Vallejo, Benicia school districts getting ready for start of fall classes
Vallejo Times Herald, by Thomas Gase, August 5, 2020
Solano County on watch list
Zoom accounts. Masks. Decent WiFi. It’s not the typical back-to-school shopping list, but then again 2020 has been anything but normal due to COVID-19.
With the start of the school year right around the corner (Aug. 17 in Solano County) teachers, administrators and school board members are currently working quicker than The Flash to make things run smoothly when students return back to class.
When the students do return it won’t be on campuses as the Solano County Office of Education announced three weeks ago that local schools will start the new school year with distance learning. This is because Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in July that that schools in counties on the state’s coronavirus watch list begin the school year via distance learning. Solano County is on that list.
“It’s definitely different preparing for the start of the school year in the digital age,” Vallejo High principal Jarrod Bordi said. “We’ve been doing a lot of brainstorming this week and we’ve had a lot of professional development this week. We will have three more days next week with our staff. We want to make sure that our teachers have all the right tools they need.”
Newsom has said that once these “watched” locales meet requirements (including being off the list for 14 consecutive days) campuses may reopen, but as of now, Dr. Charles Young, Superintendent of Schools for Benicia Unified School District agrees with Newsom’s plan.
“We have a phase-in model approach,” Young told the Times-Herald. “We would like to be able to do in-person teaching when it is safe for students and staff as outlined by the Governor’s Directive. … Everyone is doing their very best getting ready for the year. BUSD is very fortunate to have amazingly talented employees in all parts of our system who work together in ways that are supportive and student-centered.”
Solano County Superintendent of Schools Lisette Estrella-Henderson said in July that educators “are working tirelessly to design and implement solutions to meet a broad range of unique needs for thousands of students.
“Bottom line is equity for every student is critical,” Estrella-Henderson said. “Our districts and charters schools will continue to be flexible, resourceful, and innovative no matter where instruction occurs on the first day of school.”
Young said that one of the most important issues was to make sure every student is prepared.
“Students will be provided with Chromebook for home learning,” Young said. “Some specialty classes at the secondary level will also have supply kits for students.”
Young as well as Bordi said that Benicia and Vallejo will keep a regular grading policy for the fall and not turn to a pass, fail system.
The Benicia superintendent said that there will be challenges to the new school year but that his staff and himself learned a lot during the spring semester when distance learning was first put into effect.
“Challenges include not being in the same space with our students;” Young said. “Keeping students engaged; how it’s difficult to do small group work and collaborative/hands-on work; and creating and keeping culture, community and connection, these are all challenges.
“That being said, I’ve been impressed with our teachers commitment to students,” Young continued. “I’m impressed with their ability to adjust and learn and create new “system” within 48 hours; our teachers partnership, positivity and collaboration to do what needs to be done to support students. We learned a lot in the spring such as teaching online in smaller groups works better for some students; creating a set schedule and being as consistent as possible; finding additional support curriculum that works well online; creating connection is key and that learning and teaching takes longer online.”
Bordi also said that Vallejo High will switch some things up in the fall due to what the school learned from distance schooling in the spring.
“I think this time around it’s going to be a little more robust and more direct with how we communicate with the students,” Bordi said. “For some this will be easier, while for some this may not be easier. But we want to provide a more rigorous, robust semester for kids this year.”
Bordi said one of the biggest challenges is “meeting the needs of everyone” involved. As Vallejo High moves forward he said it will take a “team effort.”
Young said that BUSD is always listening to community feedback on what they can improve on and what they should continue to do.
Some parents expressed their hopes and concerns about the school year to the Times-Herald online on Wednesday.
Iona Morgan has a student who will be a senior at Benicia High as well as an eighth-grader at Benicia Middle School.
“My biggest concern is the greater uncertainty around the college application process,” Morgan said. “Biggest hope is finding a way to protect students’ mental health. Challenges are having kids miss their friends and teachers. But I did enjoy the flexibility that distance learning provided.”
Parent Debbie Lamb said her biggest concern was funding.
“AB77 and AB98 base this year’s funding for schools in California on last year’s numbers,” she said. “But for charter schools with a growth plan, this means new students won’t be funded and the schools aren’t allowed to disenroll students either.”
Robert Alexander also weighed in on the issue on Twitter.
“Biggest hope: Pandemic=road to school vouchers. I want VJO families at @VCUSD to have choice-ability-resources to get their kids into best learning environment for their kids (SPSV-Justin-DLS-etc). If they like @VCUSD, they can give their vouchers back and stay in Vallejo public school”
Bordi said that high school is important and stressed that giving incoming freshmen the great experience of finally getting to high school is on the minds of staff.
“One thing we’ve been talking about is orientation,” Bordi said. “We want to give incoming students that great welcoming experience. It won’t be physical where a teacher shows you around the school personally like in the past, but we still want to provide a welcoming experience.”
Incoming freshmen at Vallejo High will be picking up textbooks and other materials on campus on Thursday, Aug. 13. The distribution will be spaced out and done alphabetically while staff shows up to make sure social distancing is being followed.
Newsom said the pace at which counties on and off the monitoring list resume in-person classes this fall is incumbent upon people following state health mandates and guidelines like wearing masks and face coverings, practicing physical distancing, hand washing and minimizing contact with people outside one’s household.
“The more we do … and we do it at scale, the quicker all those counties are going to come off that monitoring list, we’re going to mitigate the spread of this virus and those kids are back in school,” Newsom said in July.
Newsom also outlined the state’s requirements for distance learning. Schools must ensure that all students have access to the requisite technology and internet service for at-home classes and that students and teachers interact with each other daily. Schools must also lay out plans to modify their lessons for English language learners and special education students.
“Safety is foundational and safety will ultimately make the determination of how we go about educating our kids as we move into this fall and we work our way through this pandemic,” Newsom said.
Mitchell Romao, Vallejo Unified School District interim superintendent, as well as VCUSD President John Fox, did not return phone calls to the Times-Herald for this story.