OUSD Has More Homework to Reopen Schools

(Contributed Photo)
OUSD School Board Member Jason Kaune is shown on a Poly Studio Camera at the Oct. 14 board meeting. The board was trying out the new technology as a possible way to stream in-person learning lessons to students viewing from home.

    In October, the number of COVID-19 cases in Contra Costa County reduced enough to move the county into the less restrictive red tier, allowing some indoor businesses to open with modifications. While a cause for celebration, the new designation also brings with it a myriad of plans and decisions to be made, especially for school districts.
    The extent of that work became clear at an Orinda Union School District (OUSD) meeting held Oct. 14. A follow-up meeting is scheduled for Oct. 26. The Oct. 14 meeting, which lasted five hours, presented and discussed a host of possible contingencies and preparations to help students learn, whether at home or in person, and to keep students, teachers and staff safe.
    Keeping on top of any COVID-19 outbreak is a top priority for all concerned. To that end, Kenneth Nunes of Frontline Education outlined a plan in which his company would provide a streamlined health management system including paperless COVID-19 compliance, health screening, contact tracing and safety training. An important element to re-opening classrooms.
    Dr. Sara Edwards, associate professor of sports medicine at UCSF and parent of OUSD students, shared her vision of “as safe an environment as possible for the return to school.” Dr. Edwards introduced three companies which perform free-of-charge COVID-19 testing on a weekly basis. The companies deal with insurance and third-party billing. The testing turn-around time is 24-30 hours. “If we could set up testing like this, we could have it at several of our school sites for students, parents, teachers and staff to use,” said OUSD Board President Cara Hoxie.
    Another important piece of the puzzle is the Community Compact. Superintendent of Schools Dr. Carolyn Seaton introduced the draft compact outlining guidelines for responsible behavior by all stakeholders before in-person instruction could take place. Board Member Hillary Weiner said the draft will be presented for review and refinements to parents and teachers.
    “Teachers, students and administrators have to work together and adhere to health and safety protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We are collectively responsible for the common good of our local community and our greater world,” said Seaton.
    The school district also debuted a new Poly Studio Camera that could help with at-home learning by live streaming classroom activities. The hybrid learning plan OUSD adopted in July did not include the new camera and its learning possibilities. The original hybrid plan envisioned students attending in-person classes Tuesday – Friday, with each class divided into two groups of approximately 10-12 students. One group would attend class from 8 – 11 a.m. while the other group had independent study at home. In the afternoon, the second group would attend class from noon – 3 p.m. with the first group working on assignments from home. The plan necessitated teachers having two sets of three-hour classes. In addition, students who chose not to attend in-person classes would continue with distance learning.
    “We are concerned about our teachers and how hard they are working. With the Poly Studio Camera, students at home could watch what was happening in the classroom, and the teachers wouldn’t have to teach the lesson twice,” Hoxie said.
    Teachers, however, had several apprehensions about the camera. Charles Shannon, president of Orinda Educators’ Association, felt privacy issues were at stake while teacher Michele Stiller noted how difficult it would be for teachers to simultaneously teach virtually and in person. “It wouldn’t be beneficial to students,” she said.
    Recent surveys of students, parents, teachers and staff members added new data to the mix as board members determine the best plan going forward. OUSD received 1,467 responses from elementary parents representing 1,393 students. The majority were in favor of returning to a version of in-person learning, with 13.1% preferring to stay with distance learning. Of those in favor of in-person learning, 78% wanted students back in school as soon as possible and 21.7% preferred to begin after the winter break.
    In the teacher/certified survey, 96% of OUSD employees responded with 50% of classified staff responding. The teacher/certified category was almost equally divided (52.4% and 47.6% respectively) between students continuing in the distance learning model through 2020-2021 and students returning in the hybrid model this school year. Classified staff felt more strongly about continuing distance learning (51.3%) rather than returning to the classroom (35.5%) with 13.2% not having a strong opinion one way or the other. For complete survey results, go to orindaschools.org. Access Oct. 5 board meeting agenda details for student/parent survey and Oct. 14 board meeting agenda details for teacher/staff survey.
    “We need to be creative and innovative,” said Hoxie. “There are so many details that need to be worked out before we can return to any kind of in-person learning. This is a conversation among teachers, students, parents and staff. We need to focus on solutions and keep talking to each other.”
    Weiner said, “We hope to make a decision soon, but it’s tremendously hard with parents, teachers and staff divided.”
    Seaton added, “We want to provide the best education we can for students. Regardless of how strong your distance-learning model is, we know the best education we can provide is in person.”
    According to Seaton, students served by the Special Education program will still be supported through their Individualized Education Plan (IEP) with any needed services during independent learning time.
    If the Contra Costa County has an increase in positive COVID cases and moves back into a higher tier, schools would not necessarily close. The county’s safety section allows schools in a section of the county without an increase to remain open. If Orinda doesn’t have an increase in cases, schools could remain open. It’s also possible just one classroom or one school could be closed.
    “We don’t want a situation where we have to go back and forth – open school, close school. We’re doing all we can to maximize safety and have a thoughtfully orchestrated plan,” said Seaton. “Some parents are concerned and feel distance learning has been detrimental to their children, while others don’t want their children coming back to school until there is a vaccine. We won’t be able to please everyone.”
    The OUSD board met again Oct. 26 to review updated plans for reopening. Information on the Zoom meeting can be obtained at orindaschools.org.

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