Coronavirus: When California school campuses open in the fall, students might find a different experience

Friday, April 17, 2020

As California high school campuses remain closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, California Governor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday of this week shared that California high schools won’t be back to normal. California high school districts will need to plan for radical changes. 

California elementary school, middle school, high school, and college and university campuses are likely to reopen in the fall. However, California Governor Gavin Newsom warned that the experience might be soberingly different for high school students. 

California high school district leaders must consider safety measures like “reconfigured classrooms” and staggered classes to allow for social distancing as schools begin to open back up, though online learning will likely continue, shared Newsom on Tuesday.

“Those are the kinds of conversations we’re all going to be having over the course of the next number of weeks and the next number of months. Can you stagger the times that our students come in so you can appropriate yourself differently within the existing physical environment by reducing physical contact if possible, reducing the congregate meal, dressing issues related to PE and recess?” said Newsom.

Steps such as separating students at lunch and changing the school schedule will have a significant impact on the Bay Area’s more than 860,000 students, many who already are struggling to continue their education at home as districts have switched to distance learning.

Newsom’s comments come as California high school districts contemplate what comes next after the unprecedented move of closing down campuses amid the ongoing spread of coronavirus.

Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent Don Austin has already seen how the debate over distance learning, online education and a teacher’s role in that environment has been turned on its head as at-home education becomes a top priority.

Austin is hoping that expanding the number of year-round schools, moving to morning and afternoon school shifts and a combination of online and in-person teaching will be easier to get used to.

“I think the problem-solving, the brainstorming around summer, fall and beyond has not been radical enough and I think that people are still trying to make things fit the paradigm they’re used to,” said Austin.

Radical changes cannot be made without the consent of thousands of unionized teachers who have gone to the bargaining table over the years to secure better working conditions and funding for high schools.

No matter what strategy high school districts choose for summer and fall, teacher’s unions across the Bay Area fight for specific working standards as the idea of public education shifts toward something new.

California Teacher’s Association President E. Toby Boyd said no one knows exactly what a new teaching environment for school districts and teachers will look like.

“Just as we worked with the Governor, local school districts, parents and education organizations to create a distance learning framework. We look forward to working with the Governor, Superintendent of Public Instruction and our education partners to ensure when it is time to reopen schools, educators are part of the conversation…so our students can be taught well and in safe conditions.”

San Jose Unified School District Teacher’s Association President Patrick Bernhardt said it is way too early to know what summer and fall will look like, but he is taking the governor’s comments into account.

In order to maintain social distancing measures, high school students might have to come to school every other day and work from home the days in between. Custodial staff will then have the chance to clean during those days.

This might mean forming “A” and “B” schedules in which half the student come to campus one day and the other half work from home.

At the Alameda Unified School District, Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi said his team is developing two plans—one for schools reopening as normal in late August and a contingency plan that applies distance learning into the next school year.

Implementing Newsom’s suggestions of staggered schedules and reduced class sizes will require “really complicated calculations” and cause “serious impacts on planning and scheduling and logistics,” according to Scuderi.

“The idea of rewriting or reconstructing a high school master schedule for a school of 1,500 to 3,000 students to a split day, staggered A/B schedule is a pretty significant change on how we do business that would impact class times, length of the school day and might involve expanding the school year,” said Scuderi. He his hoping superintendents will have a role in deciding what guidelines will be followed next fall.

Parents and educators like Kathy Hudson, a first grade teacher in the Union School District in San Jose, are waiting for more direction from the state and individual school districts.

Hudson shared, “Every teacher I’ve talked to would rather be back in the classroom with their kids. It’s definitely not the same. But we know we’ve got to keep it safe for teachers and students.”

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