Back to School in Willits: Distance Learning Until Safe Return Possible

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Dear Willits Unified School Board Members and Superintendent Westerburg,

On behalf of the more than 100 educators of the Willits Teachers Association, we are writing to express our concerns for the wellbeing of all members of the Willits Unified School District, including teachers and staff, students and their family members, and by extension, the members of our whole community, should we return to school in person this fall (with some returning as early as Monday).

This past spring, when schools were closed as our state banded together to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and the accompanying over-taxing of our medical system, which we saw tragically play out in New York, we rallied behind one message: keeping our students and educators safe. At that time, we had zero cases in Mendocino County, but our superintendent wisely kept campus closed, as his “biggest concern… [was] the health of our adult staff,” emphasizing “the impact from the virus can be harsh and we have a small number of substitutes available.” Rising to the challenge, teachers put in incredible effort learning new methods to keep students learning, engaged, and nurtured throughout the crisis learning period, all the while longing for a return to pre-Covid schooling.

However much we wish otherwise, returning to campus this fall will not remotely resemble pre-Covid schooling, nor will it approach the same level of learning and engagement except with the help of technology. Instead of a “normal” school day, it will be Masked, Socially-Distanced learning, with daily struggles to sustain the most basic precautions for dealing with an airborne virus. Introducing a complex regimen of new rules, practices and environmental instructions would be of questionable effectiveness, even if followed perfectly; furthermore, it will take the focus away from content learning and skill building. Instead of dynamic group work and project-based learning, classes will be conducted in lecture or call and response format; we know this is not how students learn. While our teachers are prepared and eager to implement new technologies in their classrooms to keep the learning collaborative and student-centered, how much better to do this virtually, if an in-person class would already be relying on virtual learning methods?

Our 1800 students go home to nearly 1000 different families, making up over a third of households in the areas of Willits and Brooktrails alone. We are seeing a rise in positive cases in Mendocino County, from 33 cases after the first eight weeks of school closure, to 146 ten weeks later, and new cases rising daily. How many cases will we be at when school reconvenes in another 5 weeks? How many more 5 weeks into the school year? To bring back any number of students to campus would mean risking first-hand exposure to a third of our community, and second-hand exposure to the rest, essentially negating the many months spent sheltering in place trying to reduce our risk. Surely this is why the CDC called in-person classes the “highest risk” scenario for schools. The illness of a student, staff, or family member as a result of a return to school would have lasting deleterious effects on the mental health of any student traced to be the vector; the death of a teacher, student or family member would certainly wreck us to the core as a school and a community for a long time to come.

With hours of reaching out to our members through phone, surveys, and online discussion, the WTA is confident that our teachers are united in support of a return to virtual schooling this fall, until our county sees a decline in new cases over a 14 day period, and fewer than 9 cases in a 14 day period, as recommended by current public health guidelines. As indoor business operations shut down around California this week once again, at the recognition that an hour inside a room with ten or twenty people risks an overloaded healthcare system in the not too distant future, how can we send children to spend upwards of five hours of their day in the company of 15 to 45 students from other families with their own networks of socializing, work and exposure to the virus? Our rural hospitals “…run with what we absolutely have to have to survive,” according to Howard and Ukiah Valley Hospital president Jason Wells, and are absolutely “not prepared for surges” from increasing Covid cases. Our county’s first death took place out of county precisely because of this deficit in critical care: we depend on Sonoma and Bay Area hospitals which at the moment are at capacity and have already caused those school districts to return to school virtually this fall. Before March, no board member could have anticipated the difficult decisions you would be making in just a short amount of time; similarly, the harm of reopening schools this fall may be difficult to fathom before it hits us all. We urge you to first, do no harm, and second, allow for the best method available for student-centered learning, which is to opt for a virtual return to school in the fall.

Thank you for including our voices among the many other messages you are hearing right now. Navigating the pressures of state and federal funding, CDC guidance from those with expertise in this global pandemic, and the reality of escalating cases and inadequate medical system capacity in our county, we are certain that nothing will be of higher priority than the health and safety of your teachers, friends, neighbors, and especially the children and families of our schools. We wish you clear thinking and a sense of accountability as you follow your conscience in this matter, knowing that the fate of many are entrusted to the decision-making power of five people.

Sincerely,

Willits Teachers Association