San Jose Unified announces possible return to in-person classes in Jan. 2021

SJUSD is the largest Bay Area school district to announce its intentions about a possible return to in-person classes.
SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- The San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) announced it will start the new year by offering in-person instruction, only if Santa Clara County remains in the state's less restrictive orange or yellow tier.

Students who choose the in-person option will get to return to their respective campuses on January 5.

Teachers who spoke with ABC7 News admit there is apprehension.

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For instance, Willow Glen High School music teacher, Kelly Walker explained she felt safe, choosing to return to campus back in August. Her students stayed distant.

"Partially because we had found child care at that point for our kids, and also partially because all of my resources were there," Walker told ABC7 News. "My piano and my office, and everything was kind of set up already because I had been anticipating teaching from my room. So I just went ahead with that plan, and it's been going okay."

She said the experience has been less than ideal, but it hasn't been a horrible few months through this specific distance learning method.

"You're just coming in contact with fewer people when not everyone is there," Walker added.

She understands that will change if Santa Clara County can remain in the less restrictive tiers.

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"As much as I'm dying to see all those kids, it's just not the right time," Walker said about the district's plan. "I just don't see it being feasible to create a situation that's going to be safe for everyone."

She continued, "The argument keeps being made, 'We need to get back to normal, we need to get back to normal,' It's not going to be normal. There is no going back to what it was a year ago."

Since students and their families are being given an option, Walker wonders why teachers aren't being given a chance to make the safest choice for themselves.

"I have many questions for the district, as you can imagine, but one of my biggest ones is if parents are being allowed to make that decision for their children- whether or not they're going to send their kids back to school in-person or keep them home for distance learning- if parents are being given that option for their kids, why are we as teachers not being given that option as well," she shared.

On top of those same safety concerns, Walker's colleague, Jodi Disario is dealing with personal health challenges and has been teaching from home.

"I want to see my kids. I want to be in the same room as my kids, but I just I don't see how it can be done safely at this point," Disario told ABC7 News. "And not even just our physical safety, but their mental safety of, you know, thinking everything's going to be so cool. We get to all be together, but we're six feet apart and behind Plexiglas."

She said preparation is doing little to ease concern over the on-going pandemic.

"We knew that that was the goal that the district had been working toward, and the teachers and the parents, and the community had been working toward," she continued. "It was just unsettling because there's so much still unknown right now."

"We don't know what's going to happen," she added.

When asked about her experience teaching at a distance, Disario admitted, "It goes back and forth. There are days that I feel like I can do anything, and there are days that I hurt, because I can't do everything."

She said there is also an added anxiety with plans to return to in-person instruction.

"You're in front of a child, feeling very protective of them. You can read their face, and you can see, 'I need to connect in a better way.' For me, that's walking up to their desk and crouching down and quietly saying, 'Do you need to take break,' or, 'Let's chat.' We can't do that because, six feet apart and behind Plexiglas," Disario explained.

She added, "So an inherent connection is going to get lost, and I don't see an alternative."

Disario said she feels for the district.

"This is insanity. It's a nightmare on every end," she told ABC7 News.

However, Disario and others also question timing, considering the return to in-person instruction would follow holiday break and new year celebrations.

"Some of my colleagues have said, 'Wouldn't it have been smarter to come back on like the 19th,' she shared. "I've seen parents who asked me the same thing. Because, by then we would have two weeks."

When asked, SJUSD Public Information Officer Jennifer Maddox told ABC7 News, "Our thought process is that the beginning of a new semester is a good time to make transitions."

Maddox elaborated, "If we started distance learning, and we do that for two weeks, and then we introduce the transition, then it's a pretty major disruption to the school year."

"Our thought is, if the county remains in the orange or yellow tear, then we feel comfortable opening for in person instruction," Maddox told ABC7 News. "We realize that not all families are going to be comfortable with that. So, they have the option to remain in distance learning."

Maddox explained that if the county moves into the more restrictive red or purple tiers, then SJUSD would postpone in-person instruction in order to reassess.

"We have a lot of families we know that are going to stick with distance learning. It's working for them, and they feel more comfortable with their family situation," Maddox shared. "So, we're giving families the option, that's going out later this week."

She anticipates that by the end of the month, SJUSD should have a good idea about how many students will be returning, and what the numbers would look like.

Maddox explained the preparation process is something that is extraordinarily challenging for a variety of reasons.

"There's a lot of operational things that we need to consider. We need to consider the safety protocols, how we're implementing that. We're very large district. So, we need to make sure that all of our employees are aware. We also need to make sure students have been trained on what the expectations are, when they return to the classroom," she shared.

The district would be transitioning into a "live instruction model," as Maddox put it.

She continued, "So the teacher will be teaching live from the classroom. They will have some students in-person and some students attending from home. So, it's a blended type of model, and that is something that's going to be a transition for teachers and for students."

Maddox emphasized that as a community, we are all reliant on one another.

"The more everyone can cooperate and can follow the guidelines and the recommendations, the better able we're going to be. To not only return students in person, but begin to open up a lot of other things in the community as well," she told ABC7 News.

She said that over the years, SJUSD has found that students are remarkably good at following instructions.

"And once they get used to the routine, I think we are very optimistic that our students will be able to be up for the challenge," Maddox said.

Social distancing, mask wearing, stable cohorts and classroom capacity limits are all part of the plan.

"We need to maintain six foot of distance at all times," she shared. "That will put us roughly at about 50-percent in each classroom, in order to make sure we have adequate space for that and the movement of students and the teacher and that kind of thing."

Teachers maintain their biggest concern is safety.

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