Students and staff who expected to return to school in person with the start of a new year will have to wait a little longer.
The Mt. Diablo Unified School District school board decided on Jan. 13 to continue distance learning through March 2021. This followed the board decision in October to introduce an optional hybrid learning model for pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade students this January.
In January, the board postponed plans for partial reopening as “Contra Costa County continues now in the Purple Tier — the most restrictive pandemic status — in which public health authorities are against reopening schools and larger social gatherings,” said district Superintendent Adam Clark in a statement released on Jan. 14.
“This is not where we hoped to be right now, but this is the reality of the pandemic in our area,” Clark said. “In this moment our focus as a school district must be on how to improve distance learning and how we can best meet the needs of students, with emphasis on social-emotional wellbeing and mental health sports.”
Students have been adapting to distance learning differently and seem to agree that while it is the safest option for the time being, it has not been as effective as in-person learning.
“I feel like the plan to continue distance learning until March is definitely for the best,” said Northgate junior Neil Savarna. “I am used to distance learning, so it would be hard to go back to normal school. I like that Zoom school starts later because it gives me more time to sleep. But I do not like the block periods and learning virtually in general makes it more difficult to retain information.”
“I really enjoy the independence that distance learning allows for,” said senior Caroline Wang, “There’s generally more free time, especially since transportation isn’t an issue, but I’m not a fan of how unmotivated I feel at the moment.”
Senior Sara Wu explained distance learning is “ultimately not that bad,” but noted the “loss of motivation and focus due to the separation of a screen, as well as modified test taking are pretty big downsides. It may not seem like a lot, but the entire student body seems to feel it.”
Northgate Principal Kelly Cooper shared her experience working behind the scenes to support students. “We are working more than ever to meet all of the needs of our community and convert curriculum to a completely new format,” Cooper said. “Administration is here every day, serving as tech support, substituting in classes, monitoring student progress and wellness, and planning for the next phase.”
“We are meeting as a site team to plan for this next phase, looking at classroom size, ventilation concerns, and pathway marking and designation, so that we could pivot when that is available.” Cooper said that returning to school will be a “slow phase in” with a schedule resembling the current block periods. “I think our current schedule is built to come back safely a bit better than our traditional six-period day,” she added.
Meanwhile, school and district officials are cognizant of the need to address student needs. In hopes of assessing the growing concern for students’ mental health, “the district is launching a website of counselor resources, including hotlines for students. The superintendent is also convening a panel of mental health professionals and stakeholders in the coming weeks,” said district student board member Michelle Alas, a Northgate senior. “I myself am looking to introduce an initiative to allow mental health days to count as sick days under board law.”
Alas commented on the board’s stance that schools could reopen for some student groups, but noted that there is uncertainty. “As the governor’s proposed budget for reopening begins to come into fruition, and the vaccine starts to be distributed to educators in the 1B phase, I am seeing reopening for certain vulnerable groups such as young children, ELD students, and students who need extra support in a particular subject. But I am not seeing full reopening anytime soon, maybe not even hybrid,” she said.
Parents with students enrolled in the Mt. Diablo district, which consists of five high schools, nine middle schools, 29 elementary schools as well as several alternative schools have awaited a return to in-person instruction. The district covers Pleasant Hill, Concord, Clayton, part of Walnut Creek, Bay Point and some unincorporated areas.
Back in October, parents representing mostly elementary students held a “Reopening Schools Rally” organized by the Contra Costa Parents for In-Person Learning Facebook group. The rally consisted of just under 60 parents and students waving home-made signs and cheering on the corner of Ygnacio Valley Road and Oak Grove Road, about a mile from Northgate.
At the time, parents at the rally were “supporting the development of a plan by the school board regarding reopening schools,” said Melanie Ropelato, mother of two elementary school children attending Holbrook Language Academy. Ropelato said at the rally she supports a “choice for parents” and what they think is “best for their child.”
Following the rally, the district board revealed plans for an optional “phase-in” to in-person learning amidst the COVID 19 pandemic. Starting Jan. 11 students were scheduled to start returning to in-person classes two days a week, while remaining in virtual learning classes the other two. But due to the increased danger of the virus, these plans have been cancelled.
Superintendent Adam Clark claimed in his recent statement that schools would continue to “adhere to social distancing in and outside of the classrooms, screen all individuals on site, and require that face masks are worn at all times.” The governing board is aware that the COVID-19 pandemic is still “dangerous” and they are remaining in “constant communication with local and state medical professionals.”
If a hybrid model is offered at a later date, students differ on whether they would return to in-person learning. Some are ready to go back, while others are not so enthusiastic.
“Yes! I probably will,” exclaimed sophomore Anastasia Ostepanko when asked if she would participate in a hybrid-learning model. “I miss having more social interaction and getting the chance to leave the house more.
Senior Class President Kristina Co doesn’t think she will return back to in-person learning. “Until there is a way to reopen schools with a zero chance of COVID-19 transmissions, schools should remain closed for the safety of our communities,” Co said.
“I don’t think I will return to the hybrid schedule if offered, however I might,” said freshman Dylan Maloney. “Based on our current place with covid and the vaccine I believe it would be safer to continue with social distancing until it is truly safe for us and the people around us.”
Meanwhile, parents have had to navigate the changing dynamic of district plans and countywide health orders.
Jessyca Emelson, parent of two Northgate students and one Foothill Middle School student, is hopeful for a return.
“I am hoping our kids can go back to in person learning,” Emelson said. “I believe the social interactions and discussion in the classroom are valuable to our teens critical thinking and processing. I believe that our children need different adults and other teens to help them navigate all the different social pressures and learn how to grow together.”
Northgate English teacher Aliza Selinger is optimistic that teachers and students – including her own children, who attend Walnut Acres Elementary and Foothill Middle School – will be able to teach and learn in person.
“I am hopeful that students and teachers can return to in person learning this spring if it is safe to do so,” Selinger said.
Caption: Northgate’s Principal Kelly Cooper helps Northgate freshman Angelina Chen check out a novel for her English class. Students are in distant learning until at least March, but occasionally come to campus for materials and books.
Credit: Karen Jenkins, Northgate High School