Underscoring the patchwork of reopening plans emerging even among adjoining districts, West Contra Costa Unified students will be able to return to the classroom April 19 under a plan approved Friday by the district’s school board following weeks of intense labor negotiations with its five employee unions.

School employees are currently voting on whether to approve the plan, and the outcome of the vote is expected some time this week. A parent group that had criticized the district’s previous proposal — even threatening legal action if it were to pass — indicated it supported the plan.

The memorandum of understanding reached with union leaders states clearly that “distance learning shall remain the primary mode of instruction” for the remainder of the school year, even for those students participating in the in-person program. However, teachers can volunteer to teach in person to the students who participate.

The plan will offer what the district is calling two-hour “interventions” daily for high-need students, as well as longer in-person “hubs” on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for students from all grades.

For a brief guide to West Contra Costa’s plan, check out our FAQ at the end of this report.

West Contra Costa Unified enrolls about 30,000 students in the East Bay Area serving the communities of Richmond, El Cerrito, San Pablo, Pinole, Hercules and El Sobrante.

Some students in nearby Oakland Unified returned to campus on Tuesday for the first time in over a year, albeit for a limited number of hours and for only two days a week.  San Francisco Unified will start bringing back students on April 12.

‘The best plan that we can pass’

“I do believe that this is the best plan that we can pass, today, for this spring, and I believe that I have an obligation to do what I can to help the most children in the moment,” West Contra Costa’s school board president Mister Phillips said at a school board meeting last week.

Phillips added that although he believes the plan could have had more in-person offerings, he wanted to act fast to address the needs of students who are struggling the most while not being in school, as well as those who haven’t participated in distance learning.

In the “hubs” program, the district will invite students back on to campuses from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for K-8 grades and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for middle school and high school students Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Teachers and other school staff won’t be required to staff the hubs but may volunteer to attend, and will be offered a bonus of up to $3,250 for the rest of the school year for doing so.

If teachers volunteer to come into the classroom, they will teach to students who are in the classroom and “Zoom out” the lessons simultaneously to the students who are learning from home. The teacher will be partnered with an instructional aide who will help with a variety of Zoom tasks so that the teacher can focus on actual instruction.

When a teacher isn’t available, the district will offer what it calls “supervised distance learning,” where students come into the classroom under staff supervision to do distance learning while the teacher provides instruction remotely from his or her home.

The “interventions” for high needs students from all grades will be held from either 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week to offer additional academic tutoring. They will also offer programs and counseling for social-emotional learning, which are designed to help students develop emotional skills like self-awareness and navigating healthy relationships vital to success in school and life.

The district has targeted 1,400 students — about 5% of its enrollment — as having the highest need and will invite them first for the two-hour “interventions.”

If staffing allows, more students will be invited to participate in the “intervention” sessions, Superintendent Matthew Duffy said.

Student cohorts for the intervention programs will be no more than 10 students, and no more than 15 for the hub programs; mask-wearing, social distancing, and other safety protocols will also have to be in place.

School board member questions plan

School board member Jamela Smith-Folds, who cast the only vote against the plan last Friday, doubted the district will be prepared to open safely on April 19. She asked detailed questions about the district’s safety and staffing protocols during the past two school board meetings. She said she didn’t think her questions were properly answered and felt that what she perceives as the district’s lack of preparedness would result in the staff being overworked.

West Contra Costa Unified’s spring plan will go beyond that of nearby Oakland Unified in that it is offering an in-person option for all students in all grades.

Oakland Unified, in contrast, is guaranteeing an in-person option for pre-K through elementary students and will bring back at least one grade in middle or high school. Oakland Unified’s in-person program began this week for only pre-K through second grade and will start April 19 for the other students.  So far, Oakland students will only be in class for 2 1/2 hours in the afternoon two days each week.

San Francisco Unified, which like West Contra Costa Unified has not yet opened its doors to students on campus, will begin offering in-person classes for its youngest students as well as its highest-needs students on April 12. The district will offer in-person classes to more students starting April 19.

West Contra Costa Unified’s plan replaces a previous tentative agreement between the district and the unions. That plan only called for the two-hour “interventions” for high-needs students, and not the “hubs” for all students.

But after criticism from parent group West Contra Costa Safe Open Schools that the plan didn’t go far enough to get students back into schools, and a legal threat from the group, the district added the plan to offer in school instruction for more students.

The parent group, which includes parents who are attorneys, sent a letter to district officials and school board members last week, claiming the previous plan would go against the district’s duty to offer in-person instruction “to the greatest extent possible” as required by the state education code. Members of the group told EdSource last week they were considering suing the school district and were searching for a law firm to represent them.

Parent group onboard with plan

Kelly Hardy, one of the leaders of West Contra Costa Safe Open Schools, said the group is pleased with the current plan and hopes it can serve as a practice run for the fall. District officials stated last week that they are planning a full return in the fall with five days a week of in-person instruction.

“We’re eager to have some of this practice in the spring, so we can work out any kinks there may be, and we can practice going to school,” Hardy said. “I know my kid will be happy to be back in the classroom.”

Hardy said the group would still consider suing the district, though, if not enough teachers and staff volunteer in order to accommodate the number of students who sign up.

District officials at Friday’s meeting said they were confident that they will get enough volunteers to meet the need, and will be reaching out to parents in the coming weeks to get a “commitment” whether their children will participate.

“There’s an excitement to get back and working with kids,” said Associate Superintendent of Business Services Tony Wold. “We’re going to allow that natural excitement and that connection to get back.”

Wold added that the district will continue talks with the labor unions to facilitate bringing more staff back in person if not enough volunteer to meet the need and to qualify for funds from the state’s $2 billion financial incentive program approved by the state Legislature in March.


What does the West Contra Costa Unified’s “In-person Support Program” consist of?

Beginning on April 19, students will be able to participate for a limited number of hours in what the district calls an “interventions” program for high-needs students, and a “hub” for all students. Distance learning will remain the default mode of learning for all students. Whether students get instruction from teachers directly in the classroom will depend on whether teachers volunteer to come into the classroom.

What is the “interventions” program? 

It will be open to “high-needs” students, in cohorts of up to 10 students and staff per classroom. Content will focus on “core academic areas, language development and social-emotional learning” and be offered on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. or 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Social emotional/small group activities will be held on Thursday or Friday afternoon between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.

Who qualifies as a high-needs student?

High-needs students can fall into multiple categories, including special education students, foster and homeless children, English learners, low-income students, African American students whose academic performance have been disproportionately impacted by distance learning, those without access to a computing device, software and high-speed internet needed to participate in online instruction, as well as “disengaged” students and those identified as needing social and mental health supports.

What are the “hubs”?

These are in-person small groups of up to 15 staff and students where students will get “academic support” from teachers and instructional aides, but continue to get instruction via distance learning while in the classroom. They will get help from teachers or instructional aides. Students will get academic support in a “safe and supervised place for students to access the internet.”

Times will vary, but it will be between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Wednesday. On Thursday and Friday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., students can participate in “social-emotional activities and clubs.”

Will teachers need to be vaccinated? 

To participate, teachers will have to verify that they have had “the opportunity to schedule and/or receive a vaccination.”

While the county is in the red or purple tier, teachers must have received their full vaccination, along with the two-week waiting period after the last vaccination. In the orange tier, partially vaccinated teachers will be able to participate.

Will asymptomatic testing be required?

Yes. The district will provide no-cost testing to all staff and students participating in the in-person support program. While the county is in the purple or red tier, testing every other week will be required. In the orange tier, a randomly selected sample of staff and students will be tested monthly. Random asymptomatic testing will be discontinued when the county reaches the yellow tier.

Students will be able to complete a waiver from this requirement based upon very specific medical and religious criteria, provided they sign a hold-harmless document.

* Story originally published by EdSource.