With ample guidance but no orders from state or regional officials on ways to start classes this fall, local education officials offered mixed reactions to plans for reopening schools.
The San Mateo County Office of Education crafted a framework document for school district administrators to reference when determining the best policy for reopening campuses shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The county’s guidelines are another resources to be considered alongside the state’s recommendations released Monday, June 8, which further advise policymakers on issues to be considered.
But in the absence of a clear directive, local district officials grappled with the challenges posed by navigating an unprecedented challenge.
“It’s very difficult because no one is telling us exactly what we should or shouldn’t be doing from a health viewpoint or an educational viewpoint,” said Marc Friedman, president of the San Mateo Union High School District Board of Trustees. “They are just giving us a bunch of broad viewpoints, so we are on our own.”
The four pillars
Maggie Musa, president of the Millbrae Elementary School District, also acknowledged the difficulty associated with addressing a unique public health crisis.
“It’s very challenging,” she said. “It’s never been done before.”
For her part though, Musa said she appreciated the authority local officials maintain in determining a reopening strategy that fits the needs of their local school community.
“I like the idea that we have our own freedom to decide what is best for our own parent community and our kids,” said Musa.
The county’s guidelines for K-12 schools, expected to be published soon, are established around four pillars: health and hygiene protocol, required face coverings, physical distancing standards and gathering restrictions.
County Health Officer Dr. Scott Morrow, who helped craft the framework, acknowledged the amended school format will leave a lasting impact on the social and emotional health of students.
San Carlos resident David Binetti called for a greater emphasis on ways to assure such harm is reduced to children, and launched an online petition with nearly 2,000 signature supporting the effort.
“Public health includes the social-emotional health of 100,000 students in San Mateo County,” said Binetti, whose daughters attend San Carlos public schools. He further suggested the framework may have more comprehensively addressed the issue if officials gathered input from parents when forming the document.
Also similar to the state standards, the county’s framework is built on an assumed hybrid learning model which allows for a limited amount of students, teachers and staff on campus at one time alongside a continued reliance on distance learning.
Officials have claimed the hybrid model is an equitable approach to balancing the competing interests of those who need schools to reopen as a means of getting back to normal while preserving the health and safety of those who can’t or won’t return.
Some educators are unenthusiastic about the blended approach though, citing concerns that not committing to either campus or distance learning will yield limited results.
“The sum is less than the equal of its two parts,” said Justin Raisner, a journalism and English teacher at Carlmont High School in Belmont.
Observing the anticipated challenges for educators expected to craft both classroom and online lessons, Raisner said momentum is building among Sequoia Union High School District teachers to advocate for solely continuing remote learning over the immediate term.
Acknowledging virtual learning is challenging or impossible for some students or families to navigate, Raisner suggested schools could be kept open on a limited basis for those who must be on campus.
Teachers in the San Mateo Union High School District have expressed similar concerns regarding the blended model, and some urged officials to build on the advancements made in remote learning over the last few months rather than again switch directions.
The degree to which districts are able to pursue remote learning or reopen largely depends on funding and resources, noted Kalimah Salahuddin, president of the Jefferson Union High School District.
Nodding to the wide disparity of wealth in San Mateo County, education officials will gauge what is the best option for their community — generating a variety of approaches to starting classes, said Salahuddin, who is also president of the county School Boards Association.
“Our plans are going to look, possibly, very different,” said Salahuddin.
With such an expectation, she hoped parents would understand that the differing strategies are a function of an attempt by officials to balance many competing interests while preserving the safety of students.
“I hope that our county community will support the work that the education leaders are doing with knowing that everyone is leading with a lens of safety first,” she said.
She also asked for compassion among those in districts which might lag behind their neighboring communities in reopening. And she hoped that community members would see schools as more than a safe place for kids to be while parents go back to work.
“I know it’s going to be difficult but we are just hoping for some empathy and understanding on these decisions that are going to be unpopular,” she said.
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