LASD delays phased reopening for older students

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Graphic by Ryan Molinari/Special to the Town Crier
The Los Altos School District announced Monday night (Oct. 12) that the return of students in second grade and up will be pushed back.

On the same day the Los Altos School District brought its youngest students back to campus, district officials announced that it will be delaying the return of all subsequent grade levels.

Superintendent Jeff Baier said at a board of trustees meeting Monday night (Oct. 12) that sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders won’t be coming back until January. Second- through fifth-graders will still return this year, but the scheduled return dates will be pushed back a week.

Students in transitional kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade started returning to in-person classes Monday in a hybrid model, where kids are on campus two days a week and home the remaining three. The rest of the grade levels had been set to return in the same hybrid model by the end of November. Families also may opt out of returning and choose all-virtual instruction.

In-person learning will continue for students in first grade and below, but the return of older students is being pushed back. Second- and third-graders were scheduled to come back Nov. 2; that’s now slated for Nov. 9. Fourth- and fifth-graders were supposed to return Nov. 30; that’s now set for Dec. 7.

The longer delay is for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. They were originally supposed to return concurrently with the younger grades. Seventh-graders would have come back Nov. 2, while sixth- and eighth-graders were scheduled to return Nov. 30. Now, sixth-graders will come back Jan. 11, while seventh- and eighth-graders return Jan. 20.

In an interview after the board meeting, Baier said there wasn’t any single precipitating factor behind the delay, but rather varied reasons depending on the grade level.

“We understand the importance of having kids in person. We set a stretch goal for ourselves and worked to try to accomplish it,” he said. “The complexity just didn’t allow us to get there.”

The announcement of the delay wasn’t purposefully lined up with the return of the initial grade-level groups Monday, Baier said, but instead a result of there being a board meeting scheduled the same day.

However, as the district worked through planning for the return of its youngest students, Baier said administrators began to look closely at the return dates set for older students.

Second- and third-graders had been scheduled to return Nov. 2, but Baier said district staff realized it was better to push that a week later, so it lined up with the end of the trimester. Fourth- and fifth-graders were then also moved back a week to maintain three weeks of spacing between the two groups.

Challenges with older students

The district then looked at the prospect of bringing sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders back, which Baier said is a “far more complex” undertaking. Bringing back fifth grade and below is “fairly straightforward,” because each student stays in the same class with the same teacher all day.

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Zoe Morgan/Town Crier
Transitional kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade students in the Los Altos School District got the chance to resume in-person classes this week. The district announced Monday night (Oct. 12) that the return of older students will be delayed.

“Junior high and high school look nothing like that, so there is much more challenging planning that comes along with that,” Baier said.

Older students have multiple teachers throughout the day. That means exposing each teacher to many more students, and makes maintaining stable groups difficult. Baier said the district is still working on determining whether to keep these kids in one cohort throughout the day.

Although LASD uses a junior high model, where sixth grade is considered part of elementary school, sixth-graders still rotate between multiple teachers, who specialize in different subjects.

Seventh- and eighth-graders pose even greater scheduling challenges, as students have classes with seven different teachers, take varying levels of math and have a variety of elective courses.

“With choice comes complexity,” Baier said. “Figuring out how we can meet as many of the needs as possible in that complex schedule is taking additional time.”

Health orders are also different for older students. The county requires that student desks be spaced 6 feet apart at the junior high school level, while for elementary schoolers, space between desks should “ideally” be spaced at least 6 feet apart “to the extent practicable.”

Both Baier and board president Bryan Johnson said they don’t know of any public school district in the county that is bringing back junior high schoolers this calendar year. Many districts aren’t bringing back any grade levels at all.

“Partly because we’re one of the few districts that’s out there trying to return to campus, there aren’t a lot of precedents out there for us to look (toward),” Johnson said in an interview. “We’ve had to have a little bit of back-and-forth with the county to work out the details of what actually is and isn’t permissible under their health guidelines.”

Surprise announcement

The decision to delay students’ return wasn’t explicitly included on the published board agenda, beyond an item noting that staff would “provide updates on the status of students returning to in-person learning.”

According to Baier, district staff were focusing their energy on bringing transitional kindergarten through first-grade students back Monday, leaving little bandwidth to focus on other things.

“We just have a limited number of people reorganizing school as we know it,” he said.

The district plans to send out information to parents and staff on the delay Tuesday. Baier and Johnson both said they know and appreciate that the delay is going to have an impact on families. If a student is struggling, Johnson encouraged families to reach out to the district for help.

“I do feel like we should recognize that this is a big change. It is unfortunately pushing back the return of junior high students by six to eight weeks,” Johnson said at the board meeting. “I know that’s not something that you guys do lightly.”

In an interview after the meeting, Johnson said the district has been aiming to be as transparent as possible in its planning, laying out specific return dates for students, but that also means public changes to the plan can happen.

“One of the downsides of being transparent in an unprecedented, shifting situation like this is that sometimes you put out a plan and then you have to change it,” Johnson said.

Baier said he certainly hopes there won’t be any further delay beyond what was announced Monday, but that given the nature of the pandemic, nothing is entirely certain.

District administrators plan to give the trustees an update at a scheduled Nov. 9 board meeting on plans to bring back sixth- through eighth-graders.

“Everybody recognizes that in-person instruction is better than virtual instruction in a vacuum,” Johnson said. “But everybody wants to do it safely, and there’s just a million details to figure out.”

Although grade-level returns are being pushed back, at Monday’s meeting district staff presented plans to begin offering an in-person program to support students having a hard time with distance learning. Dubbed the "LASD+ Program," students would get help with their distance learning in a supervised environment. For more, check out the Oct. 21 edition of the Town Crier.

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