LASD lays out plans to bring older students back

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Zoe Morgan/Town Crier
Second- and third-graders returned to campus last week. All grade levels are expected to come back part time by mid-January.

The Los Altos School District has released plans detailing how it will bring older students back in person, moving forward with plans to have all grade levels back on campus part time by mid-January.

At a school board meeting last week, administrators introduced proposed schedules for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students. Sixth-graders are slated to return Jan. 11, with seventh- and eighth-graders coming back Jan. 20. Families still have the option to choose an all-virtual model for their children. The deadline to switch between the two paths before the January reopening dates is Dec. 7.

Spiking COVID-19 cases led Gov. Gavin Newsom to move Santa Clara County into the most restrictive purple tier in the state’s COVID-19 framework, effective today (Nov. 17). That means school districts that are currently closed are now not able to reopen. However, LASD can continue to reopen because it was already in the process of bringing grade levels back, the county’s media relations team confirmed in an email. Superintendent Jeff Baier did not respond to a request for comment on the new tier status before the Town Crier’s Monday afternoon print deadline.

The district has already brought back students in third grade and below, with fourth and fifth grades scheduled to return Dec. 7.

Bringing back older students is more complicated than elementary schoolers because they see various teachers throughout the day. That has the potential to increase the spread of COVID-19.

To mitigate the risk, the district plans to assign sixth- through eighth-grade students to a stable group that stays together in the same classroom for all periods. Teachers will then rotate into each class, staying at least 6 feet away from the students. The kids also will be assigned seats that are spaced apart from each other.

Administrators are recommending sixth-graders return in an AM/PM schedule, where students are split into morning and afternoon groups, all on campus four days a week. Seventh- and eighth-graders also would be split into two groups, but each would be on campus two days a week.

That’s similar to the model the district is using for elementary school students. The younger students are on campus two days a week and all stay in the same classroom, with the same teacher, all day.

Sixth grade

Sixth-graders are a unique group in the district because they rotate between teachers for different subjects while still on the elementary school campuses. For this reason, the district is proposing a unique model for sixth-graders.

According to Assistant Superintendent Sandra McGonagle, the district was originally considering a schedule similar to what is being used for younger students, where there are two groups, each on campus twice a week.

They then began to consider an AM/PM model. Under this schedule, one group would come in the morning four days a week, while the other group would come in the afternoon. All students would stay at home all day Wednesdays.

Sixth-grade teachers across the district didn’t coalesce around either model, McGonagle said, with the schools split between the two. They agreed to forward along both schedules to the principals and administrators for consideration, who ultimately decided to recommend the AM/PM model.

The benefits are that students get to be on campus four days a week, plus kids aren’t on campus for lunch – eliminating the need for staff to try to enforce distancing as students eat and play, McGonagle said. However, the concern is that parents likely weren’t expecting this model, she added, and bringing students to campus four times a week for a half-day may be more logistically difficult for parents.

Seventh and eighth grades

For seventh- and eighth-graders, the plan is to use a model similar to the elementary schools, where students are split into two groups, half on campus Mondays and Tuesdays, the other half Thursdays and Fridays, with everyone at home Wednesdays. However, unlike the elementary schools, even during their at-school days, students would leave campus at 12:05 p.m., eat lunch at home and complete classes remotely in the afternoon.

While on campus, they would have four periods (science, history, English and a support class). Math, electives and PE would be entirely remote. Both the afternoons and the two fully at-home days would feature live lessons. Wednesdays, students would work independently.

The district decided to have math fully at home in an effort to keep the in-person groups of students heterogeneous and prioritize equity, Blach Intermediate School Principal Bhavna Narula said.

Because the district offers multiple levels of math for junior high schoolers, and the groups of students are going to stay together through all their in-person classes, offering math on campus would have meant making cohorts based on the level of math students are in.

Parent feedback

Parents who spoke at last week’s board meeting had questions about the plans for older students, with some praising the effort the district has been making to bring kids back.

“Like everyone here, I just want to say thank you for your amazing leadership during this really difficult time,” one sixth-grade parent said. “I’m excited that you’re exploring new avenues for sixth, seventh and eighth grade.”

However, a couple of parents said they want to see seventh- and eighth-graders in particular have more time on campus. They would be on campus roughly seven hours per week, compared to 11 hours for sixth-graders.

“I do have to say, I’m pretty disappointed,” a seventh-grade parent said. “Seven hours a week of in-person instruction, by my count, is much, much less than I hoped for. That’s barely more than one day.”

Later in the meeting, trustee Vladimir Ivanovic said that given the county’s reopening requirements, and the limitations of space and staffing, he thinks it is unlikely parents could come up with a better solution, asking Superintendent Jeff Baier whether any other middle or high schools in the Bay Area have reopened. Baier confirmed that Palo Alto is the only other public school district in the county with a similar reopening plan. Private schools have reopened, though Baier said they typically already had smaller class sizes.

“Given the constraints we’re operating under, I don’t think anyone else can come up with something that’s better,” Ivanovic said.

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