Morgan Hill Unified School District officials are hoping to bring students at all grade levels back to the classrooms in time for the start of the final quarter of the 2020-21 school year.
The return to school by March 22 must be preceded by a lengthy list of conditions, including a significant reduction in the Bay Area’s Covid-19 risk level as determined by state and county public health officials.
The MHUSD board of trustees at the Jan. 19 meeting approved a district staff recommendation to allow “students in all grades to return to school in-person at some level” starting March 22, reads a statement from the district. More details will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.
It is likely that the reopening of the classrooms will entail a combination of distance learning and in-person instruction at all MHUSD schools, according to district staff.
Superintendent Steve Betando said all students should have the opportunity to return to in-person learning before the end of the school year, if it is safe to do so. He noted that for high school seniors, in particular, the campus and classroom experience with their peers is a “significant part of their life.” He pointed out that some students in the district—such as those in kindergarten and pre-school—have never been to school in a classroom with other children, and some teachers have not met their students face-to-face.
“So we wanted to put together a goal where they could come back the last quarter” of the 2020-21 year, Betando said.
District staff on Jan. 19 presented a number of conditions that must be met before all grade levels can return to in-person instruction. These include a reduction of Santa Clara County and the Bay Area to the “red tier” Covid-19 risk level or better, indicating that the virus is less widespread than it currently is under the state’s “purple tier.” Conditions also include the vaccination of all MHUSD staff or—for those who choose not to be vaccinated—daily screening, weekly Covid-19 tests or other protective options as an alternative to a vaccine.
Other conditions that must be met before a March 22 return to in-person school include:
-Social distancing of students;
-All required health protocols in place;
-Individual student/home bubble health concerns addressed by school site health teams and available support for distance learning technology;
-Instructional technology fully deployed and available for all needed instructional situations;
-Food service has the ability to distribute meals with staggered schedules;
-Transportation can serve students at acceptable levels;
-Additional temporary employee positions for supervision, cleaning and health screening.
Betando said the recent development of Covid-19 vaccines was a “trigger” for a springtime reopening of the classrooms. District officials would like to be able to vaccinate students as well, but a vaccine for children likely won’t be available until 2022.
“Those conditions are a heavy load but I think each one of them is critical to make this happen,” Betando said.
The superintendent added that it is vital that MHUSD include parents in any plans to bring students back to the classrooms. School principals will be in contact with parents over the coming weeks to offer more details.
Betando offered more information about the district’s reopening goals at a Jan. 22 online meeting of the Morgan Hill chamber of commerce education committee, which was streamed and recorded on Facebook.
No Covid-19 spread in pilot program
Since the pandemic started in March 2020, most public school districts in California—including MHUSD—have adopted distance learning models on the instruction of public health officials in order to contain the spread of Covid-19.
In November, MHUSD began a pilot program to reopen some classrooms to in-person instruction. The program has proven to be safe, as no virus outbreaks have occurred in the participating classrooms, Betando said.
Since the pilot program began, two students have tested positive for Covid-19, and district staff determined that these children contracted the virus somewhere outside the classroom.
The two cases were unrelated and in different schools, MHUSD spokeswoman Lanae Bays said. “In both cases, the cohorts were quarantined. All of the students in the affected cohorts/classes were closely monitored, and there was no spread—no other students contracted Covid,” Bays said.
Betando said he tested positive for Covid-19 about two weeks ago, but he has not experienced any symptoms. He said he has self-isolated since testing positive.
Despite his lack of symptoms, Betando said he has in fact been going in for monthly Covid-19 testing to ensure he has not been spreading the virus without knowing it.
“I think it’s very important for all of us to do regular testing to make sure we minimize the spread,” Betando said.
Studies in other states have shown that the risk of Covid-19 spread from schools is lower than in the general population if social distancing, face coverings and cleanliness protocols are implemented.
MHUSD even expanded the in-person pilot program earlier this week by opening up five more classrooms to students and staff, Betando said.
The pilot program was initially implemented in classrooms in Barrett Elementary, El Toro Health Science Academy, San Martin/Gwinn Environmental Science Academy and Nordstrom Elementary School.
The schools and classrooms must comply with state and county health protocols in order to retain their approval for facilities and staffing.
The district has also implemented “connectivity hubs” for some groups of students to attend classes virtually on campus; and small in-person support groups on some campuses.
On Dec. 30, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed the Safe Schools for All plan to reopen classrooms to in-person instruction in February. The plan is bolstered by a $2 billion package of incentives to help schools pay for testing, ventilation systems and personal protective equipment.
To qualify, school districts must reside in a county with a seven-day average Covid-19 case rate of 28 or lower per 100,000 residents. Santa Clara County, meanwhile, has a rate of 67.3 cases, according to state data. Thus, it is unlikely that MHUSD would be able to participate in the state plan by February.