June 2, 2020

Dear Parents and Guardians,

As a grown adult, I have years of experience leading through challenges that require patience and perspective. These days, I find it increasingly difficult to manage my own emotions as a leader, father, husband, and community member living through this time in history. I imagine you are feeling similarly, and our children are, too. 

While this letter is intended to address our initial plans for reopening in the fall, I feel compelled to address the gathering grief and emotional dysregulation we feel as we again witness the impact systemic racism and suppression of peoples of color has on our country. As educators, MPCSD has a responsibility to teach into these conditions. As I reflect on missed opportunities in my time in public education, I am more committed than ever to consider what role public schools have in teaching students about bias and historical racism. I own that as public educators, we have far too often steered clear of difficult and controversial topics in an effort to avoid criticism. The events of the last week make it clear that we can no longer and should never have been so cautious. I don’t know what ‘teaching into these conditions’ will look like, but I invite you into the conversation. As we move into next school year, I will provide opportunities for parents and teachers to consider how MPCSD can provide anti-racist education opportunities for our students and families and how our classrooms can be beacons of change in a world that so desperately need it. 

Now to the intent of this letter-- our initial thoughts on reopening this fall . This letter is admittedly long; if you don’t have time to read it all in one sitting please come back to it as the information will answer many of your questions. You will also receive a separate email from Assistant Superintendent Jammie Behrendt today with information about summer programming, including safe and fun summer options for your child outside of the home.

It is with pride that I share with you our COVID-19 Response Team’s recent decision to formally recommend a school reopening model to the School Board at its June 4 meeting. We are very aware that the uncertainty around when, if, and how school will reopen is unsettling. In the spirit of wanting to provide parents with as much information and advance planning as possible I am pleased to report that the advisory team will recommend a model for school in which students attend in-person instruction, every other week in smaller, stable cohorts.

After hours of study and deliberation, the COVID-19 Response Team is confident in this recommendation. The alternating week model may come as a surprise, especially since parents and the public have not been privy to the COVID-19 Response Team’s deliberation. Before you arrive at a judgement about the recommendation, I want to address some important context that will hopefully increase understanding and enthusiasm for the Team’s recommendation.

Q: Is the C19 Team’s recommendation a final decision? 
A: No. The recommendation is just that, a recommendation. It will be shared at the regularly scheduled Board meeting this Thursday, June 4, 2020 that begins at 6:00 p.m. The Board will receive direct input over the course of the next week and a half. They will hear the recommendation of the COVID-19 Response Team, call for public comment, and discuss the recommendation themselves. At the June 11, 2020 regularly scheduled Board meeting, members will vote on a resolution that will be drafted following the June 4 meeting.  

Q: Who serves on the COVID-19 Response Team and what was/is the Team’s role?  
A: The C19 Team is composed of leaders from all major areas of the district’s operation including health services, as well as all four site principals, teachers, and classified staff. Many team members are also parents in the school district. The role of the Team has evolved over the course of the pandemic, starting first with ensuring health and safety measures were in place, to now advising the Superintendent and Board on reopening plans. 

Q: How did the C19 Team come to the conclusion that the alternating week model was better than other models that could have been considered? 
A: The C19 Team did not start out with the intention of recommending only one model; rather, we began our deliberation with the goal of identifying feasible models. As our team considered all the reopening options, the alternating week option rose to the top due to its ability to most effectively mitigate the unavoidable risks of conducting school during a pandemic. Simply put, the members of the C19 Team unanimously feel that the alternating week model provides the safest manner in which to return to school. With confidence in our process and outcome, the Team is making the recommendation in order that the harder and more time-consuming work of figuring out all the logistics can continue at both the district and site levels. 

Q: What makes the alternating week model the clear favorite of the members of the C19 Team? 
A: The C19 Team evaluated multiple models against health and safety, instructional/learning benefit, equity, mental health, operations, impact on parents/staff, and other metrics. Some of the reasons we prefer the alternating week model are as follows:
  • The model allows MPCSD to most effectively implement the yet-unpublished San Mateo County Pandemic Recovery Framework. The Framework, of which the team had an advance draft copy, and to which the public will soon have access, is based on “Four Pillars.” They are: Health and Hygiene; Face Coverings; Physical Distancing; and Limited Gatherings. Additionally, the Framework calls for students to be served in “stable cohorts,” with the number of students defined by the ability to appropriately socially distance within the available square footage. The alternating week model can well accommodate this requirement. 
  • The model allows MPCSD to bring students back to school for a meaningful amount of in-person instruction. For MPCSD to adhere to the County’s Framework, especially with regards to Physical Distancing, there is no feasible way to have all enrolled students on our campuses at one time (yes, even if we conducted classes outside). Due to the large enrollment, facility size, and staffing limitations, we simply aren’t able to provide daily in-person instruction to each student and follow the Four Pillars. 
  • In our estimation, the model is the safest choice for MPCSD. No model eliminates risk; bringing students and staff back to campus is inherently more risky than continuing 100% with Distance Learning. However, we must weigh the risk of reopening with the risk of continuing to have our students isolated at home, away from their friends, receiving instruction with limited coaching and support. Thus, if we are going to take on increased risk, we want to mitigate those risks to the best of our ability. The alternating week model will allow us to clean more thoroughly between groups, more easily trace contacts should someone within a group test positive for COVID-19, and more effectively contain the virus from spreading within and among groups sharing the same space. 
  • The model is closely related to an idea that the C19 Team felt has real merit. On May 11, 2020, an opinion piece ran in the New York Times, written by three prominent scholars in systems biology and economics, promoting a way to reopen work, schools, and other institutions by instituting what they referred to as the 10:4 strategy: ten days at home on lockdown and four days at work or in school. While this model is impossible for us to achieve with 100% fidelity, some elements of the model are reflected in our alternating week approach in the hopes that we can exploit the latent period of the virus - the three-day delay on average between the time a person is infected and the time she or he can infect others. 
  • The model provides academic benefit. The continuity of a week of school allows every teacher and student to have a necessary and solid block of time to introduce a unit or new concept, practice, and provide feedback. Teachers can plan cohesive learning arcs for each week, reinforced by at-home practice, specialist (art, music, etc.) programming, and small group video support provided by classroom aides and paraprofessionals on off-weeks. 
  • The model provides social-emotional and mental health benefits. Teachers and staff are better able to develop relationships and build community in a solid week, whereas other models felt disjointed for both mental health and home routines. 
  • The model will enable MPCSD to increase or decrease the amount of time for students on campus should future health orders change. An analogy you will hear MPCSD staff refer to over the course of this pandemic is the idea of “the dial” vs. “the switch.” Our responses will need to roll with the health conditions in the county like a dial, rather than turn on and off in a binary manner like a switch. The alternating-week model allows us the greatest flexibility and the least amount of disruption. To this end, it is certainly possible that despite all this planning, come August the health conditions require us to change course all together. 
  • The model is simple and straightforward. At a time when there is so much chaos and uncertainty, having the steady cadence of the alternating-week model will hopefully offer some much needed calm in the middle of the storm. It is easy to explain and easy to implement.
While the C19 Team believes the alternating week model is the best model for MPCSD, it is our responsibility to also recognize that other districts, even those closest to us, will choose options that look different. Every district has different needs and constraints, but all districts value the health, safety, and well being of their students, staff, and families. Based on their own context, districts will make the best and most viable solution for them; we make ours without judgement of others and with a spirit of collegiality and respect. 

Q: What other details will be included in the C19 Team’s recommendation to the Board on June 4?
A: Nothing. At this point in time, we are simply carrying forward a recommendation for the model around which we can begin to plan the detail. There is so much yet to be determined; we need all the time we can get to start the design and execution. We know that not everyone will agree with the recommendation and we are prepared for the noise that picking a model will create; however, we hope over time as we figure out all the details of the plan, parents and students will feel good about the execution of the decision.

Q: What resources will be available for parents who have to work full time and do not have childcare for their children? 
A: Probably the most pressing question from parents for any one of the modified schedules is what options will be available for childcare. We are incredibly sensitive to this issue and feel fortunate that in MPCSD we have the capacity to actually attempt to address the issue. There is still much we don’t know, but the Board and I are committed to making childcare solutions a top priority. It’s important to note that ANY option we would choose, short of bringing all students back to school full time, which is impossible under the county’s Framework, would involve time away from school when students would normally be in school. Below is a preview of what we are considering, but nothing is confirmed. 
  • Some specialized programs will be allowed to operate every week. Due to the unique staffing nature of the Early Learning Center and some self-contained Special Education programs, such as AIMS at Encinal and Hillview, we are able to offer these programs every week for the same students. 
  • Due to MPCSD’s commitment to equity and the San Mateo County Framework’s expectation that planning be built around those students with the “most urgent learning needs,” MPCSD will design some academic programs for students who require additional support on the off-weeks. Doing so will be contingent on health orders at the time of implementation, but we will plan for support of our most academically vulnerable students. 
  • MPCSD has already begun planning with our valued after-school care provider, Newton Center Inc. It is our expectation that Newton will be able to offer fee-based child care for all families who do not have child care availability at home. Fee-reduction and scholarships will be available for families that qualify. 
  • We will be working with parents at the site level to envision and realize child care sharing options in our neighborhoods through our extensive volunteer networks. 
  • MPCSD is discussing models and pursuing partnerships with community organizations that would offer child care and academic programs on off-weeks for our families who live in East Palo Alto and Belle Haven within their communities.

One need we have identified as we pursue child care options is the physical space. All MPCSD schools are at capacity in enrollment, thus we will very likely need additional spaces to offer child care options. If you know of churches or other community-based facilities that may be interested in offering space to the district at a low cost for childcare, please email info@mpcsd.org

Q: What if I do not feel comfortable sending my child to school in person? 
A: Parents who choose not to send their child(ren) to school will not be prevented from or judged for doing so. While we hope that we have made all the necessary accommodations to mitigate risk, we understand that some parents will not send their children out of legitimate health and safety concerns. As such, parents and students will be supported by a Distance Learning program similar to the one that has been delivered this spring. We can not guarantee what it will look like, but it will be available. It is likely that due to planning restrictions, a choice for Distance Learning may extend for a defined period of time; in other words, we may not be able to guarantee that a child can switch from Distance Learning to in-person learning within the middle of a trimester. In the next week or so, all parents will receive another survey--this one is the most important one of them yet. This survey will ask you to indicate your current thinking, as best as you can determine, regarding whether you intend to send your child back to school in person in the fall. Please take the time to complete the survey as this information is invaluable to us as we plan for providing high quality programs. 

Q: For those attending in person on alternating weeks, what will the week at home look like? 
A: We don’t yet know; however, we have a sense that it will be independent learning that serves as an extension of and practice with the learning that occurred the previous week during in-person instruction. Additionally, MPCSD will make use of instructional aides, interventionists, and specialists to support extended learning at home. It will not look like the Distance Learning you have come to know this year in that main classroom teachers will be teaching the other half of their classes when your student is at home. We will ensure a reasonable pace, engaging activities, virtual connection opportunities with classmates, useful technology tools, and redesigned expectations for a manageable, and hopefully enjoyable, experience. 

Q: Will MPCSD make efforts to accommodate my family’s needs when scheduling?  
A: Yes. We will make every effort to make our plan manageable for our families. The first commitment we will make to you is that all siblings will be scheduled on the same alternating week, unless otherwise requested by parents. Beyond that, we are open to your input regarding your needs, and if the health orders and our infrastructure allow it, we will make every effort to accommodate family needs. Your patience in waiting until the program is actually designed is greatly appreciated. 

Q: How can I provide feedback to the Board prior to their discussion or decision?
A: The public is invited to attend the School Board’s June 4 meeting, held at 6:00 p.m. over Zoom. For details on joining the meeting, please click here . The Board will listen to public comment on this topic, deliberate amongst themselves in public, and ultimately reach a decision on accepting, modifying, or recommending an alternate to this model for a formal vote on a resolution at the June 11 regularly scheduled Board meeting. To provide public comment you may attend the meeting in person, or email info@mpcsd.org and your public comment will be read. If you want to simply reach out to Board members to express your thoughts to them outside of the public meeting, you may do so by emailing them individually or collectively at board@mpcsd.org

Q: One of my questions wasn’t answered in this letter; how do I get an answer to my question(s)?
A: I respectfully ask that you remain patient as we complete the details. If your question isn’t answered in this letter, it is likely something for which we don’t yet have the answer. Again, this recommendation to the Board is simply the starting point of a long and detailed process. Transportation, Special Education services, health and safety requirements (including face mask requirements), class placement, lunch and recess, curriculum and instruction, electives/specialists, volunteering--all of these areas and more are areas we just aren’t prepared to address at this time. Once the Board makes its decision, we will move with all expediency and diligence. In the meantime, please have confidence that our team will approach reopening with as much care, communication, creativity and professionalism as we have approached this entire pandemic. As we roll out aspects of the plan, we will continue to revise our MPCSD COVD-19 FAQ on the District’s website with the most up-to-date information. 

Thank you for reading this exceedingly and necessarily long message. I hope it helps you begin to think about what the fall will look like. As always, we will keep you updated with new details as they become available. This is challenging work; no one wishes more than I that we could just all be together like “normal.” In the absence of that, I know that together we will make the best of this difficult situation. I appreciate the support and flexibility of our community more than I can articulate. I would not want to go through this with any other group of parents than you.
 
In this with you,
Erik
 
P.S. Don’t forget to read the second email that you will receive later today from Assistant Superintendent Jammie Behrendt regarding summer programming.  
Erik Burmeister, Superintendent | mpcsd.org
Governing Board
Stacey Jones , President
Sherwin Chen, Vice President
David Ackerman
Mark Box
Scott Saywell