A plan to reopen middle schools amid the pandemic alarmed San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District teachers who are concerned over potential health risks, but district officials are optimistic students can be brought back in a thoughtful and safe manner.
The district Board of Trustees’ decision Thursday, Jan. 21, surprised members of the San Mateo Elementary Teachers Association, according to union president Julie MacArthur who had expected that older students would remain in remote learning for the rest of the school year.
“I was shocked. I think the teachers were absolutely shocked,” said MacArthur. “It really felt like they were no longer willing to sort of problem solve and just came up with this idea that kids need to go back to school regardless.”
For her part, MacArthur said middle schools are particularly difficult to plan for because teachers require specialized credentials and the rotating class schedules means educators encounter far more students than their colleagues in elementary classrooms, therefore increasing their virus exposure risk.
But school board President Ken Chin expressed confidence that the sticky issues encountered in the planning process can be navigated through by the April 12 timeline established for bringing middle school students back after spring break.
“We feel like giving a target date allows the district to plan and make sure that everything is as safe as we can make it,” said Chin.
For context, Chin said officials used the same planning approach for reopening middle schools as they did when the schedule was established for bringing back younger students.
“Our role is to set policy and provide direction. We want middle schools to come back in the spring, so now it is up to the district to see how we can do it in the safest way,” he said.
Regarding the planning process, Chin said district educators should not be surprised that a schedule for middle schools reopening was established because the issue had been placed on a public agenda and community interest around the issue has swelled recently.
But MacArthur said surprise stemmed partially from recognizing that most other school systems have held off on reopening middle schools, electing instead to focus on bringing back elementary school students first.
Furthering that point, she said the district had followed a process teachers considered thoughtful regarding the plan to reopen elementary school classes gradually and in a staggered fashion. Alternatively, considering the middle school reopening plan rushed, she harbored concerns that the new mandate will slow down bringing back all students.
“Now that we have to add middle schools into these conversations, it is shifting everything and honestly it will delay the return for our younger students,” she said.
Ideally, MacArthur said she would have preferred that the district more thoroughly consider testing protocol and vaccine availability for teachers before making a reopening decision.
“Most teachers, the general sense I get from them is that they want to be vaccinated before they return,” she said.
MacArthur said teachers have severe concerns regarding the safety of campus infrastructure too, such as the ability of old air circulation systems to adequately assure the virus is not spread throughout the school building.
Chin noted that the district has invested heavily in its facilities to update all its air filtration systems, and expected that officials would dedicate the coming 10 weeks before students are scheduled to return addressing the rest of the infrastructure limitations.
More broadly, he noted that community spread has not been occurring on a large scale at schools applying safety protocol approved by local education and health officials.
Assuming the plan is implemented, MacArthur said she fears it will lead to an inequitable education system which allows students from families with more resources to come back to classrooms with fewer students because those with limited assets will remain in distance learning. While families with resources have more access to personal protective equipment, those without resources may not. Those without resources may also stay home since they could have family members who are vulnerable or who can’t afford the risk of getting sick, she said.
But Chin said officials are deeply concerned about offering equal opportunity to quality education, and while he did not have the data to explore MacArthur’s claims, he said that he is confident reopening classrooms will meet the needs of many struggling with online learning.
“I think that will help some of those students out,” he said.
MacArthur remained skeptical, however, concerned that officials hurriedly approved the reopening decision and kowtowed to parent pressure rather than thinking through the repercussions of their decision.
“It feels like they have just given up on teacher safety and they just want kids back in the classroom,” she said.