely,” Rick-Kennel wrote of the upcoming fall semester. “Our teachers and staff and my administration team have worked incredibly hard to ensure the best learning environment and outcomes for students in a situation we are all trying to fathom and make the best of.”