As a trustee on the CUSD Governing Board, I find myself faced with the toughest, most complex decision that I have been asked to make in my nearly six years on the Board; that being the reopening of our four school sites amidst the continuing pandemic. It is not so much the decision to reopen that I find so difficult, we need to reopen, but the how and when to do so is what makes it complicated.
Here at CUSD, we are “public education.” Consequently, our choices are different than those at private schools or charters. At CUSD, we use taxpayer funds to provide a broad range of education services for the children under our tutelage. We have a fiduciary responsibility to do so and our mantra “Every Child, Every Day” is a commitment to provide the best education possible given the funds available.
Considering reopening, there are a range of options. On one extreme, we leave children in their homes to “distance learn” through pedagogical services provided by their teachers with the support of parents and, in some cases, any additional services their parents can afford to provide. The other extreme, of course, is the full uninhibited return to the classroom. Personally, I find neither of these “extreme” choices satisfactory.
In several board meetings and in his most recent weekly update, Superintendent Mueller emphasizes that his commitment “to resuming instruction is steadfast, while prioritizing the health and well-being of our students and staff.” Let us consider factors affecting the health and well-being of students and staff. First, and most obvious is the threat the COVID-19 virus. The differing effects of the illness on disparate demographics, most all of which are present within our classrooms, is well publicized and oft discussed, so I do not intend to linger on them here. Risking generality, I will say our younger students without underlying conditions are far less vulnerable than our eldest teachers, many of whom have multiple underlying conditions. Consideration must also be given to infected children spreading the illness, not just among teachers but into their families at home.
However, also consider the impact of the “health and well-being” of students not afforded the opportunity to grow and learn, socially, emotionally, and academically in a classroom environment. Much social and emotional learning is only achieved when children are given the opportunity to sit and interact in an environment among peers and under the supervision of highly qualified, experienced teachers. Is missing out on that not equally as damaging to them in the long term than their risk of exposure to the virus? That question is rhetorical question and one that only their parents should answer with regards to individual family situations. Yet, it is also one that the district leadership must consider when determining how and when to fully reopen schools.
Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer to my rhetorical question. For instance, high school students have the benefit of years of school house instruction. They know how to behave (ok, mostly) in a classroom, stay in an assigned seat, be respectful of others and that there is an expectation by the teacher that they will work diligently. I estimate 80-90% of their learning is academically related and there is little need for a teacher to physically interact among those students. Thus, high school teachers can relatively easily be protected and socially distanced. We could go so far as to produce a “bubble” or threshold within the classroom that more than adequately distances students from teachers.
However, consider the elementary group of TK-5 students. In their earliest years, they are still learning classroom norms. They interact, move about, misbehave more frequently, and are still learning proper etiquette. All this requires teacher interaction, often well within six feet of their pupils. Thus, the numbers are likely reversed from the high school. Elementary teachers are spending 80-90% of their day providing social and emotional learning cues to their children. So maybe only 20% of the youngest child’s education is academic. But notably, I cannot satisfy their socio-emotional learning requirements through distance learning. I can wrap these teachers in the highest grade PPE, but they will be much more exposed and susceptible than their high school counterparts. I can’t put them in the same “bubble.” The on-site education of our middle school students would fall somewhere in between.
This dichotomy reveals a most unfortunate conundrum. Academically, high school students would be least impacted with courses of instruction delivered solely through distance learning. But as just stated, high school teachers theoretically are the easiest to protect in a classroom setting. The youngest students are ill-served through distance learning and need most to be in the classroom with interactive teachers which makes their teachers harder to protect. Consequently, I cannot match distance learners to the safest teaching environment.
Thus, it falls to us, the CUSD leadership, to define the problem and its solutions. I concur with a recently published reference from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Schools need to physically open while safely adhering to CDC guidelines. This not just based on my personal opinion, but more so because we are “public education” and we have survey data indicating a majority of our constituents want their children back in our classrooms this fall. This generates a mandate to provide those services.
In determining a solution, the decision of whether to return students to campus is not mine. Leadership is obligated to provide as safe and COVID-19-free environment as possible with funds available. But, in the end, the Board will not be the ones to decide if a child physically returns to school. That decision will be left 100% to the parents/guardians of that child. Yes, we are obligated to provide lessons for non-returning, stay-at-home students, and we will do that, but we cannot and will not pressure a return to the physical classroom.
So my thought process then shifts to our teachers. Clearly, some teachers will be required to provide in-class instruction to cohorts of students. They will be asked to dodge “COVID bullets” as I like to call them. Some have stated they are willing to do that, others will refuse to enter a classroom with even a reduced number of students on a limited basis. The question then becomes will we have enough “teacher volunteers” to fill the needs of parents willing to return their children to us? In a perfect world, the numbers of teachers needed to provide “in-the-line-of-fire,” on-site instruction would equal the demand.
Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case. Our early surveys indicated 89% of parents are ready to return their children to physical schooling, but only 66% of teachers and their aides expressed a willingness to return to the classroom. As mentioned these were “early” surveys and in light of recent COVID-19 spikes the numbers are likely different now, but I suspect the proportions are still similar. This puts us in a most unfortunate positon. Namely, can we force a teacher back into the classroom? I am not going to speculate an answer. I do know it would involve contract considerations with both certificated and classified employee unions.
I can give my opinion. I would hope that teachers recognize and take pride in the fact that they are already considered by state mandate to be “essential employees.” But asked, I suspect some would say they never “signed up for this.” However, risking an example, neither did the grocery store cashier whom is being asked to interact daily with a full range of unknown customers. I doubt we would all starve if they did not come to work but I do know many have chosen to stand in harm’s way. Some out of necessity but others out of a sense of accountability. We need to protect our vulnerable teachers to the nth degree and keep them out of the classroom if possible. Unlike store clerks, it is possible for some of them to work from home. But in the end, I am hoping that if asked, they would choose to come to work.
In closing, if the above opinions -- believable, valid, suspect or otherwise -- are to be confirmed, there needs to be a concrete plan, or range of plans, in place so that teachers, parents, and students can make personal decisions and start preparing for this fall. Although a suitable presentation that included a “concept of operations” for reopening was provided at a Special Board Meeting on July 9, no actual plan, plans, or even a plan to deviate from was proposed. Our teachers, parents and students are thus left having to decide on a fall course of action without the full knowledge of options that may be available to them. Options that other districts have already voted upon and published.
Will conditions change between now and end of August; absolutely. The virus at this point appears rampant. But by providing a range of distinct options now, blended and/or otherwise, along with absolutes of what restrictions and safety protocols will be in place, stakeholders will have greater understanding with which to make their decisions. The longer we wait, the fewer the options become. For instance, had we planned previously, perhaps we would have entertained an earlier start date so that we could complete a semester prior to Thanksgiving as several colleges are doing. Maybe there is still time to consider the benefits of a delayed opening. But action is required now.
If you believe as I do that the currently proposed date of August 13 for presentation to the board of a real opening plan is too late, then I urge you to write your Board and Superintendent Mueller and express your concerns.