Predictable Logistical Obstacles

Expect Delays

In every school teachers have many “make it work” moments over the course of a school year and throughout their daily lessons while teaching in less than optimal conditions and without the necessary materials. However, given the nature of the pandemic, the consequences of not making it work in this moment are much more dire and put everyone at risk. San Mateo Union High School teachers have spent summer advocating for a sensible and safe start to the new school year, i.e., Distance Learning. The logistical issues surrounding opening schools for in-person learning during the Covid-19 pandemic are overwhelming the capacities of small and large districts alike, and the scientific data on how the disease will behave in indoor classrooms with a wide variability of air flow among students and staff members in stable or flexible cohorts is still speculative. Currently numbers of Covid-19 infections are rising in San Mateo and surrounding counties, and school districts are facing political pushes to open back up quickly, contradictory health guidelines, and budgetary obstacles in creating safe in-person classes on public school campuses. One long-time district teacher and parent points out the difficulties that our particular school district has had in many of our past rollouts, whether it be technology distribution, construction delays, or curricular materials.


To the School Board and Dr. Skelly:

I’ve taught at Hillsdale High School since 2002. I absolutely love my job. I love my colleagues. I love my students. I cannot wait to get back to work with them, especially since I’m heading into year 2 of my advisory loop with these rising seniors. I’m also a proud Hillsdale parent. I treasure the experiences my older kid has had in and out of the classroom, and I’m excited for my younger child to join us on campus next school year. I happily claim the title of SMUHSD superfan. 

After 18 years in the District, I also have some important and relevant perspective. I’ve learned that when school starts, we are *not* logistically ready.  But we start regardless and make do. Teachers can “wing it” until the delayed shipments arrive, the textbooks can be located, and the power outlet is installed. We just trust that by the Friday of week 3, or Back-to-School Night, or the end of the first grading period, that we’ll be in full swing.

I was therefore dismayed this afternoon to hear Dr. Skelly in a Zoom call with Burlingame HS parents refer to others’ “fear and doubt about the logistics of reopening” as obstacles that he, the Board, the District, and the parents behind Reopen SMUHSD must overcome. I’m not having just an emotional response to the current situation, and I’m not interested in having my legitimate concerns dismissed as such. In fact, I’m basing my position that we all need to avoid an in-person return to campus on my actual experiences in the District. 

To demonstrate that my doubts are well-grounded in my actual, lived experience in the District, here’s what I can document from just the past 5-6 years’ worth of emails and personal recollections:

  • In June of 2014 I was informed that I had been “awarded” a Chromebook cart and was required that summer to attend training in how to modify my curriculum and instruction to best incorporate technology. However, I was told in late August (week 3 of the new school year) that delivery was delayed until at least October. My cart finally became available for my students’ use in early November 2014. I made do in the meantime.
  • The following school year, teachers were told in a mid-August 2015 email: “Concerning the [Chromebook] carts, Dell has decided to delay shipment for another week. At this point I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, as they keep pushing back the ship date. Once they get here, it will take [time] to inventory, build and deliver 21 carts to the sites.” 
  • In the summer 0f 2017, I was notified that the north wall of my classroom needed to be partially demolished. When I returned to my classroom in August, a few days prior to the reopening of school, the wall was still being re-built. On the students’ first day in my room, I called to have the hazardous items (e.g., a ladder and power tools) removed from students’ reach. The wall was promptly completed that day but without an electrical outlet or Internet wiring. I quickly altered my opening week lesson plans to accommodate my lack of Internet access and laptop usability. Although frustratingly stymied, I had been teaching for 15 years by then and could make do.
  • The Chromebook cart delays repeated in 2018. From a 8/6/2018 email: “New Chromebook Carts- We have 11 new carts on the way! We do not have a definite timeline for the rollout. It will be soon but not day 1 (or week 1).”
  • The delays don’t always involve technology. For example, to begin school in August 2019 we were supposed to have enough AP Gov textbooks for all enrolled students. The books weren’t delivered to our site and available for checkout until week 4 of the school year, specifically the Friday minimum day after Back to School Night. My colleagues and I improvised in the meantime.
  • As the virus loomed closer in early 2020, they said we’d have hand sanitizer. According to Dr. Skelly’s 3/3/20 email, disinfectant (wipes and hand sanitizers) were ordered on 3/3/20 for all campuses. He said that these items would be provided in each classroom, admin area, library, and computer lab. He said delivery was scheduled for the following week and that they would be distributed as soon as these items were available. However, as of our shutdown midday on Fri., 3/13, they had not been distributed to classrooms. Fortunately, that delay became a moot point. 
  • Upon the March shutdown, they said students would have Chromebooks during the SIP, and site and District personnel tried to make that happen. According to Skelly’s 3/3/20 email, the District was making ongoing efforts to ensure all students had Internet access and a Chromebook at home if they needed it. Nevertheless, as of mid-April, Hillsdale students were still being identified and delivered Chromebooks–a full 5 weeks later.

I assume positive intent here: I trust that everyone works hard, everyone hustles to satisfy students’ needs, and everyone is trying their best to remove obstacles to student success. And yet, delays inevitably happen. I’m not trying to be petty–just giving some institutional history. I fully expect these patterns to repeat, not due to any malfeasance. This is just how it goes in a large public entity. I’m not laying blame; I’m just stating facts. Despite our district’s best intentions, I don’t expect that all safety measures will be ready for full implementation before the start of the school year. The difference is that *this* year, it won’t just be a minor inconvenience that teachers should work around. Delays in receiving promised equipment but opening schools regardless will put our students and staff at risk. The delays are entirely predictable. The risks are more and more apparent. The only responsible step is to keep all students and staff away from campuses and engaged in distance learning for the foreseeable future. 

Thank you for your consideration in this matter.


Name redacted

School District Relies on Questionable Expert Advice for Return to School Plan

Dr. Koliwad’s presentation to the SMUHSD Return to School Bell Schedule Committee on June 16, 2020

The following is an excerpt of a letter written to the SMUHSD School Board and Superintendent Kevin Skelly regarding the medical expert that the district chose to advise the Return to School Committee.

I would like to address the remarks Dr. Koliwad, an endocrinologist (diabetes doctor and researcher) from UCSF, made to the Bell Schedule Committee that the district has posted to their YouTube channel (Link to the YouTube video).  First, yes, I agree that wearing masks, social distancing, and daily health checks offer a very high level of safety.  However, following these constraints would create an in-person learning environment that is neither effective or sustainable.  I will not go into detail here because you heard many arguments about this at the last board meeting.  I must mention some very grave concerns I have about Dr. Koliwad’s comments.  

First, he suggests a comparison between a university hospital with highly trained medical professionals with a high school.  The comparison is absolutely preposterous.  It would make more sense to look at high schools in Europe and Japan and learn from their successes and setbacks.  Beyond that Mr. Koliwad discusses what UCSF has done to mitigate COVID infections while not admitting that their medical students are still currently taking classes online and all non-essential clinical hours have been cancelled.  According to the UCSF website, “Each degree program has offered guidance to teachers and learners on classes, clinics, lab research, other educational activities, co-curricular activities, and travel in the following three categories: 1. Non-essential and can be canceled or postponed, 2. Essential but can be moved online. 3. Essential and must be conducted in person.”  Further on this UCSF webpage, “Employees performing their duties remotely should continue to do so through January 18, 2021. This supports not only public health efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 but also limits use of common UCSF services and helps to facilitate physical distancing for those who must work on-site.”  In other words, the organization that Dr. Koliwad claims should be the model for our school district re-opening has not itself reopened for all on-site work and learning and won’t until at least 2021.

Beyond offering a flawed comparison, Dr. Koliwad provided misleading and inaccurate information.  At minute 11:37 of the video he claims, “The rate of asymptomatic people testing positive for COVID has been less than 1%.  In the Bay Area all nine surrounding counties we’re talking about somewhere in the order of .4 to .7%.”  He failed to clarify that people without symptoms have had very little access to tests in the Bay Area until very recently.  In fact the San Mateo County COVID-19 Variance Attestation form submitted to the California Department of Public Health states, “Testing capacity in San Mateo County exceeds 1,151 tests per day, which is 1.5 tests per 1,000 County residents. During Shelter In Place (SIP), testing volume did not match testing capacity throughout the state and the County because the SIP order prevented mild/moderately ill symptomatic residents, pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic residents from testing.”  Now that San Mateo County has lifted the Shelter in Place it can be expected that there will be more circulation of the virus and therefore more cases of symptomatic, asymptomatic, and presymptomatic COVID transmission.

He also claimed at minute 35:15 “We are now trying to get 20,000 plus contact tracers in San Mateo County…and we are well on the way to achieving this goal.”  This is not true.  Again, from the San Mateo County COVID-19 Variance Attestation form submitted to the California Department of Public Health, “ Our goal is to have at least 15 CDPH COVID-19 VARIANCE ATTESTATION FORM 10 contact tracers per 100,000 residents. For San Mateo’s 2019 estimated population of 767,000 (U.S. Census), we plan to identify capacity to scale up to a total of 115 FTE to meet the State standard. San Mateo Co. will meet this metric of 115 case and contact investigation staff by August 1, 2020.”  When SMUHSD Teachers’ Association president, Craig Childress at minute 56:00 of the video questioned Dr. Koliwad about this assertion, Dr. Koliwad doubled-down on his assertion and claimed that 20,000 was the goal and the county would be reaching that goal in a matter of weeks or months based on recruiting efforts.

I will assume that Dr. Koliwad is well-intentioned and was not able to prepare for these remarks as he might for a scientific conference.  He volunteered his time as a highly regarded scientist and for that I thank him.  However, he was just one of the experts that the return to school Bell Schedule committee needed to meet with.  It would have been very helpful for one of our many faculty tech. coordinators to talk to the committee about how we can leverage technology to offer students a stimulating and effective school experience while at the same time looking after their social and emotional welfare.  There are numerous possibilities and we have the staff with the knowledge and skills to lead us to the most efficient and safe way to start the school year.  I am hopeful that we can take advantage of this time to better integrate technology into our curriculum and the projects that students complete.  After this is all over, we will have stronger skills that will make our eventual in-person classes even more engaging and offer students amazing opportunities to use technology to demonstrate understanding and critical thinking.