East Bay school district among 1st to offer in-person summer school

West Contra Costa Unified plans to confront widespread learning loss and prepare students of all grades for the "new normal" of returning to the classroom by enhancing its summer school, which will mostly be in-person.

District officials presented their plans for summer school at a school board meeting Feb. 24.

West Contra Costa appears to be one of the first large districts in the state to announce in-person summer school, which is slated to begin June 14 -- the Monday after the traditional school year ends.

The program goes beyond the district's typical summer offerings and includes credit recovery opportunities at every high school, "bridge programming" to get students ready for the next grade, college preparedness and special education programs.

This could be the first time some students have been in a classroom since the pandemic began, though West Contra Costa Unified announced Thursday it plans to begin negotiating the option of spring in-person instruction with its labor unions.

"We want to reignite student passion for learning, rebuild some of the excitement and engagement in school for students who have been out of their school buildings for so long," Superintendent Matthew Duffy said at the Feb. 24 meeting.

Initial California and national data measuring declines in learning during the first months of the pandemic showed a significant drop in test results in the early grades, with low-income students and English learners showing the least progress in learning.

Duffy said a "large portion" of West Contra Costa Unified students fell behind grade level in reading and math over the past year and had other struggles with distance learning.

West Contra Costa Unified's campuses have remained closed during the pandemic.

The district's current policy is to not reopen campuses until three conditions are met: all ZIP codes within the district are in the orange or "moderate" tier on the state's reopening tier system for 21 consecutive days; the case rates in surrounding counties of Alameda and Solano counties drop below 10 per 100,000 population; and the positivity rate drops below 3 percent.

Contra Costa County remained in the purple or "widespread" tier the week of March 1.

After that policy received criticism from a group of parents as being too stringent to allow for in-person instruction in the spring, the district's school board unanimously directed staff Thursday to return to the bargaining table with its unions.

All California school districts will have the opportunity to enhance their summer school programs this year with a $4.6 billion state budget allocation aimed at addressing learning loss and reopening schools for in-person instruction under Senate Bill 86, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Friday.

That's in addition to $6 billion in federal funding for learning loss programs.

West Contra Costa Unified appears to be ahead of other large urban districts in its summer school planning.

With their focus set on reopening schools this school year, neither Elk Grove Unified nor Fresno Unified have yet announced plans for the summer.

Los Angeles Unified plans on offering summer school to all students this year, but Superintendent Austin Beutner said that offering it in-person depends on a number of factors, including how quickly the district's school staff can be vaccinated.

West Contra Costa Unified Associate Superintendent of Business services Tony Wold said COVID-19 vaccinations are not a contingent part of the district's summer school plan.

It's not mandatory that summer school teachers get the vaccine, he said, and the district is "optimistic" that most of its teachers will have received both doses of the vaccine by that time.

Just like pre-COVID times, teachers can volunteer to work during the summer, Wold said.

If the district is unable to get enough volunteers to meet the demand, they will consider hiring teachers from outside the district. The district will survey parents' interest in the summer programming, so they can determine how many teachers will be needed.

Duffy said the district aims to have class sizes smaller than 14 students, preferably around 10.

The curriculum for West Contra Costa Unified's general education classes during the summer will include literacy and math intervention for all students, project-based or hands-on learning and English learner-specific programs. It will also incorporate social-emotional learning -- education based on helping students develop emotional skills like self-awareness and navigating healthy relationships vital to success in school and life.

Classes will be held on a half-day schedule four days a week. Students will go home with a grab-and-go lunch.

West Contra Costa Unified also will offer "bridge programming" for students who will be going to new schools in the fall, such as eighth-graders moving on to high school or sophomores whose freshman high school year was spent online.

Such programs connect students with campus leaders, help them navigate a new and often larger campus and help them acclimate to academic and social expectations as a high school student.

The district will also offer credit recovery programs for high school students to retake classes they didn't pass at all six of its comprehensive high schools, and possibly also at its alternative schools, Duffy said.

In the past, the district has offered credit recovery at only one or two high schools in the district, often requiring students to travel farther.

The district is also looking into providing a "jump start to life after high school" program for graduating seniors, Duffy said.

It would likely include college and career preparation, as well as resume and interview skill building, college application and financing advice, as well as budgeting advice. For the state-required extended school year program for students in special education, the district would have an "AM-PM" cohort system, in which the AM cohort would attend class in-person from 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and do virtual learning or receive designated services, such as speech therapy from noon to 2:30 p.m.

The PM cohort would have the inverse schedule. Students in the general education programs will only attend classes until lunchtime.

Unlike the general education summer school programs, the extended-year program will be offered at only a handful of schools. Bussing will be available to those students who would have to travel to a different school, as well as mileage reimbursement for parents.

As for safety protocols, all summer school students will be separated into cohorts, which they will stick with through the program in order to reduce possible coronavirus transmission.

The cohorts will spend recess together and receive their grab-and-go lunches together in addition to attending class together.

After receiving criticism from school board members and teachers for too little information on safety protocols at the Feb. 24 meeting, district officials on Thursday presented the draft Covid Safety Plan, which would apply to any in-person instruction -- spring or summer.

That plan is in line with guidelines and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California Department of Public Health, he said, and establishes a "COVID response team" that would intervene anytime there's a potential exposure.

The draft plan addressed screening, having an "isolation space" for students who come to school with symptoms, contact tracing if there are outbreaks, safe access and egress for buildings, classroom configuration and personal protective equipment.

The district also plans to create a policy around face coverings, Wold said. District officials plan to work with its unions to finalize the Covid Prevention Plan, he said, and address any concerns they may have.

The school board must later accept that plan. "We believe that no employee nor student should have to be on campus that they don't feel we've taken the right measures to protect them," Wold said.