CUSD plans remote start to school year

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Marie Godderis/Town Crier
Montclaire Elementary has sat largely empty since schools closed in March.

When school starts next month, students in the Cupertino Union School District won’t be returning to campus for classes, at least not at first.

District staff are preparing to start the school year with students continuing to learn from home but have laid out a four-phase plan to ultimately transition back to being fully on campus.

When the district’s board of education discussed the reopening plan last week, approximately 90 people joined the Zoom meeting to comment. The majority were teachers, who raised concerns about the health risks of returning to on-campus learning.

Teacher Stephanie Ou said distance learning in the spring was intense and is not her preferred way of teaching, but returning face-to-face poses health risks.

“I would hands-down choose in-person instruction over remote any day, but only when it is safe to do so,” Ou said. “It is unfair to ask teachers and school staff to risk our lives, the lives of our family members or the lives of our students, in order to be back in person, on campus.”

Although most of the commenters were teachers, parents also spoke at the meeting, with voices both in favor and against bringing students back to campus. Ed Agrawal spoke in support of reopening schools and questioned whether the district was hearing what parents have to say.

“From this board meeting, it’s clear to me that maybe the parents’ voices are really not being represented,” Agrawal said. “It’s just the teachers and the union’s views that seem to matter here.”

Agrawal added that federal, state and local guidelines indicate that schools should be moving toward reopening.

A state education code passed last month states that districts “shall offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible” next school year. The county’s reopening guide says that education is an essential service, and “the reopening of school campuses for in-person instruction with strict safety protocols should be prioritized.” The county’s guide lays out recommendations and requirements districts must meet when reopening.

However, some teachers raised concerns about whether the guidelines are sufficient. For instance, Santa Clara County’s guidance recommends masks for elementary school students while in class but doesn’t require them.

“I was absolutely appalled at the inadequacy of the county requirements for in-person learning,” teacher Barbara Fritschen said.

She said she was “disturbed” to see that the county considers educators essential but doesn’t provide the same protective measures as other essential workers receive, citing mandatory masks and social distancing in grocery stores.

Some board members also expressed concerns, with board member Jerry Liu saying he didn’t believe the county’s guidance is sufficient to ensure student and staff safety. Interim Superintendent Stacy McAfee-Yao said the district believes that it can set additional requirements, such as mandatory masks, at a district level, but is working with its legal counsel to confirm.

Although the intent is to start remotely, McAfee-Yao said in an interview that she believes the district’s plan complies with government requirements. It isn’t possible for the district to safely reopen campuses at the start of the year, McAfee-Yao said, but the four phases lay out a path to in-person learning. The district will start the year in the first phase (distance learning) but plans to move toward the ultimate goal of bringing all students back to campus.

The second phase calls for a blended approach, where students are split in two groups and each come to campus for a portion of the school day twice a week. The first group would come Monday and Tuesday, the second group Thursday and Friday.

The third phase would maintain the two groups but bring students back for the entire school day twice a week. Finally, phase four would usher in a normal schedule.

Parents also will be given the choice to opt in to 100% distance learning for the duration of the school year. The district is considering expanding its “home study” program, which is more similar to a parent-directed home-school model.

For those families who take part in the phased reopening, McAfee-Yao said the district is working to develop more definitive guidelines on when it is safe to move forward with each step.

Board president Lori Cunningham said she shares the fears parents have about what the changes will mean for their work and family situations, as well as their children’s development. At the same time, Cunningham also shares the fears of teachers and staff about returning to the classroom.

“Part of the reason this is such a fraught decision and such a challenging one is because our schools are the heart of our community,” Cunningham said. “Our kids are our hearts.”

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