After some parents expressed doubts that the district would in fact reopen fully this fall, the West Contra Costa Unified board voted to commit to “100%” in-person instruction this fall.

The district’s school board debated for hours on Wednesday night about an “action statement” to students, parents and faculty that it eventually adopted to reassure them of the commitment, even though district officials have said for months that they are planning on a full in-person return in the fall.

At the same time, the district is still planning on offering a distance learning option for families who prefer that.

The board wanted to send a message that come the fall, students wishing to attend in-person classes would be able to attend full time, not in a hybrid fashion in which some classes would be offered remotely and some in-person.

The “action statement” is not a policy, but rather a pledge of what the district plans to do in the fall. Board president Mister Phillips said he expects district staff to implement the board’s decision. Phillips requested the statement after community members and some school board members asked for an “even firmer commitment that school buildings would be open in a non-voluntary fashion in the fall,” superintendent Matthew Duffy said.

Duffy has already resigned from his post, and will be replaced byincoming superintendent Kenneth “Chris” Hurst in less than a month. The two will work together through July to ensure a smooth transition.

West Contra Costa Unified serves around 30,000 students in Richmond and surrounding communities.

Still working through the details

In discussing the statement Wednesday and in a joint statement released Friday, board members Demetrio Gonzalez-Hoy and Jamela Smith-Folds said they were concerned that parents and others in the communities served by the district haven’t yet been surveyed on what they want the fall semester to look like and what resources schools would need in order to successfully serve students in-person. They also pointed out the district must still negotiate an agreement for the fall with its five employee unions.

But after several hours of discussion, the board voted 3-2 to approve the following action statement proposed by school board member Leslie Reckler:

“The district will reopen for 100% in-person learning this fall pursuant to local, state and federal guidelines and with additional resources provided by WCCUSD to schools in need of them. These resources may include but are not limited to additional counselors, mental health services, custodians, CSOs (campus safety officers), etc. and the district will make these recommendations to the board this summer.”

Parents’ concerns about the district’s fall reopening plans were heightened by their experience with the district’s in-person offerings this spring.

The district began offering two in-person programs for the first time for students last week: daily two-hour “interventions” for high-needs students, as well as longer in-person “hubs” on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for students of all grades.

Some parents questioned whether the district will in fact reopen campuses in the fall after it failed to deliver on its pledge to offer spots in its spring programs to all families who wanted them.   

The district served more than 6,200 students last week when it kicked off its spring programs, but due to staffing shortages and programs not fitting some families’ needs, hundreds of interested students were not able to participate. The district is still working to find enough staff to accommodate those families in the last few weeks of school, Duffy said.

“I worry that we will get slighted and misguided like what happened with the spring (in-person plan) and be forced into limited and awkward schedules,” said Jesse Montano, who is part of the West Contra Costa Safe Open Schools parent group.

Waiting and watching

Paula Rafeedie said her kindergartner daughter was not able to return to Fairmont Elementary in El Cerrito last week, so she’s continuing remote learning and “screen time” for seven hours a day while Rafeedie and her husband work. Rafeedie said the school board’s pledge to reopen campuses in the fall would “really inform our decision” about whether she and her husband will keep their daughter in the district.

“My daughter is a high achiever, and thanks to the time and attention we’ve given to her learning, along with the incredible kindergarten teacher she’s had over Zoom learning, I can be sure she would really benefit from an in-person environment in this district,” Rafeedie said.

Raka Ray, a teacher at Helms Middle School in San Pablo who volunteered to return to the classroom in the spring, cautioned against making a commitment for the fall without first figuring out a plan to do so.

“I don’t see how making a blanket statement is helpful,” Ray said. “What we need is plans A, B, and C, plans for variants, plans for localized outbreaks, and we needed plans A, B and C yesterday.”

Marissa Glidden, president of the district’s teachers union, United Teachers of Richmond, urged the district Wednesday to first “make sure our schools have the resources they need to successfully serve our students” in order to properly reopen in the spring. Glidden, in January, told EdSource that union members want to return to the classrooms in the fall and would be “disappointed” if they would not be able to.

Board member Demetrio Gonzalez-Hoy had proposed including language indicating that resources would be available to fully reopen schools, because the original statement did not address it. The district, along with every other district in the state, is expecting a one-time infusion of state and federal funding to assist them with reopening their campuses in the coming school year.

 Board proceeds cautiously

Although initially expressing reservations about the financial implications of committing to such resources now, board president Phillips voted in favor of the statement adopted by the board, since it allows the school board to recommend over the summer what additional resources schools will need for the fall.

Others at the board meeting expressed concern over making a commitment to the district’s fall plans before incoming superintendent Hurst starts in less than a month. Hurst will be moving to West Contra Costa from his current superintendent position in Othello, Washington.

However, in reinforcing the district’s message, Phillips read an email exchange he had with the incoming superintendent in which Hurst said that he “fully supports” a return to full in-person instruction in the fall.

Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified school districts as a way to illustrate some challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.