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.

 


Please post your comments following this article below.  You must scroll all the way down to the “Leave a Reply” box to reply to the article directly or click the “Reply” link following a particular comment to respond to that comment.  This forum is moderated, so comments will not appear until approved.

The WordPress software that runs this site requires that you enter an email address in order to comment, but your address is not checked for validity nor displayed, and I do not collect or use this information.  Also, you will not receive emailed comments on the article from other people unless you check a box in the form to request this.

Thanks as always for your participation!

The Mental Health Issues Involved with Distance Learning

6/24/2020, 6:30 AM – This article is also excerpted from our local Nextdoor discussion on school reopening. The full Nextdoor discussion is accessible at https://nextdoor.com/news_feed/?post=151832244, but requires both a Nextdoor account to access and is also only geographically accessible from some, not all, neighborhoods in the SMUHSD.

Nextdoor’s discussions are free-form, comments are quickly lost in nested sub-threads, and include a lot of repetition of issues covered previously in the convoluted discussion thread.  Consequently, I have been highlighting on this blog aspects of the conversation that strike me as being of particular importance.

The following comments were written by Joelle Kaufman and reproduced here with her permission.  Some of my remarks during the conversation are also included below.  There were a couple of other participants as well but, as the Board Meeting is coming up soon, and because I promised that Joelle’s remarks would go up this morning, I did not have time to seek out permission from the other participants.  Technically, any post on Nextdoor is in a public forum and could be quoted elsewhere, but I prefer not to operate in that manner on this blog.

Joelle Kaufman introduced herself early in the conversation as follows: “I am a business person – and a parent of a BHS graduate, BHS Senior and an 8th grader who will attend BHS.”  The “survey” which she mentions at the beginning below was conducted by SMUHSD to gauge parent and student sentiment about returning to school this Fall.

Joelle’s comment is followed by my reply, and then her response to my request for available data.  As I received this late last night, I have not had time to review any of the citations that she quotes and leave the evaluation of these links to each reader.


 

Joelle Kaufman: Without a doubt, the survey was flawed and a less biased, transparent survey should be deployed to get broad parent, student and teacher input.

I think that your blogpost, David Kristofferson, may have missed what I think is the underlying problem with the call, from 75% or 2/3 of the teachers, for 100% distance learning. When we moved dramatically to distance, we know teachers really couldn’t prepare. Teachers begged, pleaded publicly for credit/no-credit to protect the most vulnerable students – and acknowledged that students who were striving (vulnerable or not) would be potentially demoralized and demotivated – but that it was better for everyone’s mental health and more equitable to go credit/no-credit.

Turns out – it was neither. The lack of structure and the lack of expectations disproportionately impacted more vulnerable students who may not have parents who can act as teacher’s aides or tutors (or hire them). The psychological damage of isolation, lack of structure and no purpose is now well documented for the dramatic increases in anxiety and depression. While there are other factors obviously contributing to those problems, the recommendation of the teachers removed key defenses against those mental health consequences. And I don’t think anyone thinks the District is not also culpable – but the recommendation came from teachers and it was not good for the kids. The pleading for 100% distance learning also came from the teachers at the last Board meeting – not from the Board, Administrators. Teachers, who are educators, are not psychologists (although they may feel like them sometimes!).

Psychologists I know were very alarmed by the credit/no-credit and are very alarmed by the 100% distance recommendation. For example – you have NO IDEA who is actually vulnerable – it’s not just socio-economic or IEP/504 or students struggling in school. The largest population of anxious and depressed students are high performing, relatively affluent teens. It’s very sad. The only way to know who is struggling is to SEE them and OBSERVE changes in demeanor and behavior to refer them to a counselor for help.

Now we have another recommendation from teachers – driven by fear for their own safety. And only one teacher in the district has training and experience in distance learning – so we have teachers recommending something that they did not do well in the spring, are not trained to do and have no experience in doing, because they are scared. And it is scary. And when you look at the rate of infection and of complex cases, the adjusted risk is very low (not zero) for people under 65. I’m happy to share with you a model of that risk so you can adjust the assumptions . I do not know how many teachers are over 50 or have a medical condition that significantly increases their risk (my model guessed 45% to be conservative). But all living is risk – driving to school, exposure to influenza, eating unhealthy (but tasty) food, having children on screens fo 3-6 hours per day. My model calculated 2 cases (not deaths – none of those) in the entire SMUHSD given the infection rate and mortality rate by age. Our county is declining in cases – in spite of more interaction – as people exercise personal responsibility.

School will be different as we mitigate risk – for the teachers. The teens are already interacting with each other, as they do and as they need. Let’s educate them as they need as well – in person, in community and teach personal responsibility for community.

 

David Kristofferson: Hi Joelle, your clear concern is the psychological impact on kids of distance learning, and I think this is what you are saying that I did not address on my blog about school reopening. Yes, that is correct and you make very good points above.

I have been writing for several years, though, about the negative impacts of the AP course load on kids and have noted the irony of the frequent mention of mental health resources by the school district, e.g., even to the point of declaring September to be Suicide Prevention Month a year or two back. See for example my articles “Critical Warnings re AP Classes” at https://eduissues.com/2016/10/20/critical-warnings-re-ap-classes/ and “Mutual Assured Destruction” at https://eduissues.com/2018/03/16/mutual-assured-destruction/.

In the limited time to try to make sense of all of the complicated, competing plans and interests, I unfortunately omitted this important issue, so I apologize.

In order to make a rational decision on the competing concerns of teachers versus students, we need data though.

In the case of mental health issues, privacy concerns may hinder data collection. When dealing with economically disadvantaged children a similar issue arises given the fears of undocumented immigrants.

When one sees pictures of corpses being loaded into refrigeration trucks in New York as a result of COVID-19 and holds this up against non-quantitative claims of increased anxiety and depression, it is hard not to be more moved by the former rather than the latter in the current crisis.

Call numbers to suicide prevention lines are a possible statistic, but can be due to many causes. One would expect the biggest problem right now might be due to adults who are out of work and unable to pay their bills or put food on the table and for people with serious illness and no health insurance.

Have you seen any *real data* pertaining to kids, either nationwide at the very least, or better yet for our decision purposes, in our area?

Without data, I think that most people will have no choice but to conclude that death is a more serious outcome than anxiety and depression. *** I am saying this not to minimize the students’ problems, but only to point out how hard it is to balance all of the competing concerns fairly. ***

 

Joelle Kaufman: Thank you – I’d love to be a guest blogger on your site – please feel free to repost my comment with the following added data. The studies on mental health impact are too early to be published – but I found a number of potential proxies to emphasize how serious mental health is for our students – and that our schools are their first line of detection.

https://www.crisistextline.org/mental-health/coronavirus-how-is-america-feeling-part-9-grief/ – you can read that Anxiety is 10 points higher since the start of the pandemic. People text CrisisTextLine – Text HOME to 741741 to text with a Crisis Counselor – when they need help.

Their top suggestions for students is to “stay on track” and “stay on a schedule” – both of which were totally undermined in the spring. I recognize that the intention is to do something different in the fall – but without a curriculum designed, by curriculum development professionals, for virtual learning. https://www.crisistextline.org/topics/get-help-coronavirus/#for-students-3

Psychologists and psychiatrists are writing about the amount of abuse (domestic and familial) that is occurring. https://www.statnews.com/2020/04/27/adolescents-young-adults-paying-high-price-covid-19-prevention/

https://www.checkupnewsroom.com/depression-and-anxiety-in-children-and-teens-on-the-rise-amid-covid-19/

https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/

And finally, California is 10th in the nation for CrisisTextLine activity. Suicidal ideation is down (thankfully as suicide is the leading killer of teens – and Covid-19 represents 0.1 of the suicide deaths). But anxiety, depression, eating disorders and abuse are way up. https://www.crisistextline.org/mental-health/coronavirus-how-is-america-feeling-self-care-part-10/.

The mental health issues can be damaging lifelong and impact a much higher percentage of students than Covid-19. We have to balance the risk – the students need school to learn and for their safety.

Thank you again for the continued civil and informed dialogue and for sharing my thoughts with your audience. Respect.


Please post your comments following this article below.  You must scroll all the way down to the “Leave a Reply” box to reply to the article directly or click the “Reply” link following a particular comment to respond to that comment.  This forum is moderated, so comments will not appear until approved.

The WordPress software that runs this site requires that you enter an email address in order to comment, but your address is not checked for validity nor displayed, and I do not collect or use this information.  Also, you will not receive emailed comments on the article from other people unless you check a box in the form to request this.

Thanks as always for your participation!

Board Agenda Posted and a Letter from San Mateo High School Teachers to Parents

6/23/2020, 3;30 PM – The 6/25 Board Meeting Agenda is now online at

https://agendaonline.net/public/Meeting.aspx?AgencyID=126&MeetingID=78890&AgencyTypeID=1&IsArchived=False

The School Reopening issue is item L.1. and English and Spanish versions of the presentations are linked to from the Agenda.

The periods are now 75 minutes instead of 90 in an earlier version. See slides 4-6.

Slide 17 mentions that school year could begin in phase 2 for “at risk” students.

I have also been made aware of another letter from SMHS teachers to parents which can be found here:

https://mailchi.mp/4320abd035fa/letter-to-parents-from-smhs-teachers

 

Reopening News from the SMUHSD Superintendent

6/22/2020 4:10 PM – Superintendent Kevin Skelly has released the following statement at https://www.smuhsd.org/Domain/2984:

  • June 25 Board Meeting

    Spanish | Chinese

    Dear Families and Students:

    At their June 11 meeting, the Board of Trustees reviewed staff safety protocols and heard a report from the Return to School Committee. The Board directed staff to return with a plan for instruction in the fall. The presentation posted on our website includes a basic class schedule (with at least three hours of synchronous learning per class per week). On Thursday, June 25 the Board will review the proposal, give further direction and consider approval of a plan for how the District will deliver instruction in the Fall.

    I’m sharing some frequently asked questions which help illustrate the proposal for parents and students more thoroughly.

    Those wishing to share their thoughts with the Board may do so by sending an email to returntoschool@smuhsd.org.  Please copy me at kskelly@smuhsd.org if you’d like. Those wishing to make a public comment on the topic may email comments@smuhsd.org with your name, email address, and your zoom name (if different) and the item under which you would like to comment.

    Zoom Meeting login information is available on our website.

    I realize that there are concerns and some anxiety about school opening and the process we are following to come up with a plan. It is a messy time, but we are making progress and I’m increasingly confident that, despite the challenges, we can do right by our students and families this fall. Thanks for your interest and support.

    Sincerely,

    Kevin Skelly, Ph.D.
    Superintendent

The SMUHSD “Remote Learning” Problems of Spring 2020 are NOT Indicative of the Future

6/22/2020 1:15 PM – The following important response on Nextdoor from a local teacher and parent was written to dispel parental concerns about what SMUHSD parents should expect from distance learning in the Fall.

It was written in response to misinformation in a petition entitled “100% Against 100% Distance Learning for SMUHSD Students in the Fall.”  The text below is quoted with permission of the author.  The full Nextdoor discussion is accessible at https://nextdoor.com/news_feed/?post=151832244, but requires both a Nextdoor account to access and is also only geographically accessible from some neighborhoods in the SMUHSD.

I find it especially important to highlight this information because I have already seen private school advertising in my U.S. mail bragging about their superior preparedness after shelter-in-place was announced in mid-March.  This is yet another unfortunate consequence of a decision that was supposedly taken to mitigate the pressures on many students and teachers due to the pandemic.


 

The data and language in the Change.Org petition is inflammatory and drawn from anecdotal evidence that has been debunked.  Parents have been led to believe that the “issues” involved in Distance Learning offered was the fault of the teachers.  This is 100% untrue. 

The Board should mandate that the Administration disclose the truth about the prior Distance Learning experience (see position #2 below)  and the realities of what is being presented as the “on-site” experience.  

The teachers have been “thrown under the bus” by the Administration and have the Parents to believe that the teachers are at fault. This is 100% false.  (see position #2)

Contrary to the statement in the petition, the teachers have taken a position that 2/3rds of the members desire to return to a distance learning environment. This is not a “political power” position as stated in the petition.  The poll reflects 75% of the districts teachers and was taken prior to the parents leaking of the failed Quarter Plan.  As stated by a parent on the committee during the June 11 meeting, The Quarter Plan did not allow sufficient parent input or review, items essential to producing public policy. The teachers are now being blamed for the failures of the committee leadership.

The SMUHSD Re-Opening Task Force failed in its mission to effectively collect information from its stakeholders, take essential input from stakeholder groups and present a plan for Board approval.   

The Change.Org petition cultivates a position contrary to Dr. Morrow’s statements where he warns against following  “those who believe this pandemic is a hoax and no precautions should be put into place.”

This debate should never have made it to the social media platform.  There is a significant amount of false and misleading information that is being presented as fact rather than opinion.  This has led to a poorly crafted decision and dissension among the groups.

The following are responses to the petition.  This is not to pick a fight, but to move more of the facts into the discussion.

Petition Statement:

“It’s clear that District parents and students are comfortable with the risks of returning to school and the steps needed to mitigate these risks. In a recent survey taken by the SMUHSD 80% of parents and students want to return to campus in the Fall and 86.2% of those parents and students prefer a blended in-person and distance learning model versus a 100% distance learning model.”

Facts:

1. The SMUHSD Board stated at it June 11, 2020 meeting that the survey and data were bias and individual Board members admonished the Administration for its “continued failures to produce data that can actually be used.”  This faulty data drove the production of the Administrations Quarter Plan, wasting weeks of valuable time only to be trashed one hour prior to its presentation.  

Petition Statement:

“The California Teachers Association, has adopted a political power position that it does not want to work in classrooms this Fall under any circumstances. It’s unclear short of a vaccine, which may never appear, when the CTA would be willing to teach our children in classrooms again.”

Facts:

2. It was actually the Parents on the committee who revolted against the Administration Plan, not the teachers.  A group of parents on the committee leaked the plan to social media because THEY were opposed to its implementation.  The Teachers have not adopted a “political power position.”  The teachers (prior to the leak) presented the Administration with a bevy of scientific data outlining their concerns in the work environment for students and teachers.  The association also presented data representing 75% of the membership indicated a preference to return to school in a  distance learning environment. The CTA polled is members specifically on individual work place preference.  Delivering fact based data and bona fide results of the desires of the membership are hardly a “political power position.” The teachers have been open to implementing standards that provide a safe learning environment for both student and teachers.  The teacher have also stood for a transparent environment where the risks, costs, and challenges are properly disclosed to the public.    The real behind the scenes story was that  the independent work of a small group of teachers  from San Mateo High School who produced the current and viable plan for re-opening, upon hearing of the rejection of the Quarter Plan after it was leaked by the parents. 

Petition Statement:

“Everyone agrees that distance learning was a huge failure in our public high schools last Spring. Teachers were not required to do any “Zoom’ classes and it was 100% self study. Students at all levels and backgrounds were abandoned.  Most failed to learn.  If we begin the Fall Semester and the students again are forced to 100% distance learn, the damage to their education will most likely be irreversable.”(sic)

Facts:

3. The “Distance Learning” during the Shelter in Place was the design and mandate of the District Administration, not the teachers.  Teachers were directed by the Administration to “prioritize the health of the students and staff as the primary mission.”  The Administrative mandate continued to halt assignments during the “Hold Harmless Period”  (some 3-5 weeks) and then a continued mandate on a reduction of assignments and grading.  (Why haven’t the parents been properly informed of these events?) The petition’s criticisms regarding Distance Learning are actually complaints about the mandates of the administration and not the teachers.  

The online learning that is being planned for the Fall (with proper training and professional development) will not resemble anything like the Shelter in Place experience.

Petition Statement:

“The “lifetime” of a high school student is four years. We could lose most or all of the next few classes of high school students by keeping them away from their teachers, peers and a positive learning environment.”

Facts:

What is being proposed by the District for re-opening the schools does NOT included contact among students, teachers, and peers in a positive learning environment.  The health mandates alone along with the social distance protocols resembles more of a prison environment than a school.  Student engagement and movement will be severely limited and will not resemble anything a student may remember about the school experience.  The gathering of students into a confined space for a period of time on a daily basis is more aligned with retirement homes and the penal system than a school.  A focused question to the Administration would reveal these facts.

Petition Statement:

“Social emotional development is critical in these formative years. Without in-person interactions with teachers and classmates, these developmental milestones will be missed.”

Facts:

Dr. Morrow has authorized a “Social Bubble” of 12 people or less.  Families may now form these cohorts at home for student interaction.  Even inside the school, student will not be able to freely interact with other students.  Teachers will be “locked” in a Teacher Zone and will not be able to interact with the students.

Students who participate in the return to school model will be trapped at school in PPE all day and will NOT be able to form a Social Bubble as they are engaged with students from school.  Students who participate in the online program will be free to engage with their Social Bubble peer anytime during or after school.

More of what Dr. Morrow stated in his letter.

A more complete read of Dr. Morrow’s June 15, 2020 Statement gives deeper insight into his intent, 

“ I want to see kids back in school.  I also feel that it is very important that kids be allowed to be kids.”  

He is not giving orders as much as he  is giving advice.  He is expressing his wishes and his statement adds cautions.  

He knows that the decisions to open the schools does not belong to him, but  to local school boards.  He does have the power to close the schools as needed.

The following  statmentsare drawn from the same June 15 letter offering insight into Dr. Morrow’s desire to see schools open.

Dr. Morrow June 15 statement:

 “Most folks are familiar with the effects of sneezing, especially if someone sneezes on you.  You feel this wetness on you.  The feeling of wetness is produced mainly by tens of thousands of expelled droplets.  I hope most folks have the basic understanding that avoiding having someone sneeze on you is a good idea.  Surprisingly, talking for one minute produces the same amount of droplets as one sneeze.  Think about that.  Being close to someone talking for one minute is like having them sneeze on you.  Shouting produces 10 times the amount of droplets as talking.  Shouting near others for 6 seconds is equivalent to sneezing on them.  This is the main reason why the extensive use of facial coverings is so important.”

Facts:

Dr.  Morrow’s letter states that the transfers of the virus are from droplets. Individual in close proximity to one another talking, sneezing, blowing their nose, touching their face and then touching another person.  increases the transfer of the virus.  After working with teens for 30 years I can tell you that most teens lack a sense of personal space and proper hygiene practices (it goes with the territory).  Social Distancing practices in the classrooms, hallways, courtyards, cars, busses, bathrooms at passing period. 

We could not stop the kids from vaping during schools  in the bathrooms, at passing periods,  and in class this is going to be easy?

Dr. Morrow June 15 statement:

“(keeping schools closed), the most vulnerable among us are the most likely to be damaged by continuing to not offer a more typical school experience and they are also the most vulnerable to disease spreading out of control. These are the types of difficult issues that need to be balanced”

Facts:

The most vulnerable students in our population will carry the most damage from school closures, but they are also the most vulnerable to contracting and spreading the disease. Therefore, the needs of THESE students are premier and should be elevated to a higher standard.  Students whose families enjoy income security and associated benefits do not need an in class space as they are far less likely to suffer from a lack of in class instruction or and are less likely to contract and spread the virus. Dr. Morrow’s examples (intent) differentiated between elementary and secondary education.  The appropriation of the needs of the most vulnerable and applying them to those more well off is not a sound application of Dr. Morrows analysis.

Dr. Morrow June 15 statement:

“But that level of risk tolerance should not drive the entire decision making process or the structure in which schools operate any more than parents who believe this pandemic is a hoax and no precautions should be put into place.”

Facts:

“level of risk tolerance should not drive the entire decision making process or the structure in which schools operate.”   Dr. Morrow does not support returning to school without precautions.  The manner in which schools operate should balance on MORE than just risk tolerance.  

What is the quality of the delivery  (structure) of education mitigated by the risk factor? 

Does the in-school delivery of education model, when adjusted for risk, offer a better option than online education adjusted for risk?

Dr. Morrow June 15 statement:

 “Preferably they (the decisions) will be made with substantial input from the young people who are directly affected by them. There are many guidelines to review to assist in these decisions.”

Facts:

If the students are presented with ALL of the facts and limitations of returning to school, what would they choose?  The 80% of student approval presented above did not include an explicit explanation of the daily limitations, nor did it include the number of respondents with data that could be disaggregated.  (We really don’t know what that 80% represents) The Teachers and Staff ARE the other people directly affected by the decision making process. In Dr. Morrow’s words, “These are the types of difficult issues that need to be balanced.”

Dr. Morrow June 15 statement:

 “Our case rate remains high and hospitalizations, until recently, were worsening, our Re is around 1.3, (Re is the number of people in a population who can be infected by an individual at any specific time) most models predict a second wave in August.”

Facts:

Dr. Morrow’s model is predicting a second spike of the virus in August 2020, at the exact same time as the SMUHSD is scheduled to open.  More cases, more infections, more…. well you know. 

I’ve used the following in another post but it is appropriate here as well.

NASA and the Challenger Explosion

Bob Ebeling was the engineer who warned NASA that the Challenger was going to blow up because of weather conditions.  Despite agreement among the engineers, the politicians “overrode” the engineers and ordered the launch.

The Challenger blew up on launch and killed everyone on board.

What is Dr. Morrow telling us? 

Are we “A-OK” for Launch, or is he cautioning us about how to proceed?

Dr. Morrow expressed his wishes to return to school, but he also insisted on informing the public to use caution and evaluate the facts.


Please post your comments following this article below (or on Nextdoor at https://nextdoor.com/post/151832244 if you can access that post – note that the Nextdoor post is not accessible in all parts of the SMUHSD while this blog is).  You must scroll all the way down to the “Leave a Reply” box to reply to the article directly or click the “Reply” link following a particular comment to respond to that comment.  This forum is moderated, so comments will not appear until approved.

The WordPress software that runs this site requires that you enter an email address in order to comment, but your address is not checked for validity nor displayed, and I do not collect or use this information.  Also, you will not receive emailed comments on the article from other people unless you check a box in the form to request this.

Thanks as always for your participation!

A Way Out of the School Reopening Morass??

UPDATE on 6/19/2020 at 11:15 AM: Here is the slide deck preview for the next Board Meeting: Fall 2020 Learning Plan – Public Version

It was accompanied by the following note:

Attached is a preview of the schedule that will be on the board agenda for next week. The schedule was a collaboration between the teachers’ union, district administration, and site administration. All groups took into account the feedback from our committee, previous surveys, and schedules presented at the last board meeting. In addition, we took into account school board comments and recommendations.  The presentation will have far more detail, but this gives you a glimpse of the suggested schedule for the school board’s consideration. I believe the board agenda will be posted this evening or Monday.

UPDATE on 6/15/2020: An Addendum has been appended to this post which was made the morning before the Board meeting.  The Addendum briefly describes the outcome of the Board meeting and provides links to a recording of the meeting as well as the slide deck presented to the attendees.


6/11/2020 – This last week has been overwhelming in terms of the number of proposals, counter-proposals, and extensive discussions about how to reopen schools in the fall.  Please see SMUHSD Debating a Change to a Quarter System? and, for those with local Nextdoor access, https://nextdoor.com/news_feed/?post=150484676 for the gory details.

I would like to make a short, relatively uncomplicated proposal and then will step aside.  I do not have children attending school, and my personal work is done completely via Skype since the pandemic, so I will not consume valuable comment time during the Board meeting tonight.

This idea will not need 66 slides!  In fact it will not need any slides at all – just the very short text section that follows!

At the end of last school year, most AP teachers were holding classes via Zoom.  Many non-AP classes were held much less regularly though, due to the rapid school closure and some teachers suddenly having outside care responsibilities during the COVID-19 outbreak.

In the fall, school will resume full time.  I believe, but am not certain, that part of the rationale for the quarter system was to complete certain classes by the end of the first quarter in case there was a “second wave” of COVID-19 in the late October/November time frame.  This might allow a “cleaner” shutdown of school if necessary.

Pardon me, but I still don’t understand, after listening to all of the back and forth, why school can’t resume using the normal pre-pandemic seven period semester schedule with 1/3rd of students in class each day and the other two thirds participating in the exact same lesson via Zoom (or some other more secure platform) from home.  Or we could have only one fifth of students come in on a particular day of the week if the desire is to further minimize group size.

If a “second wave” develops, then we simply go back to 100% of students using Zoom or Zoom alternative from home until it passes, but we do not stop school.

The 1/3rd rotation could have the same group coming in every 3rd day as in the current district slide deck, or, more preferable in terms of reducing teacher exposure, every third week as several of my Aragon students told me was the proposal originally mentioned to them.

A week at school followed by two weeks off would also be an effective “quarantine” to minimize COVID-19 spread in the event that any student was infected.  The week at school allows students to ask teachers questions in person and also gives them at least some “socially distant” contact with their peers.

The rotation schedule on a normal semester plan seems to me to be the most important topic for discussion, NOT the quarter system idea which appears to be a non-starter for very many people (parents AND teachers)!

The other alternative, of course, is 100% online learning that the teachers currently favor due to their health concerns.

Why do we need to develop all of these other complicated proposals with so many downsides and probably other as yet unforeseen consequences???  The Board meeting tonight could be the longest one in SMUHSD history or we could cut through all of this clutter in advance.

If I am missing something, please let me know in the Comment section below or on Nextdoor where I will also be posting a link to this article.  Thank you!

 


 

Addendum posted AFTER the Board Meeting:

A recording of the 5 hour long Board meeting is available at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCW_KpbKc1KYRPUzLZHSxf0A

The quarter system proposal was dropped from the agenda a few hours prior to the meeting and replaced with two other possible models (“Fully Blended” and “80/20 Blended”) developed with substantial teacher input.  The Fully Blended model is discussed by Assistant Superintendent Kirk Black starting at 1 hour 36 minutes (1:36) into the Youtube video above, and the 80/20 Blended model is presented by teacher Jinna Hwang at 1:43 into the video.

Here is a copy of the revised Return to School slide presentation given at the meeting that includes these two new models: L_1_RevisedReturnToSchoolPresentation_0

The decision was made to flesh these plans out further and bring them back to the next Board meeting on 6/25.

What do people think about these proposals?

I remain concerned by the reduction in class time and the use of “asynchronous learning.”  As I said on Nextdoor:

… sorry, but the idea of a student watching a lecture at home without the ability to ask an immediate question of the lecturer just rubs me the wrong way. One can call it by the fancy term “asynchronous learning” but I would prefer a simpler term – “bad teaching!”

This denigration of lecturing in current education philosophy has gone to an extreme. No one enjoys simply being talked AT, of course, but then why assign Khan Academy and prerecorded lectures where there is no possibility of interaction? There always seems to be a curious parallel reduction in teaching effort along with many of these “progressive education” methods like, for example, CPM math.

In fact I wrote an article about this problem earlier: Why a “Sage on the Stage” in a Classroom is not always a Bad Thing .

This asynchronous learning problem can be fixed if the teacher is accessible with a reasonable turn-around time via some kind of instant messaging system such as the one in Canvas mentioned by Kevin in the comments below or via other forms of IMs or cellular texts.


Please post your comments following this article below (or on Nextdoor at https://nextdoor.com/post/151832244 if you can access that post – note that the Nextdoor post is not accessible in all parts of the SMUHSD while this blog is).  You must scroll all the way down to the “Leave a Reply” box to reply to the article directly or click the “Reply” link following a particular comment to respond to that comment.  This forum is moderated, so comments will not appear until approved.

The WordPress software that runs this site requires that you enter an email address in order to comment, but your address is not checked for validity nor displayed, and I do not collect or use this information.  Also, you will not receive emailed comments on the article from other people unless you check a box in the form to request this.

Thanks as always for your participation!

Will “Online Learning” Work?

The COVID-19 pandemic required the abrupt closure of schools and an almost overnight shift to attempts at online education.

Implementation has been very uneven, and, combined with cries about “equity problems,” led to the cancellation of grades for spring semester 2020 locally and at many places across the nation.

How can we make school work going forward? This *in-depth* article examines the many behind the scenes challenges of which parents may not be aware and discusses possible ways forward.

Continue reading “Will “Online Learning” Work?”

Excellent article in “The Economist” on COVID-19 vaccines!

4/20/2020 – If you read only one thing today, this should be it:

Can the world find a good covid-19 vaccine quickly enough?

Note – The Economist requires a subscription for full access, but one can get a free account with access to five free articles per month. Personally, I find this magazine to be one of the most informative that I read regularly.

Despite the name, it covers news from all around the world, providing information most Americans will not encounter elsewhere, in addition to business/economics. Its coverage of science and technology is insightful (the above article is an excellent example), and it also reviews books and the arts.

 

Parents Protest Against Credit/No Credit Grading in SMUHSD

The following is from the April 9th San Mateo Daily Journal:

The proposal to temporarily postpone issuing letter grades in the San Mateo Union High School District alarmed some school community members who opposed adopting a credit system for the semester disrupted by COVID-19.

The district Board of Trustees initially scheduled a meeting to discuss the credit proposal Tuesday, April 7, but pushed the session back until Thursday, April 16, to further examine the issue.

Concerned parent Andrew Soss shared fears that students earning good grades would see their semester’s hard work wiped away with a broad stroke from officials adopting the credit system.

The full text of the article can be found here.

The SMUHSD Board will hold a public meeting on this topic via Zoom Thursday evening at 5 PM as detailed here.

I strongly encourage parents who have an opinion on this topic to email the Board of Trustees at board@smuhsd.org  before the meeting!!


Postscript – The article above shows just one example of the value that our local newspaper provides to the community.  I signed up for an online subscription for $99 per year to support their work, and I encourage all of you to do likewise.  I have no connection with or financial interest in the newspaper.