When classrooms closed last spring because of COVID-19, many parents hoped that their children would still connect with teachers and peers over video while remaining safe at home. Now, some local parents are complaining that administrators are sticking kids in front of computers without district instruction for certain classes.
At Hillview Middle School, parent Meredith Ozbil said her sixth grader has very little instructional time led by teachers, even after sixth grade students returned to classrooms at the end of October (seventh and eighth graders returned to campus in early November). Ozbil said she would like to see more classes offered to students and started an online petition in the fall that got 30 signatures asking the district to implement more live instruction.
"There's constant interruptions and managing my child's calendar is taxing on my employment," she said.
Ozbil said she thought there was a chance Hillview was violating Assembly Bill 77, legislation that outlines guidelines for how to operate public schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The law specifies that fourth graders to 12th graders receive 240 minutes of instruction daily during the 2020-21 school year. But the law doesn't stipulate that all of these minutes need to be direct (also called synchronous) instruction from teachers — they could include writing up a response to a podcast that students listened to independently, then receiving feedback from teachers. Another assignment that counts toward instructional minutes might be an independent 30-minute at-home workout.
Hillview Principal Willy Haug said he empathizes with parents struggling to do their own jobs and monitor their students' work. He noted that some students are ready and able to navigate distance learning materials independently.
"This pandemic is a lot to manage and process, some (students) are demotivated or dejected," he said. "I acknowledge it's a challenge for some families. ... I'm hoping people hang in there and keep engaging with us (administrators and counselors)."
A Nov. 20 middle school survey showed 57% of parents with students in Virtual Academy the district's fully at-home learning option thought the amount of synchronous instruction was just right, while 74% of students thought it was the right amount. Some 84% of all parents surveyed said they thought the distance learning programming was robust.
Haug said 20% of middle schoolers are taking classes online only, while the other 80% alternate between a week of in-person classes and a week of online classes.
In response to parents who wish there were more for their children to do, the school is beginning to offer sixth graders the option to take a twice a week project-based learning course on writing and reciting social justice poetry, Haug said.
Ozbil said she fears not all students are receiving equitable educations in the district amid the pandemic. Parents with the means are filling up their students' time by signing them up for extra classes, joining pods or hiring tutors. Not all families have that luxury, she said.
Fellow sixth grade parent Barbara Vu said she has become a "professional kid scheduler" for her son. She's even signed him up for an extra online class to keep him busy.
"I've been a manager," she said. "The point is: I can do that as a parent in the pandemic, but not all families can. It raises a big question: Is this the best we can do in our district?"
Shani Podell, who also has a sixth grader at Hillview, said while so many schools can't even figure out how to get students back on campus, she feels pretty lucky her son has been able to do in-person learning.
"It's not perfect, but I've come to a point where I don't care," she said. "My son is so happy to be on campus, even though the COVID precautions make it very different from before, but any normalcy and social interaction is welcomed. They have ramped up on homework/assignments so my son is busier than he was when they were home full time. I still wish he was getting language or some enrichment but in the scheme of things, it's a trivial complaint. I have come to terms that this year of schooling will be whatever it will be. ... and that's OK."
In the neighboring Portola Valley School District, sixth graders returned to campus, with seventh and eighth graders joining them this week, according to Superintendent Roberta Zarea. Some parents of students who are remaining at home are disheartened with the online learning platform Edgenuity for math and seventh and eighth grade English classes. They started a petition on Change.org in November asking the administration to livestream classes rather than have students taught by Edgenuity teachers not associated with the district. The platform has "alarming reviews," petition author Liz Poggi wrote.
"Whether our family chooses for our children to attend school in person or to attend the Portola Valley Virtual Academy, we do not find Edgenuity to be an acceptable or equitable source of instruction for two of the most critical subjects for our middle school children," the petition states. "We ask the administrators and school board to reevaluate the virtual program available to the middle school community."
Poggi asked the district to provide a more open process and create a shorter period for the binding commitment, allowing a March pivot point for students to return to campus or switch to virtual learning.
Zarea said there have been several parent meetings and board presentations since the petition started circulating where the virtual program has been discussed and revised. In response to parent concerns, the district is offering more classes taught by its own staff in order to have a robust alternative virtual program with more options for students unable to participate in in-person learning.
"While we believe we are offering a robust, standards-aligned program we are continuing to look at ways in which to mitigate any concerns and tweak the program further to address our students' needs and include parent input," Zarea said in a Jan. 11 email. "I believe we have a rigorous alternative virtual program."
During a Nov. 13 discussion with Corte Madera School parents about the return to school and the Virtual Academy, Zarea explained that the district would have to hire three additional teachers, with appropriate credentials, in order for all classes to be taught in-house in the Academy, according to a video of the meeting.
"There are nine levels of math and English and language arts for the seventh/eighth grades," she said. "Teachers don't have room in their schedules."
It cost nearly $1 million to reopen district classrooms this fall, with over $580,000 going toward increasing staffing.
Corte Madera Principal Kristen Shima said it's very difficult to bring students back at the middle and high school levels, because of the number of courses being offered and students moving from class to class, according to a video of the meeting viewed by The Almanac.
"It's a completely different setup than (grades) K-5, frankly," she said.
Shima said that livestreaming classes is not plausible at this time. For example, fourth and fifth grade teachers are still moving around a lot and moving their classes outside a lot, she said.
"Some teachers feel much more comfortable being outside," she said. "With livestreaming, teachers would essentially have to be sitting in front of a camera and that's not how our teachers are teaching right now. They're moving around the room and bringing groups inside/outside. Masks are on."