Charles Schletzbaum has taught physics at Milpitas High School (MHS) for 18 years. A popular teacher in the school’s science department, Schletzbaum is known for his jokes, his direction of the school’s debate team, and his eccentric personality. His classroom is often filled with students who want to hang out with him both before and after class.
This school year will be different, though.
The academic year was set to begin completely remote for the entirety of August, the first month of the school year. Then, starting in September, the district was to begin allowing a certain amount of students to show up in person across its schools, in what it called its “hybrid” approach.
Teachers were told to prepare their classrooms to implement social distancing protocols approved by the Milpitas school board: Everything from smaller classroom sizes to face coverings and sanitizing wipes was to be required at every school. They were also told they would have to teach to web cameras, as the Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD) gave the option for parents and guardians to opt out of the hybrid approach and keep their children completely at home to continue distance learning.
But with California reaching more than 433,000 confirmed coronavirus cases this month—surpassing New York as the most infected state in the nation—the district has reversed course, scrapping its hybrid plan indefinitely. All Milpitas education shall take place online for the foreseeable future.
“Every student, K-12, will begin the year in 100 percent distance learning,” said MUSD’s Board Support/Communications Specialist Scott Forstner in an email to The Beat. “The hybrid [system] comes into play when conditions are deemed safe and we can have the in-person support for students who need it.”
Like many of the district’s plans concerning the coronavirus, this plan is “fluid,” and will continue based on the county’s direction and coronavirus case numbers.
Eventually, however—and, the district is hoping, within this school year—classrooms will return completely to in-person learning.
“In both cases, the goal is to transition to in-person learning 100 percent of the time for our learners,” said a district memo. “We recognize that distance learning has been intrinsically effective for some learners, and we plan to provide this as an optional program for secondary students post-COVID-19.”
Hybrid classrooms have been proposed in school districts across the country as the most feasible solution for bringing children back into schools. But the Milpitas parent-guardian reaction about them has been mixed…
One parent called some of the approach “confusing.”
“Are we mixing students who choose to be 100 percent distance learning together with people in the hybrid model?” asked another.
“That’s something we’re still fleshing out,” responded Sean Anglon, principal of Thomas Russell Middle School.
Such questions and responses were part of a Q&A series held earlier this month with teachers, parents, and guardians on the planned school year. The sessions, which spanned multiple days, saw questions from parents and guardians pertaining to several levels of schooling.
Ultimately, the Q&A sessions were geared to provide answers to parents and guardians’ questions before they signed up their children for either hybrid learning or complete distance learning.
The choices among parents and guardians were varied. Unstable and unpredictable case numbers made it difficult for administrators and teachers to ensure classroom safety. And had too many parents or guardians requested that their children go back to in-person learning, there might not have been enough room for students to socially distance.
“There’s still some stuff that’s on the drawing board,” Schletzbaum said amid the decision-making period. “Everything will go out the window if not enough people sign up for distance learning…”
As of now, though, the hybrid compromise has gone out the window—or at least has been taken off the table for the foreseeable future. And the district plans to formally unveil its final plan on August 3, just 10 days before the school year begins.
For parents and guardians, the distance learning approach eases fears about sending their children to school and exposing them to the coronavirus. And for teachers, who, unlike students, are by virtue of their age range in a more COVID-vulnerable population sector, many fears are eased, as well.
Yet teachers and local officials are also highly aware of the difficulties distance learning can pose, especially for working parents and guardians and children with disabilities.
“We recognize that this [distance learning] is not the ideal way for some services to be provided and that may mean additional support is provided to adults, so training to teachers, professionals and support for parents,” said Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan in a recent online discussion with the community.
For Schletzbaum, the need to go back to normal while living in a virus-filled world far from normal is a negotiation he takes seriously. Often, it’s confusing—even for a teacher in a rigorous, upper-class subject like high school Physics.
“It’s a major part of my job to be helping these kids directly. It’s not as effective for the students or me to be doing it by distance learning,” Schletzbaum said. He then added, candidly: “But I also want to be alive at the end of this.”