Critical School Reopening Issues from the SMUHSD Board Meeting

We are facing such critical decisions that I took well over six hours today to put this article together which highlights many of the most critical issues via direct internal links into the SMUHSD Board meeting video. I hope you find this massive effort useful.

6/28/2020 3:48 PM – Introduction

This morning I once again listened to ALL of the approximately 60 public comments made in response to Agenda item L.1. and am putting together the following synopsis with my analysis.

In particular we all need to address the many comments made about students’ mental health because ALL of the people speaking on this issue missed “the elephant in the room,” a phrase used by one speaker.  Speakers tended to say that students had to be back in class so that they could be “monitored” …??

If you read nothing else in this article, please be sure to finish this Introduction and then read the Student Mental Health Issues section below carefully!

Besides this problem, there was much debate about the problems due to the spring semester closure, whether it is safe to return to school (several doctors and psychologists addressed this), the effectiveness of online learning from a variety of perspectives, multiple pleas for teachers to be listened to and treated like professionals, problems with ELD and special needs students, and finally a moving plea by teacher Jenny Caughey who lost her elderly aunt to COVID-19.

I have spent weeks listening and talking to participants on all sides of this debate, so I hope that you will lend me the courtesy of taking the time to read ALL of what I write below. I am a Ph.D. scientist who among other things was a pioneer in the use of the Internet for biological research – work for which I became a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

I was an invited speaker and publicly addressed the entire CDC in their large main lecture hall; I managed the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology.  I worked in scientific software and biotechnology companies, including one that created the first custom Affymetrix “gene chip” to monitor gene expression of the entire human genome!

After all of this work I was also a high school educator (first in the Peace Corps after college and then again at the end of my career starting in 2010 through the present; I now tutor in retirement).

The following report is carefully considered and will not be a waste of your time!  Please read it to the end.

This article will make frequent reference to the video recording of the meeting which can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yy5BSueC_I .

For those who missed my earlier article Comments Following the 6/25 SMUHSD Board Meeting, here are the main sections of the meeting pertaining to the school reopening issue.  The discussion of agenda item L.1. on school reopening begins at 1:05:15.  Board clarification questions after the presentation start at 1:44:05.  Public Comments begin at 1:46:14.  Board deliberations begin at 3:09:20 and end at 4:11:10.

I have added links below that go straight to the comments in question so that you can hear them for yourselves without wading through the entire 4.5 hour meeting.

Note that this remains my selections from the video, so I invite anyone who wants to highlight a different section to comment in the Comments section below after the article.  You can pick a start time by using a web browser with the FULL web version of Youtube, pausing the video at the desired start time, clicking on the “Share” option, and then checking the “Start at” box in the pop-up window.  This option is not available, e.g., on an iPhone.

Because there were many overlapping comments, I have picked those which I thought were representative of a position, and I apologize in advance if anyone feels slighted if I did not pick their comment.  Unfortunately names were often muffled and sometimes not displayed, so I also apologize if I butchered anyone’s name below.  Please feel free to contact me through the Contact form on this blog, and I will make corrections.

Comments were restricted to one minute, but President Marc Friedman was pretty considerate and did not shut people down precisely at that time limit.

 

Parental Concerns about Online Learning

At 1:48:55 in the video John McDonald eloquently expressed the common parental reaction to spring quarter distance learning.  He is concerned about the effect of online learning on kids.  “The biggest issue was teacher engagement.”  He mentioned that during spring “several teachers checked out for weeks at a time.” and also said that he “is on Zoom everyday from 8:30 to 6:00 PM on my job and I hate it. It is a horrible channel on which to engage with other human beings.”  Please listen to his comment directly by clicking the time link at the start of this paragraph.

Kevin Nelson, one of the most highly trained teachers in the district in online learning wrote an article on this blog to address precisely these parental concerns.  He was supposed to speak at 2:38:47 during the session but did not get through because of technical problems, and, very sadly, no effort was made to reconnect a valuable speaker like him even though this was done for every other speaker for both of the last two board meetings.

The irony of this communication problem can not have escaped the attention of the many people in the audience who know him, both because of his criticisms of how the Spring shutdown was handled, but also because one of the most technically literate teachers in the district could not get through on Zoom!

As to the latter problem, I note that Mr. Nelson would normally, during class, be in the role of meeting leader, not commenter, but one has to wonder how many students during distance learning might be shut out from asking questions due to technical problems.  This is a glaring problem repeatedly encountered during Board Zoom meetings!

Mr. Nelson teaches in both the SMUHSD at Aragon and also at Skyline College.  His online classes are at the College.

A legitimate question remains as to whether online learning will succeed as well at the high school level compared to the experience that he highly recommends based on his experience with community college students.  In this regards, an interesting comment was made by Jack Hickey, a student, near the end of the comment section at 3:05:03.  He claims that he and his fellow students did not think that distance learning was effective.

In my private discussions with teachers and administrators, when I raise student concerns, they are not infrequently dismissed as “unrepresentative” or from “just a kid.”   This might be true of an isolated comment, but when I hear the same issue raised repeatedly by students, it should be considered carefully and not dismissed out of hand.

It was also interesting to hear the opinion of Stacy Nawrocki at 1:52:43 who worked for the last 15 years for video collaboration software companies and yet has serious reservations about doing 100% online learning in schools.

I also worked as an IT Director for many years and have seen technology oversold in schools on numerous occasions.  We need to be very flexible and willing to make corrections ASAP if things go wrong.  Unfortunately schools have a history of continuing with educational trials by adding band-aids instead of stopping them in a timely when they are failing.

 

Student Mental Health Issues

Joelle Kaufman provided comments on the subject of student mental health that are available on this blog, and spoke on the video at 1:59:58.  Joelle also promoted the use of the UC Scout Plus software to assist distance learning as did the psychologist mentioned in the next paragraph.

Psychologist Jessica Rosenbaum addressed the Board at 1:50:31 and emphasized the need to have direct in-person contact to be able to tell which students are at risk.  She stated, “Pre-pandemic,” (that is before the pandemic even started) “anxiety disorders affected nearly a third of our teens!”  This is a staggering statistic if true, but many listeners do not know what range of severity this covers unfortunately.  I have had direct experience with a few severe cases in my tutoring practice though I can not corroborate that severe cases reach the level of 33%.

Sandra Sullivan, a clinical psychologist who deals with depression in both children and adults, spoke at 2:36:00 and emphasized the need for in-person social connections.

Too many psychologists in this group used words like “astronomical” and mental health problem “tsunami” without providing real data.  Another medical doctor described the mental health issue as “huge” at 2:24:15.

Lack of quantitative data often allows people to dismiss this case.  I run into the same issue when trying to convince parents of problems with the AP system, because we all know cases of successful students that handle the load, and the parents of these students are often the most active and vigorous defenders of the AP program.

So here is at least some slightly more detailed data.

Maureen Martin spoke at 2:07:15 and stated that, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health, 30% of students suffer from depressive episodes every year and 13% each year are major.

Debbie Conwood (last name ???), a psychotherapist who works with many students, spoke at 2:24:41 and said that she and her colleagues had never seen the “levels of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts” like they have seen in the last four months.

Personally I am convinced that this issue is very real though uncertain on the precise numbers.

What amazes me, however, is that the only solution proposed is sending the students back in-person into the same environment that is a significant cause of these problems in the first place, simply because that environment is “better” than leaving them at home alone!!

“HELLO!  IS ANYBODY HOME?  THINK, MCFLY!” to quote Back to the Future!

I have spoken repeatedly about the stress levels caused by AP courses and the advice that counselors continually give to students to take the most demanding schedule that they can.  Too many kids have no idea what their breaking point is, and these high stakes exam classes are portrayed as make-or-break pathways to their successful future.

As Pogo used to say, “We have met the enemy and he is us!

Many teachers throughout this video meeting said how much they care about their students.

The teachers unions still are a political force to be reckoned with nationally.  If teachers really care about their students, then they, through their unions, need to take action nationally in conjunction with college admissions offices to end this AP madness!  People in our own district have termed this student behavior as “Mutual Assured Destruction,” but the supposed adults in the room never take action to stop it!  Parents need to wake up too!

Bullying on social media and other factors like the constant stream of bad news about the future are also factors in these mental health issues, but doomsday news and bullying are not unique to this time.  I was on the east coast about 60 years ago and expected to die within a day or so during the Cuban missile crisis as a kid, and I could relate stories that my father told me about bullying and large fistfights on school grounds in Chicago going back to the Depression era.

As long as students are told that piling up AP classes is the way to get into college and are staying up in high school until 2 or 3 in the morning, this problem will continue and very likely get worse!

Sending students back to school in-person to “monitor them” is yet another irresponsible adult action instead of getting to the core of the problem.

Every time I hear stories about college admissions officers rolling their eyes during application reviews when they see yet another applicant taking seven AP classes in a semester, I would like to to yell at them what I quoted from Back to the Future above!

If we can not go back to the old system where teachers create their own honors courses and just bypass the AP exam system, then there at least needs to be some kind of national cap put on the number of AP classes permitted per student each semester.  This can happen if teachers, school administrators, and college admissions offices work together to solve this problem.

If we fail to do this, we are, once again as we do so well these days, sacrificing a lot of decent, intelligent children to maintain a system that best serves those at the top.  

This harsh method has been used in Asian countries that have large populations and which were trying hard to develop economically starting from very limited resources.  It is not a method that we should use in (what used to be?) an advanced country like America as even this Chinese educator will attest.

 

Is It Safe to Return to Campus?

Dr. Annie Luetkemeyer (sp?), an infectious diseases doctor at S.F.General and a COVID-19 researcher at UCSF spoke at 2:05:28 and stated that it was possible to return safely and that this needed to be addressed soon because the pandemic may go on for 2 – 3 years.

A related perspective was given by another health care worker Anette (last name??) at 2:18:45 in the videos, as well as by Dr. Suneil Koliwad from S.F. General at 2:22:55 . Dr. Koliwad was also the commenter at 2:24:15 mentioned in the Mental Health section above.  He also previously addressed the Return to School Committee (recording here) and these earlier remarks generated some pushback as expressed here.

Ms. Krishna spoke at 2:27:22 about the safety risks of returning to school and how the Latino community was hit disproportionally.

I believe that all of these medical professionals have valid points, but just within the last few days COVID-19 levels are once again showing a worrisome rise as people get complacent.  We need to focus initially on preparing for distance learning and keep monitoring the health data.  Trying to do both in-person and distance learning initially will be more complicated and mean that neither will be done effectively.

 

Teachers ask, “Why don’t you treat as as professionals?”

Victoria Daniel spoke at 2:53:00 .  She is a very capable, veteran English teacher in the district and gave a reasonable case for distance learning ending by saying that “Every decision teachers make is made with our children as our first priority . .. trusting in those who have made working in school their life’s work is a great place to start.

Teacher Roten Penaloza-Blustein (last name sp???) spoke at 1:58:47 and gave parents an idea of what teachers were going through.

Unfortunately despite all of these clearly dedicated professionals, there was also the parental experiences related by John McDonald at 1:48:55 in the video and described earlier in this article.

First, teaching is a very difficult profession.  Burnout rates are high and the average teacher in California supposedly last about five years in the profession.

Unfortunately students encounter those burnout cases in class and parents hear about them.  This is sadly a big strike against the teaching profession and part of the reason why it is always battling for respect.  It only takes a few bad apples in the barrel to cause a lot of problems.  There are no easy solutions to this dilemma other than to try to make parents aware of this issue and hope that they listen to the more accomplished teachers in the district.

Secondly, I personally think that a lot of the problem is also due to the way teachers are trained by the education schools and California education rules requiring that the curriculum be “refreshed” on a periodic basis (currently every 7 years if I remember correctly).

No other profession conducts such radical overhauls of their knowledge base as seems to happen in education.  Most teachers are not research scientists and rationally tend to believe what they are taught in education programs, even though a lot of education research may be of low quality (see for example, what happened in the case of Everyday Mathematics, advertised as one of the most highly researched elementary school math programs available).  This leads to frequent “new ideas” being introduced into California schools in particular, which are tilted toward progressivism.  When these ideas backfire, the effects on the kids exposed to them are long-lasting as I have documented in Never Believe Educational Experts (or Me)! and other articles on this blog.

Because of the large regular work demands on teachers, it is not reasonable to ask them to delve critically into the detailed background research every time a new educational fad is foisted on them in order to determine if its research should be believed.  The more frequently we “refresh” our curriculum, the bigger this problem becomes.

However there is a way to overcome this problem if we trust teachers to stick with a long-established textbook series and evolve their own lessons over a long period of time as teachers used to have the freedom to do.  Too many education reform efforts try to disrupt everything as I have described, for example, in the case of the Next Generation Science Standards, and this can result in a lot of quality lesson plans being discarded.

No doctor or lawyer would dream of attempting the kind of radical overhauls to their practice which happen in education.

Teacher unions should seriously consider trying to overturn or seriously modify these curriculum refresh regulations and restore autonomy to teachers.  Every time teachers are forced to switch to a new curriculum that backfires and hurts kids, it seriously erodes confidence in their profession.

 

Problems of “English Literacy Development” (ELD) and other special needs Students

None of the models presented to date adequately address the ELD student problem nor students in special education.  This is acknowledged by almost all people and work on this problem is ongoing, but I want to point out at least a few of the many speakers that addressed some of this issue.

Edwin Contreras spoke at 2:50:16 describing the opposition of Latino students and families about physically returning to school and being exposed to the virus.

Arienne Adamchikova addressed the Latino community in Spanish at 2:11:45.  Having only studied French and Bahasa Malaysia, I unfortunately do not know what she said.

Daniel Wekselgreen, the District Math coordinator, spoke at 2:30:49 and described how distance learning may actually benefit students who are struggling the most by allowing greater interaction remotely than social distancing requirements will allow if students return in person.

 

A personal tragedy

I will end this long article with the comments of teacher Jenny Caughey.  Her tragic story speaks for itself at 3:06:24.  She was followed by Aura Smithers, the final commenter of the night, who also is well worth listening to.

 

If you made it all the way through to the end of this long article, please accept my gratitude for the concern that you have displayed for our children!  This article with all of its supporting links was a major effort to compose, but I hope that you have found it useful.

 


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Thanks as always for your participation!

Author: David Kristofferson

Retired scientist, teacher, bioinformatician, IT director, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist (7690 miles and 724,300 feet of climbing in 2015), backpacker, you name it! Current avocation is tutoring high school students near San Mateo, CA in mathematics, physics and chemistry. Please see the Bio link in the right sidebar for my detailed background information.

6 thoughts on “Critical School Reopening Issues from the SMUHSD Board Meeting”

  1. Thanks, David for a great summary. Guess we still really don’t know what will happen. Be prepared for many starts and stops and redirections.

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  2. Thanks David for taking the time and care to share with us, issues our kids and teachers are facing.

    Change for the sake of change rarely leads to improvements, imho.

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  3. Great, David. My read on returning to school:

    Yes, distance learning is subpar. Everyone knows this. The only people who refuse to recognize how problematic it is are those who benefit financially from distance learning.

    However, a recent study suggests that children 10 years old and older are just as likely to contract Covid-19 as adults are. See this: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)31304-0/fulltext

    In addition, we now know that even among people who are overtly asymptomatic, contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus can have severe, long-term consequences not limited to the lungs, but affecting other bodily organs and systems, the heart, brain, liver, nerve function, and so on.

    I think that a lot of people who don’t work in schools vastly overestimate the ability that schools will have to enforce rules for social distancing and the wearing of masks. “Johnny, please don’t wear your mask over your eyes and pretend to be Batman. What? You accidentally blew your nose in your mask? Yolanda, please pick up your mask and don’t shoot it at Hector again.” LOL. And we now know that small, confined, usually windowless environments LIKE CLASSROOMS are ideal for transmission of the virus. Kids, at all levels, touch everything, as every teacher knows. I recently taught high-school in an upper-middle-class environment. I cleaned my classroom regularly. The bottoms of desks were covered with kids’ gum and BOOGERS. If you think that kids are going to be careful about this stuff, you simply don’t know kids. They have very short attention spans, they aren’t clean, they don’t follow rules consistently, and there is no way, short of insanely draconian measures, to make them follow the supposedly sufficient rules consistently, even if they were sufficient, which they clearly won’t be.

    The only way to be able to reopen schools SAFELY is to be able to test every person in the school regularly, track all contacts, and isolate those infected or exposed. Until we can do this, the fact is that talk about reopening schools “safely” is just magical thinking on the part of people who don’t know schools and kids but would like the kids out of their hair again so that they can easily go about their lives. If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.

    If we reopen schools under these conditions, we will see vast surges in infections, and lots and lots of teachers, administrators, staff, and parents and other relatives will die who didn’t have to die. And some kids will as well. How many of these deaths are you willing to accept? And how many other SARS-CoV-2-related health problems later on?

    Look. There’s a freaking pandemic going on involving an easily transmissible, DEADLY disease that can cause severe consequences in the long-term even for people who are overtly asymptomatic. We are faced with these choices:

    1. Simply call off school until there is a vaccine.
    2. Send kids back to school and watch the infections and deaths soar.
    3. Accept that we are going to have to continue doing distance learning, as bad as it is, until we have sufficient testing, tracking, and isolation capabilities to test every person in school regularly OR have a universally available vaccine.

    Option one is not acceptable. Option two is psychopathic (who cares about those deaths and infections with long-term consequences) or involves magical thinking. It’s BY FAR the worst choice. I’ll take option three, thank you.

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  4. Thank you David for your time and objectivity. It is very hard with the varying data making different statements. We want our teachers to be able to safely do what they are terrific at doing – teaching, coaching and caring for students.

    The Lancet study, referenced earlier, in addition to showing that people 10-19 can have “seropositivity”, it showed that people over 65 had dramatically less. I am not a scientist – so I cannot tell you why (you might be better at that than me), but we know in our community, the rate of infection and mortality is dramatically higher for over 65. And that there is very little infection and no mortality (thankfully) under 19. This virus’ behavior and trends are very local.

    We have to remember that the promise of a vaccine is just that – a promise and a hope. With amazing scientists working night and day on it. But those scientists are communicating that it’s likely to be 2-3 years without a vaccine. Are we prepared to educate our children and keep them isolated for 2-3 years? Massachusetts published a terrific guide for return to school recognizing the likely duration of this risk.

    The virus will continue to be in our community until there is either herd immunity or an effective vaccine. I am hopeful that we will continue to become better at treatment and faster at testing so that we can manage the Covid-19 infections because I think we are unfortunately, stuck with them. And, as you know, I support masks, hand-washing.

    I’d like to find common ground – focus on making the schools safer for the teachers so that they can do what they love – teach kids. And to provide our children with a curriculum that is well developed, flexible for in-school or distance, and pro-teacher.

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    1. I have only had time to glance at the Lancet study that Bob referenced above, but seropositivity probably means that antibodies against the virus were found in the patient’s blood. I am guessing, before I read it in detail, that this may mean simply that old people’s immune systems are just not able to mount as vigorous of a response against the virus, and that’s why they either die or have a harder recovery. If I find out otherwise later, I will update this statement.

      Sorry for the delay in posting your comment. For some reason WordPress placed it in the Spam folder even though I see nothing in the text to warrant that. The WordPress spam filter has been pretty close to 100% accurate for the last several years. I hope they haven’t just “improved” it!

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    2. PS – BTW, Dr. Fauci keeps saying that he thinks we might get a vaccine around the end of the year or early next year. My biggest concern is how effective it will be. Flu vaccines are only partially effective because the virus constantly mutates, and we have never come up with anything to prevent the common cold. Whether the novel coronavirus will have an effective antibody target that a vaccine can help develop an immune response against and which does not then mutate quickly remains to be seen.

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