The William S. Hart Union High School District has planned the reopening of junior high and high schools on March 29. The reopening will be in a “blended learning” structure, with students choosing whether they would like to return to campus two days a week or continue with fully online learning.
“Our adjusted [COVID-19] case rates continue to move in the right direction. They fell from 5.2 to 4.1 out of 100,000 this past Tuesday,” Superintendent Mike Kuhlman said during the most recent board meeting on March 17.
The class structure for blended learning is unlike any schedule previously used by schools in the Hart District. Students who prefer the blended learning option (around 50% of students, according to Dave Caldwell, Public Relations Officer for the Hart District) will be divided into two cohorts. The first cohort will be on campus for classes on Monday and Tuesday, and the second cohort on Thursday and Friday, leaving Wednesday open for a deep disinfection of each campus.
When a student is not on campus, they will be learning over Zoom as they have been for the past year. Students will be taught online through Zoom simultaneously with the students who are learning in person.
The school district has put their efforts into readying campus for the reopening in recent weeks, implementing various COVID-19 safety precautions.
“I have been on campus, and we have great safety precautions in place,” Board President Cherise Moore said. “You walk on to campus, you have to fill out information on an app to make sure you don’t have any symptoms showing. You complete campus entry paperwork, the hand sanitizers are there, everyone is masked, in many cases double-masked. The desks are six feet apart in the classes, and all along the campuses you’ll see directional arrows so that it’s clear which way groups are going to be moving on campus. They’re really really safe, I can tell you that.”
Campuses will be complying with Los Angeles County Department of Public Health guidance, according to Chief Administrative Officer Collyn Nielsen. After reaching satisfactory approval from the county, schools will identify safe work practices like symptom screening, wearing masks at all times and response procedures when someone develops COVID-19 symptoms.
“We’ve also trained all staff and students on these practices, and all of our custodians and maintenance and operations staff have been trained on sanitization and disinfection procedures,” Nielsen said.
Teachers will supervise classroom distancing and masking, while supervisors, counselors and administrators will monitor students outside of the classroom, Nielsen said, adding that school administrations will address students who are noncompliant.
“We have a HEPA (highly-efficient particulate air) filter unit in every classroom,” Nielsen continued. “We have replaced all of the air filters in our HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems throughout the district so that they are rated as MERV 13 (minimum efficiency reporting value), which is recommended by the [LA] County Department of Public Health. We’ve also adjusted our HVAC units so that outside air flow is maximized in the classroom.”
Most teachers will be receiving their second COVID-19 vaccine dosage the week of March 22. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “It typically takes a few weeks after vaccination for the body to produce T-lymphocytes and B-lymphocytes. Therefore, it is possible that a person could be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 just before or just after vaccination and then get sick because the vaccine did not have enough time to provide protection.”
This information has raised concerns for teachers who are preparing to return to campuses.
“For some teachers, I don’t think it would be safe, especially those who are immunocompromised who especially need the vaccine,” said one Hart District teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity. “That time in between receiving their second dose and that March 29 return date may not be long enough. Until I’m fully inoculated, I wouldn’t feel completely safe, however I don’t have a choice.”
Hart District Teachers Association Grievance Chair Sean O’Brien explained that he has received several complaints from teachers regarding the reopening.
“Here’s the problem: the contract [between HDTA and Hart District schools] was flat out not written to cover this at all. There’s nothing in our contract that even remotely touches on, ‘What if there’s a pandemic?’ There’s nothing in there… We would get a case and go, ‘Nobody knows.’ Nobody knows what to do in this situation,” O’Brien said. “Most of the time when a teacher says, ‘Based on my health condition, it would be unsafe for me to return to the classroom,’ generally speaking, in those cases, we would refer them to their medical expert. We’re dealing with this actually right now. If the medical expert says, ‘Yeah, you are not in a position where you should go back,’ they can write in a recommendation to the district that this employee, for whatever health reason, really shouldn’t be going back right now. Then, depending on the type of problem it is, it might be covered by federal law, the [American Disabilities Act], or it might be covered by California law.”
When it comes to the future of schooling, O’Brien spoke of the damage done to the relationships between parents and teachers over the course of the pandemic.
“The realization that this year has brought is that when the chips are down, we are in a crisis, and most of our teachers feel that they were not valued by the community… That’s the feeling most teachers seem to have to one degree or another. The fact that so many parents – and it wasn’t just one or two, it was a lot – so many parents months ago were clamoring for us to go back to the in-person teaching with really no restrictions, no mask, no nothing, just, ‘Get back in there and be normal.’ This means that, not just our health, but our lives didn’t matter. They were willing to sacrifice us because it was somewhat inconvenient that their kid was at home. That’s a fundamental violation of the teacher-parent contract that I don’t know how we recover from. I don’t know how we ever go back.”
O’Brien also pointed out vaccine effectiveness within a short time span between schools reopening and spring break, which begins April 5-9. This is another point of concern for teachers, he said. In order to combat these concerns, Superintendent Kuhlman has urged that parents consider staying home this spring.
“As we approach spring break, I’d like to share a reminder that there is a health order that calls for a 10-day quarantine for those who travel out of state, and we recognize families need to make their own decisions about travel, but we respectfully request that families consider avoiding unnecessary interstate travel over the break,” Kuhlman said during the March 17 meeting. “We appreciate you working with us to do everything we can to keep these numbers moving in the right direction so that we can have a smooth reopening.”
“There’s this need – the biggest need that I hear – for social, emotional and mental health benefits that are allowed when you have social interaction,” Moore said. “We’re people, we’re social people, and we’re not meant to be in isolation. Being back on campuses will allow that opportunity to the degree that at least we can see other people, and the schools will be used for what they’re intended to be used for. There’s a lot of reasons why it’s important that schools reopen. It’s not normal that they’re closed. That in itself is reason enough for them to be reopened.”
Teachers have been given the option to either return to campus on March 29 or take unpaid leave, O’Brien explained.
“You can go back, or you can tell them that you have a medical reason that says you shouldn’t, and then they may allow you to use sick days,” O’Brien said. “There is an option between those two: an unpaid leave. You could say, ‘Okay, I don’t have the sick days saved up, but I need to not come back, could you put me on unpaid leave?’ Unpaid leave isn’t, ‘I quit,’ it’s just, ‘You’re not going to pay me for the period I’m not working, but I still have a job to return to.’”
The ability to opt out of in-person learning was made difficult when teachers were declared “essential workers” under the Trump administration, O’Brien said.
“When we were declared essential workers, that made it even harder for a teacher to say, ‘Yeah, but my health doesn’t permit me to go back.’ The essential worker nature, even though it sounds like a cool thing, meant, ‘No, no, no, you need to go back.’ At the same time it put us higher on the priority list for vaccines, [but] it also meant ‘You need to get back in there because you’re an essential worker.’”
Hart District students were given the choice as to whether they wanted to return to campus or continue with online learning. Brooke Johnston, a senior at West Ranch High School, opted for the blended learning option.
“Obviously [online learning] is not optimal,” Johnston said. “It’s just so hard to focus, and I feel disconnected from my peers and my teachers. It just adds another layer to senioritis that none of us need. It’s definitely been difficult, and I’m hoping to be more alert in person.”
With the latest vaccine eligibility restrictions lifted and young people 16 years and older becoming eligible for vaccination beginning April 15, there may be a new incentive for older students to return to campus for the remainder of the school year. For now though, Johnston said she feels good about returning to campus.
“I am a little nervous because I want to be as safe as possible and I don’t want to get COVID-19,” Johnston shared. “I do feel good knowing that there’s flexibility so that if I get to school and I’m like, ‘Oh, this is not what I was hoping for,’ I can just stay at home. I am really excited to see faces, have more routine and hopefully focus in class more.”
This story continues our ongoing series about the COVID-19 pandemic. We will continue to cover the conditions caused and worsened by the pandemic, along with the decisions made in response to it as this crisis continues.