Connecting state and local government leaders
School districts are grinding forward amid the chaos of conflicting information, weighing the push and pull of opinions from parents, teachers and staff, as well as political leaders.
School leaders in Elk Grove, California, wanted to leave as little to chance as possible. So they brought nearly 150 voices into their decision-making process, and canvassed the parents of the estimated 63,000 students in the district to ask how they wanted their children taught. The result was a four-item menu of instruction choices for the coming academic year, none featuring a full campus.
About 45 minutes down Interstate 5 in California’s Central Valley, seven trustees in Manteca took a 5-2 vote: School would resume on campus, at full classroom capacity, five days a week. Parents would have the option to enroll children in a 100% online academy—although it didn’t yet exist. After a protest from teachers and the health department, the district later relented and agreed to put students on campus for five days every two weeks.
Two districts in the same part of the world; two groups of educators and families; two substantially different decisions. This is education in the age of the pandemic.
While the national conversation whipsaws between President Donald Trump’s threats to cut funding to districts that don’t fully open and some health experts’ warnings that crowded campuses could be petri dishes of disease, school districts are grinding forward amid the chaos of conflicting information. Trying to track the moving target of COVID-19 and the state orders that move with it, while facing parent pushback and political manipulation, board members and teachers sometimes feel they are running the gauntlet.
“These decisions are subject to constant revision,” said Nancy Chaires Espinoza, a board member with the Elk Grove district. “Every few days or once a week, we learn something new that changes the way we approach things—even the physical arrangement of the classrooms.”
With a public school enrollment of more than 6 million and a population still firmly gripped by the giant first wave of the coronavirus, California’s attempts to answer the school question have been many—and mostly futile. The Los Angeles school district announced that its entire system, the nation’s second-largest, would be 100% online to begin the academic year. In Marin County, north of San Francisco, the plan was for a full reopening on campus, with no distance learning offered.
Wildly differing decisions up and down the state reflect its geographical and demographic diversity. It may be easier, for instance, to consider full-class learning in smaller or more rural districts, where physical distancing is a more realistic goal. In any case, neither the federal government nor the state sets the policy for any individual district. That is up to school boards and trustees.
Elk Grove, near Sacramento, is the state’s fifth-largest district; it has an active board that receives plenty of parental input. The district closed down schools the first week of March, well before most districts in the state, after members of a student’s family tested positive for COVID-19. Elk Grove offered distance learning for the rest of the spring.
In the months since, school leaders have tried to incorporate parents’ preferences, teachers’ concerns, the cost of constantly disinfecting and sanitizing more than 60 campuses and, of course, the science. Consensus on that last part is lacking, however; while some experts warn that opening schools is a nightmare scenario, others point to the evidence that children for the most part don’t transmit COVID-19.
According to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people under 18 account for fewer than 2% of COVID cases in the U.S., despite representing 22% of the population. But it’s far less clear to what extent school kids carrying the virus might pass it to their teachers, parents and other members of their communities.
“There are still a ton of questions to be answered,” said Chris Nixon, an elementary-school teacher in Elk Grove. Nixon and his wife, Tina, who is a teacher in the district as well, have two football-playing sons at Sheldon High School, one of the district’s nine high school campuses.
Elk Grove’s approach includes a “transitional” hybrid of staggered in-class cohorts plus remote learning; distance learning only; a charter school system heavy on independent study; and a virtual-only academy for grades K-8. Parents may choose the option that best fits their family’s needs.
“I just don’t see how social distancing is possible with full classes, and my wife and I would be concerned about teaching in that environment,” Nixon said. But he’s unsure what the transitional approach—classrooms in the mornings, distance teaching in the afternoon—will look like. “We really haven’t been provided with a model to show how it works, so we’ll see,” he said.
And there are no sure things. Elk Grove’s emergency attempt at distance learning in the spring was not well received, one reason that trustee Carmine Forcina argued at a June board meeting for reopening. Parents, teachers and students told him that remote learning had been “videos, self-teaching and extended vacations. That’s unacceptable.”
“I am on record supporting a full return to school with a full complement of activities, along with a quality distance-learning program for those not comfortable with returning to school,” Forcina told California Healthline.
That one-two approach is closer to what happened in Manteca, which has 24,000 students. It happened quickly, too: Meeting in June, the school board voted to open all campuses for the fall.
“They voted to go back every day, all day, with class sizes up to 34 students and no [mandatory] masks—but we get hand sanitizer,” said Ken Johnson, a teacher for 39 years and president of the Manteca Educators’ Association. Teachers had no input on the online academy, class size, working conditions or safety protocols, he said. “A lot of our teachers are freaked out, as well they should be with the recent events.”
The district laid out an array of possible on-campus safety measures, including limiting visitor access, strongly encouraging the wearing of masks and requiring daily temperature self-checks for staff and students. After teachers protested and county health officials “strongly recommended” to begin the school year with only distance learning, a modified plan—five days in the classroom, followed by five online—was hatched during an emergency board session. Details were to be determined.
Manteca’s approach is unusual in California. Liability concerns may be one reason few districts reviewed by KHN have seriously considered full classrooms on everyday schedules. A state bill was introduced to shield districts from COVID-related lawsuits as long as they follow state and local health directives, but its fate is uncertain.
“If [Manteca] does not lay out a clear plan on how kids will remain safe, then there is no point in opening schools back up,” said David Garcia. Garcia, a tech specialist in the private sector, is able to work from home and said he and his wife will take the online-only option for their sixth-grade son.
“At home we have the necessary items to keep ourselves safe,” he said, while overwhelmed teachers won’t be able to manage amid COVID precautions. “If in regular times teachers have to ask for donations to do their jobs, how can we expect them to do it now, in these times?”
In both Manteca and Elk Grove, teachers say they want to be back on campus and in classrooms. “With all of the challenges to the other models, I don’t see how it can be argued that any of them beat the educational benefits of a traditional full-class model,” said Elk Grove’s Nixon. “Unfortunately, we just aren’t there yet.”