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MVLA votes to continue remote instruction in the fall

LAHS Parking Lot” width=
Town Crier File Photo
Los Altos High School's parking lot, above, sits largely empty. School campuses have been deserted since mid-March, when school moved online.

The Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District will be starting the new school year next month remotely, with students continuing to learn online.

The MVLA Board of Trustees voted unanimously last night (July 16) to start the year in a full distance learning model, with the potential to bring specific cohorts of students back to campus as conditions allow. The board’s vote green-lights a plan recommended by Superintendent Nellie Meyer and district staff.

“Without a doubt, it is based on the need to provide safety for our students and staff in a time of increased coronavirus cases,” Meyer said.

Santa Clara County has seen a spike in cases in recent weeks, as well as increased hospitalizations. Since July 1, the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in the county has increased by more than 80%.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced today (July 17) that schools will only be allowed to reopen if their county has been off the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list for at least 14 consecutive days. Santa Clara County has been on the list since July 12.

Developing a plan

As district staff planned for the fall, they surveyed parents, students and staff about their preferences for reopening. The results of the survey, which ran through July 1, revealed that the community is divided, with a roughly even split among three options: 25% of respondents wanted full distance learning, another 25% wanted a full reopen, 35% wanted a hybrid model. The remaining 15% were uncertain.

MVLA officials ultimately decided to offer parents two options. Under Option A, students will start the year in distance-learning mode, receiving online lessons from their regular teachers. As the year progresses, certain groups of students may be brought back to campus.

Option B would allow families to stay fully remote for the entire semester. The program will be led by teachers from the MVLA Adult School, and the curriculum will be from an outside content provider. Currently, the plan is to use Odysseyware, which the Adult School has used for years, but the district is also exploring other options, including Edgenuity and UC Scout.

Students in both options will receive letter grades. That’s a change from the spring, when the district went to a credit/no-credit system.

Option B will remain open for families to choose until the first week of August, though that may be extended as needed, Meyer said. Families selecting Option B won’t be able to switch back until the semester break. Those choosing Option A can only switch to Option B for medical reasons.

During the public comment section of Thursday night’s meeting, parents raised questions about the two options, asking for more details before they have to decide.

Julie Volkert, one of the commenters, said some parents won’t be comfortable choosing an option that doesn’t involve student’s regular teachers. At the same time, Volkert said she has concerns picking Option A without knowing what a return to in-person learning will look like.

“What’s difficult right now is we’re being asked to choose an option without really having a clear vision of what that will look like,” she said.

The district is still in the process of vetting content providers for Option B and more information needs to be gathered, Meyer said, adding that she can bring an update to a future board meeting. Superintendents throughout the county also have been asking health officials to give schools metrics for determining when and how to reopen, Meyer said.

Schedule details

Until students can return to campus, the district has created a schedule for remote learning under Option A. On Mondays and Thursdays, students will have their odd-numbered periods, with evens on Tuesdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are a student work day, meant largely for independent work.

Throughout the week, teachers will use a mix of “synchronous” classes, where teachers and students interact in real-time, and “asynchronous” classes, which involve things like assignments to complete or recorded videos to watch. Every class is required to have a minimum of 75 minutes of synchronous instruction each week.

“Regardless (of the format), you’re seeing students connecting, you’re seeing students collaborating, you’re seeing students engaged in standards-based curriculum,” said Teri Faught, the district’s new distance education administrator. “Lastly, they’re feeling supported.”

On the four block days, there is “professional time” for teachers from 8:30 to 9:15 a.m. On Mondays and Thursdays, first period starts at 9:30 a.m. On Tuesdays and Fridays, there is time for office hours from 9:30 to 10:45 a.m., where students can get help from teachers.

Trustee Phil Faillace questioned why the office hours were in the morning. He suggested they be moved later in the day, so that classes can have a uniform start time throughout the week, providing students with a more consistent schedule.

Teachers’ union president David Campbell objected, saying that the office hours are purposely before classes start, so students can ask questions and get clarification on material before lessons begin.

“It actually was very strategically placed at the beginning of the day,” Campbell said. “It wasn’t by happenstance.”

Campbell said he supported Meyer’s plan for a remote start, adding that there are too many unknowns around the pandemic to safely reopen schools. A group of teachers also spoke at the meeting about how they have been preparing for the fall.

According to Faught, 80% of teachers in the district have been doing professional development over the summer to learn more about remote learning and get ready for the new school year.

At Thursday’s meeting, the board unanimously approved a plan to help prepare teachers for starting school remotely, which is currently estimated to cost $262,100. Trustees indicated they are open to spending more than that to fund additional professional development and reimburse teachers who have paid for training out of their own pocket.

Although school will start remotely, the district plans to give staff the option to return to their classrooms and offices as soon as safety measures are in place, Meyer said.

Students may be brought back in cohorts, with priority given to the groups that struggle the most with distance learning. That includes special-education students, English-language learners and those who were disengaged in the spring. According to Meyer, when cohorts begin returning to campus, families also will be given the option to keep their students home.

Because the course of the pandemic is constantly changing, every four to six weeks administrators will bring information back to the board about the district’s current status.

The question of whether to stay remote or return in person is a matter of weighing risk and reward, Faillace said. Although everyone yearns to see students back in classrooms, Faillace said he believes starting remote is the right path.

“In the face of a dangerous unknown risk, the most prudent course, the required course, is extreme caution,” he said.

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