A recent surge of new COVID-19 cases around the nation has Burbank Unified School District officials coming to grips with the possibility that the majority of its students will not be allowed to return to campus for in-person instruction this academic year.
The district recently committed to distance learning through the remainder of the first semester and staff members have been refining a hybrid model that would bring back students at a limited capacity.
However, a current trend in coronavirus cases had the board of education questioning whether it is best to continue working on a hybrid schedule or shift the focus to enhancing the distance learning experience.
In Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ranking system, Los Angeles County remains in Tier 1, a classification that indicates a widespread risk of COVID-19 infection and keeps schools closed. The county would have to meet the next tier’s thresholds for two weeks to move into Tier 2, which indicates substantial risk of infection.
“We have to look at the science and follow the health department recommendations, and all of that, at the moment, is indicating we’re going in the wrong direction,” board Vice President Steve Frintner said during a virtual meeting on Thursday. “As [Superintendent Matt Hill] pointed out a month ago, it was a different situation a month ago. Everything was trending down. That’s why we needed to start looking at possible models for the second semester if we could reopen. That doesn’t really seem likely.”
Hill said a transition to a hybrid schedule after the winter break would be difficult enough for teachers and students, and would be even more challenging “in the middle of the second semester.”
“I do not recommend that at all,” he said. “I think that would be way too disruptive for our learning experience.”
A sudden pivot would have many students changing teachers near the end of the school year, which would be detrimental to younger children’s learning, he said.
“You lose all those bonds and relationships [between the student and teacher],” Hill said. “I wouldn’t make that call on the academic side.”
Board member Steve Ferguson said that though he is still hopeful for the reopening of schools, he is aware that a decision to commit to distance learning for the remainder of the school year can give staff and teachers an “ability to breathe” and shift the focus to those students who are struggling with virtual instruction.
“We have a small report that says D’s and F’s have gone up by 50%,” he said. “If we don’t address that now, if we don’t focus on getting those students support now with all of our energy, working with our counseling teams, working with our administrative teams, we’re going to have a credit recovery issue that is going to very difficult and very challenging to manage.”
Another concern is with the social emotional well-being of the students, and board member Charlene Tabet asked that staff members look into the possibility of allowing small cohorts of kids back on campus for social activities.
BUSD is making a small step in that direction by allowing small groups of athletes to return to campus for conditioning and training on Monday, Nov. 9. Practices and competition are not allowed.
“It’s the social-emotional [aspect] that is really driving the demand to get in-person schooling,” Hill told Tabet. “If we get creative and think about [social activities in small groups], I think that will balance out what we’re missing from distance learning. It’s not perfect. I know it’s not perfect. It’s not the model we’ve wanted, but I think that’s something better [for students].”
The county’s waiver system that allows students in transitional kindergarten through 2nd grade to return for in-person instruction was also a topic of discussion, and Hill reminded parents and board members that the county is approving only 30 elementary schools per week.
He also stressed that schools, not districts, are given approval, and equity issues could arise with having one elementary school open while the others wait for waivers. There are 11 elementary schools in the BUSD.
Hill said he and staff members will continue to monitor the number of cases over the next several weeks and provide an updated report to the board in December.
PUSHBACK ON EXCLUSION OF BOOKS
Students voiced their disapproval of the district’s decision not to include several books in this year’s curriculum.
After receiving numerous complaints from students and parents, BUSD officials asked teachers not to include “To Kill a Mockingbird, “The Cay,” “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and — most recently added— “Of Mice of Men” in their lesson plans for the year.
The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee is taking the complaints seriously and reevaluating the district’s core curriculum novels, something it has not done in 40 years, according to Hill.
“This is not about banning books,” he said. “This is not about taking away academic freedom. The complaint process has allowed us to take a hard look at our core novels.”
Carmen Blanchard, a student representative participating in the board meeting, suggested that the district clarify the reasoning behind its decision to review the books.
“It wasn’t just a bunch of white people that came up with this,” she said. “There were complaints and there are reasons, specifically from families of color, Black students and Black families.”
A report on the review is expected sometime this month and Hill will relay that to the board two weeks later.