Orinda schools could return to in-person learning next week

The Orinda Union School District could possibly return to in-person learning as soon as next week depending on COVID-19 case rates in the county.

Orinda Union Superintendent Dr. Carolyn Seaton said the district is eyeing a possible return on Feb. 9 for certain grade levels and would incorporate a hybrid learning model.

Whether students return depends on the adjusted case rate in Contra Costa County. Schools in the county will be allowed to reopen if the adjusted case rate is below 25 cases per 100,000 residents for five consecutive days and if the school district has a COVID-19 safety plan approved by the county and state. Currently, the case rate is very close to that threshold and trending down.

"We're getting closer to that below 25 mark, it's great news," Seaton said. "Our teachers and staff miss our kids tremendously."

Seaton submitted her district’s COVID-19 safety plan on Jan. 28 to state and county officials. She is now waiting on the green light to reopen. It could take seven business days before the county informs a district on whether their safety plan has been approved. A spokesman for Contra Costa Health Services said six school districts have submitted COVID-19 safety plans that are currently under review.

"We've implemented so many health and safety protocols that we feel we have really maximized safety for our students and our teachers and staff at the sites," Seaton said. "For the parents who aren’t ready for that yet, we do have the distance learning option so students can continue in distance learning."

The Mt. Diablo Unified School District said the district may be able to bring back students sooner than March due to positively trending metrics at the county level. The superintendent of MDUSD plans to submit a revised reopening timeline on Feb. 10 at the next regular board meeting. MDUSD Spokesman Austin Breidenthal said the district has reached an agreement with its teachers' union regarding small-group supports in the Red Tier, and are continuing deliberations with its teachers union regarding safety and metrics for an eventual larger return. 

Parents like Tami Shaffer are eager for her three kids to return to school in the Moraga Unified School District. She was told their district could possibly return to class in roughly two weeks.

"My husband and I we weight the options daily," Shaffer said. "Yes there is a risk of going back, but we also see how our first grader has struggled being at home."

Another parent familiar with the challenges of distance learning is Judy Sin. She moved with her two children to Moraga from New York right before the pandemic and said her kids have had a tough time emotionally.

"We are in a new state, new town, new school, new teachers... they have never met anyone," Sin said.

She noted that it has been especially challenging since the family speaks a different language at home and they rely on school to help with English.

There are a handful of parents who are concerned about sending their children back to school in a pandemic. Others feel distance learning simply works better for their child.

Britni Arguelles said she has chosen to keep her third grade son in distance learning, not for fear of the virus, but because he has shown academic improvement.

"We have chosen to stick with DL mainly because my son has thrived in this environment and Distance Learning has given our family the opportunity to support him in ways we wouldn’t otherwise have known how to do so," Arguelles said.

The takeaway – each family’s story is unique.

"We hear about other states with kids in school and there are private schools that are open here," Shaffer added. "The question is, why can't we do it?"

On Monday, the Contra Costa County School Boards Association and 14 school board presidents sent a joint letter calling on the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors  and Contra Costa County Health Services to prioritize teachers when it comes to getting vaccinated, regardless of where districts are in the reopening process.

Public schools in Contra Costa County have been closed since March 2020. According to CCCSBA, the extended closures have affected school children academically, socially, and emotionally.

"Federal, state, and local government have emphasized how critical safe, open schools are to the economy and to public health," CCCSBA President Cherise Khaund said. "In the depth of this global pandemic, these claims must be met by action."