After nearly a year of distance learning, Sequoia Union High School District students will have the option to return to classrooms for in-person learning on April 5.
The decision comes on the heels of reaching a tentative agreement between the district's teachers union, the Sequoia District Teachers Association, and district officials on Tuesday, Feb. 23, the district's governing board announced at a Wednesday, Feb. 24, meeting.
A simple majority vote of teachers in the union will make it official. Teachers will vote on the agreement March 3 through March 5, said Edith Salvatore, the teacher association president. "Obviously, we hope that it will be considerably higher and represents a consensus among staff," she said.
With social distancing requirements, classrooms can hold an average of 10 to 12 students, according to the district.
Locally, the district operates Menlo-Atherton and Woodside high schools, as well as Tide and East Palo Alto academies.
The decision also comes after a coalition of over 100 students, parents and teachers rallied at the district office pleading with the district to resume in-person instruction on Tuesday. State Sen. Josh Becker, D-Menlo Park, also called for schools to reopen once the county entered the red tier on Tuesday.
The district will spend a few weeks planning out details of the reopening, said Interim Superintendent Crystal Leach at the meeting. The district will resubmit its reopening plan to the County Office of Education on March 1, she said. Students would not spend time on campus during a typical Monday through Friday schedule, she noted. The district has chosen to adopt a concurrent learning model, known by many as "zoomers and roomers," which means some students would be learning from in the classrooms, while others would be Zooming into classes from home.
Ventilation upgrades on campuses have nearly been completed, Leach said.
Parents spoke about the need for students to return to classrooms for their mental health.
The group Reopen SUHSD, which held the rally on Tuesday, said in a Thursday, Feb. 25, statement that it appreciates the hard work of the negotiating parties to get us to the point of a reopening in five weeks. The group hopes the plan to return includes at least two days per week of in-person instruction and two days per week of synchronous distance learning, for students who choose to attend in person.
"This model is anchored to the CDC's most recent phased mitigation guidance for K-12 schools, and even more recent studies on school reopenings across the country," the group said. "Anything less than two days per week in person would be massively disappointing given the very short time period left in the school year (the school year ends at the beginning of June) due to the April 5 start date ... With over five weeks to go, we are also encouraged by, and fully support, the ongoing push for teacher vaccinations. Now our district must continue to depend on science and learnings from other successfully reopened school districts to drive decision making in the days and weeks ahead."
Teachers became eligible for vaccines on Monday, Feb. 23. Some teachers have been able to sign up for vaccines, while others have struggled to secure appointments on the state’s vaccination website. Some expressed concerns during the meeting about when they will actually be able to be vaccinated.
During the board meeting, one teacher shared her fears about returning after having lost her father to COVID-19. She also said there is an inequity between who is contracting the coronavirus (fewer people in affluent Atherton versus more in East Palo Alto). There have been 174 total cases among Atherton’s roughly 7,000 residents, a little under 3% of its residents have tested positive. In contrast, in East Palo Alto has about 14% of its residents test positive (it had 4,197 cases among its almost 30,000 residents, according to county data.
Some community members are concerned about widespread COVID-19 cases in some parts of the school community, board Vice President Carrie DuBois said. She said it seemed like the data was not adequate for older teens, who are not as good at social distancing as younger children.
"Is the data absolutely clear we don’t need to worry about the spread of data in our large public schools?" she asked.
Board President Alan Sarver noted there will always be some potential risk to students — be it an earthquake, school shooting or the virus.
Other schools have found ways to safely reopen with little to no transmission of the virus between teachers and students, according to recent studies. The CDC advises that it's safe for students to go back to school with mask wearing and social distancing in the more restrictive purple tier.
That inequity has also carried over to vaccination rates, which have been much higher in wealthier areas of the Peninsula, the teacher said.
According to data from the county updated Feb. 24, Atherton has one of the highest rates in San Mateo County with 42.83% of residents age 16 and up vaccinated. Some 22.4% of Atherton's population is over 65 years old according to census data — the group that makes the majority of people vaccinated so far. Just 9.96% of East Palo Alto residents have been vaccinated (16.5% of its population is over 65 years old, according to census data).
Some students might not be able to return to campus because they are home taking care of their younger siblings while their parents go to work, said Jennifer Hettel, the school psychologist at Menlo-Atherton High School. Hettel is supervising her own children at home with distance learning, so she won’t be able to be on campus to support students.
"It's lovely we're going to give this opportunity to students to come on campus, but it's going to be a select group," she said. "When we talk about equity, those are the equity issues we're talking about."
Trustee Shawneece Stevenson said the district was in a bind because it has two different populations and needs to serve them both. One group of students want to come back because they’re doing fine academically but struggling emotionally and on the other side are families trying to live day-to-day and they may want to have our kids back at school, but are busy with struggles that make it difficult to return to campus. She noted that there's been a community of people who have rallied louder to return to classrooms than some of the other families she’s reached spoken to.
"I think we are making choices with the information we have," Stevenson said. "Had you asked me in November I think I would have said, 'No, I don't think so,' but when the option comes up (to return students to classrooms) we have a choice and we can talk about those choices with our families, and our families can make informed decisions about what they want to do."
View a video of the meeting here.