SAN JOSE (CBS SF) — San Jose Unified School District officials announced this week that the district plans to allow students to return to class on Jan. 5 as the spread of COVID-19 continues to slow in Santa Clara County.
Nancy Albarrán, SJUSD superintendent, said staff members were preparing classrooms and common areas, and developing training for in-person learning.
In September, the school district decided to only offer distance learning through the end of the first semester on Dec. 18 due to the high number of COVID-19 cases countywide. East Side Union High School District started easing back to in-person learning on a limited basis last month.
In a letter to the San Jose Unified community, Albarrán said the school district has worked closely with the Santa Clara County Public Health Department, labor group leaders, the County Office of Education, state agencies and superintendents throughout the state in planning for the next phase of the 2020-2021 school year.
Albarrán said a key factor allowing in-person learning is the availability of COVID-19 testing provided by health care providers.
“The Public Health Department has ordered local health care providers to provide COVID-19 testing to essential workers, which includes school employees,” Albarrán said. “In addition, the Santa Clara County Office of Education is partnering with multiple districts in the county to secure additional testing to offer more convenient access for school staff.”
However, parent Holly Case expressed concern because district employees are not required to be tested regularly.
“That makes me nervous because they admitted a few people had COVID-19 on campus, although they were isolated,” Case said. “Once you throw in more people, if somebody should test positive, they will come in contact with a lot more people. Their plan has been working but partly because there aren’t many people there.”
SJUSD spokesperson Jennifer Maddox said teachers will be required to be tested but students are not unless they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. The school is responsible for contact identification, letting the district and Santa Clara Public Health know which students and staff had COVID-19 at school. Those exposed to that person will receive notifications.
Maddox said the district is capping the capacity of the classrooms based upon 6-foot distancing and is planning for 50-student capacity in each classroom. During the week of Nov. 16, families must decide whether to continue distance learning or return to school.
“By and large, we have parents fully committed to remaining in distance learning, some even until there is a vaccine,” Maddox said, “but others are ready to have their students return to school.”
Case worries that if students choose to return to campus or continue distance learning, their choice cannot be changed for the entire semester.
“We have to make a decision that lasts for six months,” Case said. “They said we had to agree to the whole semester, which I don’t think is fair.”
The district said it is balancing student and staff safety with the advantages of in-person learning. Students will return provided Santa Clara County remains in the orange or yellow tier. If Santa Clara County is in the red or purple tier on Dec. 30, the district plans to postpone in-person instruction.
The district has updated its COVID-19 safety protocol to ensure “rigorous safety measures mitigate risk to the greatest extent possible,” said Katie Rodriguez, R.N., Manager of Health and Family Support Programs for the district. The district will require face masks and 6-foot social distancing on campus, both inside and outside the classrooms.
Custodial staff will frequently disinfect high-touch surfaces and common spaces and all staff have been provided with disinfecting cleaners. Increased air circulation and filtration has been put into place as HVAC systems have been set to maximize the amount of outside air brought into classrooms and new air filters are being installed.
Staff and students will be required to complete a daily symptom screening prior to arriving on campus and each school site will have a COVID-19 point of contact responsible for coordinating with the district, which is in contact with public health.
In accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, acrylic barriers will be provided for staff use. COVID-19 safety teams made up of administrators, teachers and classified staff will work with the district to ensure each school site is supported in adhering to safety protocols, according to the district.
The district has been holding webinars with parents about its plans, gauging the level of parent interest in students returning to school.
Jodi Lax, the district’s associate superintendent of instruction, said although the district wants students to return to class, as “in-person learning is the ideal experience for students and teachers,” not all families are comfortable sending students back. Distance learning will continue to be an option for those students.
Families will receive an online choice form in the next week for the spring semester. If the district cannot accommodate students for in-person learning with their current teachers due to capacity limitations, it will offer the option of placement with another teacher or location or remaining in distance learning with the same teacher.
“This is not an easy decision or process,” Maddox said. “But we want to be sure we’re ready to welcome students back.”
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This story originally ran on San Jose Spotlight.