By Kayli Harley and Stella Heo, Staff Writers
// What started with sending bottles of Purell hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes to each classroom evolved into a district-wide school closure as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic works its way further into the lives of Acalanes students.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of 3:20 p.m. today, March 14, there are 142,649 confirmed cases across 135 countries worldwide, 1,678 of which are reported in the United States. As of noon today, March 14, there are 29 reported cases in Contra Costa County.
As updates from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Contra Costa Health Services (CC Health Services), and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) pour in, the Governing Board continues to accommodate the recommendations of these sources to ensure the safety of the district community.
On March 13, the Governing Board held an emergency meeting at 4 p.m. to make a decision regarding the closure of the Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) schools in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The board placed a limit of 50 attendees on the meeting, and those in the public who could not attend were encouraged to email Acalanes Union High School District Superintendent John Nickerson.
The Governing Board decided to close all AUHSD schools from March 16 to April 5, extending through Spring Break in a vote of four-to-one. The decision follows the responses of many nearby schools, such as the Lafayette Unified School District and the Moraga Unified School District. During the closure and the break, the district will send daily updates.
Governing Board Member Christopher Severson was the only board member to oppose closing school as he wanted the support of CC Health Services and foresaw the deadline extending beyond the predicted three week period.
“The numbers in two to three weeks will certainly look worse than they do now. I am of the view that we should close the schools if the experts of the public health department ask that or require that of us, and they haven’t yet, and I would say that we are early,” Severson said.
CC Health Services cautioned the Governing Board against the decision to cancel school because they believe that it is too early in the stages of the pandemic to do so.
However, other factors influenced the board’s decisions to close school, the most pertinent being the safety of the district community.
The decision aims to keep students, teachers, and other members of the community safe, especially those with respiratory issues. Additionally, many members of the district teaching staff fall in the target age of those affected by COVID-19.
“We know that 38 percent of our teachers are fifty plus, and recent recommendations from CC Health Services are that people fifty plus are to be very careful in large groups. Seventy percent of our substitute teachers are fifty plus, and probably pretty close to that are sixty plus,” Nickerson said.
The knowledge that there are staff members on campus who are immunocompromised also swayed the board’s decision.
“We have several staff members who are in chemotherapy or coming out of chemotherapy, so it is a challenging time recognizing the rationale of why public health is saying that it’s too early, but we also have these issues that can be particularly challenging for us,” Nickerson said.
Although eliminating the possible contact on school grounds potentially keeps immunocompromised teachers and students out of COVID-19’s grasp, Governing Board member Bob Hockett expressed the importance of taking social distancing seriously.
“We all feel that it’s very important to emphasize to students and parents that this is not a vacation. Education goes on,” Hockett said. “There’s more emphasis for students and parents to do their bit, and so I think it’s very important to emphasize that. I think most of them realize that, but that’s very important.”
Despite the closure of school campus, students will continue their courses through distance learning, a method that involves students communicating with teachers through technology to avoid the potential transmission of illnesses face to face.
On Wednesday, March 11, students viewed a presentation during Academy informing them of the process of distance learning in the event of a school closure.
According to the presentation, teachers will post all assignments on School Loop, and students must complete all assignments. Teachers and counselors will try to respond to student emails sent during normal school hours.
The administration understands that although assignments will continue students’ education, it is not the same as in-class experiences and will not be able to recreate in-person activities.
“There’s nothing that can replace our teachers being together with our students, so with that, we have a strong desire to maintain the learning experience should we do closure of our schools,” Glimme said.
The district plans on providing additional information about distance learning next week so students can earn their second-semester credits.
The district affirms that AUHSD has been preparing for the past two weeks for every possible outcome.
AUHSD aims to provide free and appropriate public education to all students, which includes accommodations, modifications, and services to maintain consistent and continuous education plans.
“We are working with special education students’ case managers, so all of our general education teachers have access to their assignments, so they can provide support through online and check-in and provide those services,” Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Aida Glimme said.
For students who rely on the free food services provided by the school, the board decided that regardless of the financial demands of continuing the program, staff will continue to report to work next week, and meals will be available to students during lunch hour.
Additionally, the meeting addressed the care necessary for students who visit the Wellness Center daily. Since the center itself will not be open to students due to the closure, Associate Superintendent Amy McNamara discussed the plan for those students moving forward.
“What we can do is make some direct contact with parents, do some check-ins, provide some resources, provide some general care, wellness worksheets if they want to do some self-care, so we’ll continue to work with our wellness staff and our interns around that,” McNamara said
To help social distancing, reduce cleaning demands, and free the custodial staff, no outside organizations can enter any district facility from March 14 to at least March 27.
Acalanes Head Athletic Director Randy Takahashi released a statement today stating that the AUHSD administration also canceled all athletic activities, which includes practices, games, meetings, conditioning, and strength training. The cancellation will last through April 4.
AUHSD is not certain about how COVID-19 will affect events in the far future, such as prom and graduation.
“We don’t know, closure or no closure if junior proms will happen. A lot of the senior activities, final exams, graduation, and all of these things are important parts of the high school experience and important parts of the senior experience, and it would be devastating to lose that for them, but really it’s a lot of learning that we would do our best to support what would be lost,” Nickerson said.
Not only could student contact, despite the restrictions, increase the risk of a prolonged closure, but CC Health Services also predicts that the closure may last longer than the designated three weeks because of the nature of the virus.
“If we were to reopen at that point, it would most likely be highly problematic from a public health standpoint based on the conditions that CC Health Services predicts even on a flattened curve in three or four weeks. They are saying that really it is about eight to ten weeks,” Nickerson said.
Nickerson stated that after the three week period concludes, the board will reexamine the situation and dictate the district’s next moves at that time. No decision will be made on an extended closure until the end of spring break.
Updates to follow as more information is known.