The Santa Clara Unified School District (SCUSD) community’s pleas were heard and answered at a special meeting of the Board of Trustees.
At the meeting on Wednesday, July 29, many SCUSD stakeholders called in to voice their opinions on what was supposed to be the District’s Final Reopening Plan. The plan included a three phased reopening plan where they would start in distance learning and then move into hybrid learning and then in-person learning. According to Superintendent Dr. Stella Kemp, the plan before the Board is more of a vision and operations would be handled by staff.
Despite the work put into the plan by staff and a 50-person Superintendent’s Advisory Committee and even townhall meetings and feedback surveys, the plan didn’t sit well with families and teachers and they made that clear during public comment.
One of the main concerns was about the surveys that were sent out to families and teachers which asked them to give their preference between staying in distance learning for the full school year or moving into hybrid learning if and when it became available. Almost every comment said they felt “bullied” or “forced” into choosing hybrid learning. Concerned commenters said the surveys’ language specified that choosing distance learning and then switching to hybrid learning at a later time would come with the risk of being shuffled into another school. Similarly, teachers were warned that they could be shuffled to a different school depending on their choice.
Parents and teachers said they picked hybrid learning out of fear, not because it was their preference.
Jane Gilmore, a Washington Open parent and a teacher in another district, said that the surveys’ data shouldn’t even be considered because parents and teachers weren’t being honest and choosing hybrid learning out of fear.
On a similar note, many stated that it’s way too early to be asking parents to choose a learning model since the schools are starting in distance learning anyway. They said they don’t have enough information to make a decision, especially because they have no idea when schools will be allowed to welcome back students for in-person instruction.
Board Member Andy Ratermann was the first on the Board to suggest that they only approve that the District is starting the year in distance learning, but the idea was quickly echoed by the rest of the Board. We have time to figure out the rest, he said.
Board Member Jim Canova asked Dr. Kemp if there was a logistical reason the District needed preference data from the elementary community now and why it couldn’t wait. Dr. Kemp defended the plan saying that preparing now for hybrid learning and collecting teacher and family preferences were essential to creating classes.
Dr. Kemp responded that, especially at the elementary level, the beginning of the year is essential to build bonds with teachers and other students so by collecting this information, they could better guarantee that these bonds could continue and classes wouldn’t be split up if and when hybrid learning begins.
However, it was already stated in the plan that if parents choose distance learning and later change their preference to hybrid learning, they would already be at risk of being shuffled around.
Board Members discussed resurveying the community to get useful, honest data.
“I believe the options we have are good in this plan,” said Board Member Albert Gonzalez, “but I believe that we definitely need to do another survey, something to make sure that parents understand that we really want to know what the feedback is, irregardless of trying to keep your students in their home school.”
Doing a new survey for both families and teachers was a priority of the Board.
“We can’t offer a hybrid option [to families] if we don’t have teachers who don’t feel comfortable coming back in,” said Board President Dr. Michele Ryan. Continuing to say if they don’t have the teachers, it almost doesn’t matter what the parents’ preferences are. “I’m not comfortable forcing teachers to come in when they don’t feel safe.”
Dr. Kemp was quick to use the data they have already collected to defend her plan, but Board Members said they couldn’t trust that data since so many said they made their choice because they felt bullied. Some teachers even said they were afraid to lose their jobs if they made the wrong choice.
Board Clerk Mark Richardson said he understands that there are good reasons to have the parents make a choice now, but was in favor of taking baby steps for the sake of the families. He voiced that he could be in favor of the District starting with distance learning and then having staff continue to work on the future option of hybrid learning.
“It’s not ideal to kick that can, but we are in unideal times,” said Richardson.
Dr. Kemp insisted that they need the full plan to support Title 1 schools. However, Gonzalez said he is sure that not all Title 1 families will want to send their kids back to in-person school so quickly because a host of reasons, including multifamily or multigenerational homes, which causes concerns due to COVID-19. He wants to keep this group in mind to provide options.
“We need to find ways to provide more resources, even in a distance learning environment, to these students,” said Gonzalez. He continued to say that the Board knows that Title 1 schools will need more support.
Similarly, Board Member Vickie Fairchild hoped that the plan would be more fleshed out for another group: special education students. Saying teachers, specialists, and families need more information.
Taking the public comment to heart, and after many rounds of Board comments and questions, Dr. Ryan made a motion that differed from the staff recommendation. Dr. Ryan’s motion was to only approve the piece of the plan regarding the District schools starting the school year in distance learning. Additionally, the motion states that the District will resurvey teachers but with care not to pressure them in order to collect their true preference. And then the parents would be resurveyed to recollect their preference in a nonthreatening way. Once the data is collected, school sites would take that information and build classes around the teachers’ preferences. If there is an imbalance in the logistics or a gap, the school sites would reach out to families to communicate and sort out accommodations. Lastly, the motion ends with a request that a decision to move into Phase 2, aka hybrid learning, comes back to the Board for approval.
This motion passed 7-0.
Additionally, Ratermann made a motion regarding safety. The motion states that before students return to campus for instruction, a safety plan is presented to the Board for approval. This also passed 7-0
The Board will meet next on Thursday, Aug. 13 at 6:30 p.m. The first day of school is Monday, Aug. 17.