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High school teachers concerned about the health threats posed by inviting students back to the classroom advocated for all classes going online, while some officials said campuses should reopen this fall.

The San Mateo Union High School District Board of Trustees examined plans for starting the next school year during a meeting Thursday, June 11. Initially officials had proposed establishing a quarter system, but that option was pulled at the meeting in favor of preserving a semester calendar.

Rather than focus on ways to organize classes, much of the discussion addressed where they would take place — with teachers calling for entirely virtual sessions and administrators claiming some campus lessons need to begin.

No decision was made at the meeting, and officials agreed to continue examining the issue with plans to take action at a later meeting Thursday, June 25. But school board members indicated feedback from parents and teachers would help shape their opinions on the issue.

“Asking teachers and students to return to campus in the fall is reckless and irresponsible,” said Sally Shurter, a Burlingame High School language teacher maintaining reservations regarding the health risks associated with allowing students to gather in classrooms during a pandemic.

Such a perspective was echoed repeatedly by other teachers and parents, concerned by the possibility of students contributing to COVID-19’s spread.

“I’m pleading that the district not ask our students staff and administration to return to classes in the fall,” said Heather Johnson, a Burlingame High School science teacher.

For her part, parent Ann Rhee said the amended version of school expected once classes start is not supportable.

“Bringing students back to campus to spread-out desks, face masks, teachers behind Plexiglas, one-way hallways and no socializing is not what we want,” she said, in backing the proposal from teachers to rely on remote learning.

The discussion arrives the week after the San Mateo County Office of Education released guidelines for districts to examine when making a determination for starting classes in the fall. Hybrid learning models, social distancing mandates, face coverings and more safety standards are included in the plan.

Alternatively, Superintendent Kevin Skelly steadfastly advocated for allowing some students back to campus once classes start.

“It is my belief we should get kids back on campus, no matter what the restrictions are, as much as we possibly can safely,” he said. “It is too much to ask parents to continue to stay home.”

He balanced that perspective by acknowledging that remote learning can work well for a certain segment of the population, while other students and families needed to return to some semblance of normalcy.

“Many of us have the luxury of working at home and have been working from home. But there are many people who don’t have that luxury. So it is imperative, I believe, for us to have students come to school as much as they possibly can,” he said.

In pursuit of some compromise, high school district officials crafted a plan which would allow for up to one month of on-campus learning and the rest of the semester would be comprised of online classes.

Teachers have raised concerns with such hybrid models, suggesting it would be wiser for officials to instead sink all their resources into improving the district’s online learning.

Most trustees said they supported district administrators continuing to craft plans for a blended model, but with additional focus on ways to assure the online learning component is thorough.

“We need to improve and set expectations for virtual learning,” said Trustee Greg Land.

Alternatively, Trustee Peter Hanley said he believed some students should be allowed back to campus when classes begin again.

“We have to offer an option to the families that want and need their students back in classrooms,” said Hanley, who also raised fears that virtual learning arrangements limited education benefits for students.

For his part, board Vice President Robert Griffin called for officials moving forward deliberately to assure all concerns are addressed.

“Sometimes you have got to go slow to go fast, and I’m not in a rush to ram this thing through,” he said. “The more we know, the more thoughtful we can be, the better our outcome will be.”

Skelly committed to considering the feedback offered by officials when crafting a plan, while noting an expectation that any forthcoming decision will likely leave many frustrated.

“There is going to be a sizable element of our community that is going to be disappointed in this decision for a whole host of reasons,” he said.

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