Six people in a virtual meeting and a cartoon with airplane parts captioned "We are rebuilding the plane while trying to fly it. We all have a piece."

WCCUSD Board Approves Safety Requirements for In-Person Learning

Six people in a virtual meeting and a cartoon with airplane parts captioned "We are rebuilding the plane while trying to fly it. We all have a piece."
(Screenshot captured by Edward Booth / Richmond Pulse)

By Edward Booth

On Wednesday, the West Contra Costa Board of Education approved a Memorandum of Understanding with district unions about health and safety requirements that must be met before in-person schooling can resume.

“It’s not safe today, but it will be at some point, and we’re ready to go,” said Tony Wold, associate superintendent of business services.

The MOU was worked on and signed by the district and all five employee unions. The unions requested that the board ratify and sign the agreement, and the board complied, approving the MOU on a 4-1 vote with board member Mister Phillips opposing.

The safety conditions include areas such as reliable contact tracing, access to timely COVID-19 testing and results, and a low rate of virus spread in all ZIP codes within Contra Costa County, as well as in surrounding areas where district students and employees live.

“We don’t want to be the first to open and have to be the first to close again,” Wold said. “We want to be the first to open that stays open permanently.”

More specifically, there must be fewer than 10 new cases of COVID-19 daily per 100,000 people in Contra Costa and the surrounding counties. The test rate for positive cases must also be below 3% and the rate of spread for each person infected must fall below one.

As far as testing goes, anyone must be able to access a COVID-19 test and be tested within 24 to 48 hours, and patients must be notified of the results within the same time frame. Wold said that as soon as any in-person activity starts, the district would make sure protocol was in place to handle communications around infections with anyone who might have been exposed to limit the spread of the virus.

Once the health requirements are in place, Wold said, the district may move forward with reopening in phases reminiscent of a plan the district put forward in July. The plan involves gradually bringing groups of students back to in-person learning. When in-person learning hubs start up, Wold said, the district will need to keep the population limited so there is enough room to maintain social distancing in both school facilities and on public transportation.

Wold said the district knew it had students with significant social-emotional needs, and more students experiencing homelessness than ever before. Partially because of this, Wold said, the design of the safety plan tries to take equity into account.

“We needed to have the ability to adjust and not try to create a one-size fits all model that fits nobody,” Wold said.

>>>Read: Richmond Promise Helps Students With Food, Money

Most board members supported the MOU, though a few expressed concerns about a return to in-person learning.

Board members Consuelo Lara and Tom Panas said they fully supported the MOU. Lara said she trusted that the unions and district, as they’d worked together collaboratively, had come up with a good plan.

Panas said just as the board agenda states the financial impact for agenda items, it should state the equity impact, as the equity impact for this item is enormous, he said.

Board member Valerie Cuevas said she supported the MOU, but felt it was somewhat of a compromise with her own values. She said that, in her view, priority should be given to developing a vaccine for COVID-19, and schooling should be held at a distance until then.

“I will always work to preserve life when situations are not ideal,” she said.

>>>Read: WCCUSD Board Urges Distance Learning: It’s ‘Life and Death’

Phillips, the sole vote against approval, said he was opposed to sending anyone back to in-person schooling during 2020. He said he wouldn’t approve of an MOU without meaningful discussion or consultation with experts in medicine, science and child development.

Phillips also said he didn’t want the conditions of the MOU to get in the way when in-person learning was objectively safe as he believed that could unnecessarily hurt student learning.

“One day it will be objectively safe to send our children back to school,” Phillips said. “Whenever that day comes, I would hate to keep our schools closed because we accepted this MOU as written, including provisions that would prohibit us from reopening our schools until other counties are cleared.”

Board president Stephanie Hernández-Jarvis said she supported the MOU because it was clear that it sets up hurdles so the district won’t go back to in-person learning too early. She said the district still needs to think primarily about improving distance learning and engagement.

“We’re in distance learning mode because we want to keep everyone safe,” Hernández-Jarvis said. “I want to keep every child and family member and staff member safe.”

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