LIVERMORE — Tensions ran high at a recent board meeting for the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District (LVJUSD), as parents expressed their position on returning students to the classroom.
The meeting was held on Tuesday, Nov. 10, before Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Nov. 16 that 41 counties, including Alameda County, must return to the most restrictive Purple tier. At the Purple level, increased in-class learning is prohibited. Effective Nov. 18, no additional schools may open for in-person instruction.
Since the change in tiers, LVJUSD Board Member Emily Russo stated on Nov. 17 that the board has received emails from parents who expressed a desire to remain remote. She also expressed appreciation of those parents who did speak critically of the district during the meeting, noting some thanked the board for the opportunity to share their perspective. Those parents, Russo said, also asked how they could help.
“I think that’s a great way for us to move forward as a community; we have to work together,” she said. “We’re all on the same side … there were great things that come out of the meeting.”
At the school board meeting last week, the district’s task force presented its plan for schools to partially reopen Jan. 19, along with a recommendation to obtain a 67% approval from families. Before Deputy Superintendent Chris Van Schaack – head of the task force – presented the plan to the board, approximately 75 letters from parents to the board were read, most encouraging the district to bring kids back into schools, though some urged for them to be left safe at home.
LVJUSD Board Member Chris Wenzel said that while the district is listening to concerns, it’s also doing its best under the circumstances.
"There is no manual for how to operate here; we are building it as we go,” Wenzel said. “We have to work with the county and the state education system ... I understand the frustration. It’s difficult, and no one there is not trying to get the kids back to school. But there are so many concerns. (We) have to build a contingency plan and (we) have to have a contingency plan if something goes wrong.”
Following the presentation, dozens of parents and students commented on the topic of in-person learning. Many criticized the district for what they saw as its lack of transparency, and for putting up hurdles for children whose families want them to return to school. Those who spoke in favor of reopening in a hybrid setting, in which students can attend school part time and learn from home part time, took issue with the task force’s recommendation to gain a strong majority from families.
“The real point of contention is the two-thirds super majority vote was never really discussed,” said Morgan Crinklaw, an LVJUSD parent. “It was almost as if the board was in agreement, saying let’s get kids back to school and give them a choice and submit a plan, and yet this two-thirds majority threshold was still looming.”
In addition to the recommended majority vote, Van Schaack noted some children might be asked to switch teachers, or even schools, under the hybrid learning plan. With 84 district teachers no longer returning to teach because of health concerns, along with health mandates for reduced class sizes, enough classrooms and educators may not be available at certain campuses.
Crinklaw and other parents were concerned these obstacles would cause some parents to vote against bringing children back on campus, even if they supported in-person learning, making it more difficult to reach a super majority.
Nobella Baba, whose children attend school within LVJUSD, said she cannot sit by and watch her children suffer while they miss out on social and academic opportunities. She is a firm proponent of schools reopening for those families who feel comfortable attending and started a Facebook page called “Reopen Livermore Schools.” The group currently boasts 520 members.
“The district never indicated there would be obstacles to reopening … they made it sound like they had it all together,” Baba said, noting many parents in the district were surprised and angry. “We always knew it was a possibility that teachers may get shuffled around … the major thing that bothered us and took us by surprise is the fact that they are requiring a 67% supermajority vote and the other thing was switching schools.”
Van Schaack noted the 67% majority approval for the district to move to a hybrid learning model was simply a recommendation conceived by the task force to ensure a major change was not undertaken unless desired by a strong majority.
“It was the parents who said, ‘If we are going to do something as monumental as this – something that has an impact on the entire community – it shouldn’t be 50% plus one person; it has to be very clear and convincing community support for a change,’” Van Schaack said, noting the original suggestion was a 75% majority. “The task force, as a whole, was very clear on their support for a super majority. It was as close to unanimous as you can get from people who wanted much broader support in our parent community for a significant change in the way we do education.”
The task force is an advisory group comprised of 64 parents, teachers, administrators and other district stakeholders. Van Schaack has coordinated meetings and disseminated information into a plan for hybrid learning for kindergarten through high schools that was submitted to the county office of education last week.
LVJUSD Board President Craig Bueno noted going back to school is no simple matter, nor will it be forced on any family who would prefer to stay in distance learning. Between ever-changing guidelines and many families with vulnerable members, a return to the previous norm is still a long way off, he said.
“The health department doesn’t run the school district, but they do set the parameters,” Bueno noted, adding that Superintendent Kelly Bowers and her staff are keeping a close eye on guidelines and ordinances. “It’s not as simple as the parents want to go back, so we are going back . . . it’s very difficult, because with 14,000 kids, it’s a large and diverse group.”
Bueno stated that when it came time to make a decision, all information will be taken into account, including the task force’s recommendation for a super majority.
“The super majority suggestion is not to be disregarded, but it’s not a mandate,” he said. “67% is considered a normal super majority. You have to have a mark, so we know where we are at, so we don’t disrupt 95% of people to accommodate 5%. It’s fluid right now.”
LVJUSD Board Member Anne White noted that she wished the students could return full time.
"Right now, we can’t do it because of the Alameda County health rules,” she said. She further noted that it’s up to the superintendent to decide if the super majority is a good idea. "Part of the people who voted for the super majority business will be able to stay in their distance learning no matter what. Also, there were many people on the task force that were not parents; that were staff. So it’s hard to know the relevance, and it's important to know whether an overwhelming number of people want to do one thing or another. It’s a really mixed group.”
Russo said she was supportive of the hybrid plan, but one point made her uncomfortable. Even though she said she understood the 67% recommended approval rate, she didn’t agree.
Moving forward, the district will need to receive approval for its hybrid learning plan before taking any more steps toward bringing students back in January.
Wenzel reiterated that he completely understands this issue is personal for all families.
“I totally get how this is affecting people’s lives,” said Wenzel. “It will get better, but we understand it’s tough right now.”
Outgoing Board Member Chuck Rogge declined to offer a position on the reopening plan.