The Ravenswood school board, with some reluctance from two trustees, approved a plan to reopen schools districtwide for the first time since closing due to the pandemic last March.
The board voted 5-0 on Thursday evening to start reopening schools on April 12. Board President Mele Latu said she was "on the fence" due to health and safety concerns, and Trustee Bronwyn Alexander had reservations about reopening the district's sole middle school, but both ultimately supported the plan.
Teachers will be required to return to work, but the four schools will have the flexibility to decide what kind of a model to implement, either livestreaming, a half-day of in-person instruction or a full day. Families will still have the option to keep their children at home for fully remote learning.
The board talked about reopening at length during a study session on Tuesday, the discussion reflecting an ongoing tension between teacher concerns and students and families who are desperate to get back to face-to-face learning. The majority of about 680 parents who responded to a survey want their children to go back to school, but there are not enough teachers willing to volunteer to teach in person to serve them all.
Superintendent Gina Sudaria advocated for a full reopening, citing improving public health conditions in San Mateo County and East Palo Alto and vaccination rates among staff. The district received priority from the county to get staff vaccinated, and 63% of employees have received at least their first vaccine shot.
"We've been doing style preference based on teachers and I think we need to start doing style preference based on our student needs. We've been very conservative and very cautious about how to proceed," she said on Tuesday. "We are now in a place where we can serve our kids based on families' preference. I'm prepared to stand that ground: We need to start serving our families."
The district also is seeing alarming trends among students. Chronic absenteeism, defined as a student who's absent for 10% of the school year, has spiked at 33% compared to 18.5% in 2019. More middle school students in particular are missing classes. It's also been difficult to measure and monitor student progress, staff said, because students are not showing up to take or not completing online assessments. High percentages of students remain below their grade level in literacy, for example.
But attendance and engagement have improved among students who have been able to return to campuses for supervised distance learning at the district's learning hubs, staff said.
Until Thursday night, Ravenswood was the only elementary school district in San Mateo County that hadn't reopened districtwide or approved a plan to do so, Sudaria said.
"School districts all around us have opened. How much more of a gap are we creating? Are we putting our kids at a disadvantage or creating more of a disparity between us and the ones around us?" Trustee Jenny Varghese Bloom asked.
Latu expressed concern about the number of overall vaccinations in East Palo Alto, and said she was worried about teacher and staff safety. Alexander said she had concerns about the middle school schedule and also urged the district to support all teachers who have health or safety risks that may prevent them from coming back to work in person.
Ronda White, president of the teachers union, urged the board to preserve flexibility for teachers as more schools reopen.
"Just for the record, teachers always have kids' best interests at heart, whether it appears or seems like that," White said. "We will continue to work with the district."
White also asked the district to adhere to 6 feet between students in classrooms, despite the new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and California Department of Public Health that recommends 3 feet between masked students. Staff said the new spacing guidance means that the district will be able to safely fit a full class size into classrooms.
Ravenswood started slowly reopening schools for small groups of students in January. Only teachers who volunteered had to return.
The districtwide reopening will start on April 12 with a phased-in approach through May 5.
Ravenswood will continue opening additional classrooms at the four schools in different models. Costaño School of the Arts will bring back seven more classes on April 12. Five new classes will return at Belle Haven Elementary School on April 12 in a livestream model, meaning teachers will provide simultaneous in-person and remote instruction. First through fifth graders at Los Robles-Ronald McNair Academy will go back in a half-day model either two or four days a week. Cesar Chavez Ravenswood Middle School, meanwhile, will offer in-person instruction for 21 sixth graders with moderate to severe disabilities starting April 20. The students will learn with a teacher in the morning and then move to an on-campus learning hub for the afternoon.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.