A re-opening proposal for the San Ramon Valley Unified School District (SRVUSD) and an open letter to the board of education

To: San Ramon Valley Unified School District Board of Education (Greg Marvel <gmarvel@srvusd.net>, Mark Jewett <mjewett@srvusd.net>, Susanna Ordway <sordway@srvusd.net>, Ken Mintz <kmintz@srvusd.net>, and Rachel Hurd <rhurd@srvusd.net>), SRVUSD Superintendent (Rick Schmitt <rschmitt@srvusd.net>), and SRVUSD Assistant Superintendent (Christine Huajardo <chuajardo@srvusd.net>)

CC: Contra Costa County Board of Education (Mike Maxwell <mmaxwell@cccoe.k12.ca.us> and Sarah Butler <sbutler@cccoe.k12.ca.us>), California State Superintendent (Tony Thurmond <TThurmond@cde.ca.gov>), California State Board of Education <sbe@cde.ca.gov>

Dear Board Members and Staff,

I spent 6 hours watching yesterday's board meeting and I found the proposals from staff and the decision-process by board members concerning.

It appears to me that the hybrid approach you supported yesterday is the worst of all worlds. It actually delivers families and children a worse outcome than choosing either full remote or 5 days per week in person.

In terms of safety from the virus, 2 days per week versus 5 days per week makes no difference given asymptomatic spread. It can take 10-14 days to show symptoms, and it only takes 15 minutes of indoor exposure for an infection.

In return for next to no improvement in safety, you are proposing to offer parents and students in-person school from 8am-1pm two days per week. This translates to 10 hours per week of in-person instruction--but it is not the in-person school as we are used to. It's 10 hours of students forced to stay 6 feet apart at all times, wearing masks, with teachers not allowed to walk the aisles of their classrooms or actually help a student individually.

Why is it that we believe this is going to be so much better than remote instruction?

Why is it that we believe that the upheaval and chaos of this plan is worthwhile?

This approach also represents a significant loss in instructional minutes, and suffers from the same problem of the remote learning experiment in the spring: no structure at all for two days per week and unclear structure on remote Wednesdays.

With in-person school only taking place from 8-1pm two days per week, families are forced to provide childcare from 1-5pm two days per week plus 8am-5pm three days per week. That's over 30 hours per week. From a working parent's perspective, there is little difference between 30 hours per week and 40 hours per week--it's almost the same in terms of cost and inconvenience.

But in this hybrid model, parents not only have to provide 30 hours per week of childcare, they also have to pick up the pieces and become educators for 2-3 days per week because classes will be divided into cohorts. Let's be clear: there will be no support in this model for parents and students two days per week.

Instead of providing a good solution, it feels to me that what has been presented is a meatball sundae and is grossly lacking in critical thinking, prioritizing user needs and understanding the customer journey. These are foundational building blocks of any entry-level product manager but apparently may not be qualities present in public school administrators.

A New Proposal

What if instead of the current plan and any concept of hybrid, the district were to adopt the following:

  • Full time 5 days per week school for 65% of students
  • Full time 5 days per week fully remote for 35% of students

This roughly matches interest from the survey groups and could provide a better education experience for all. Using elementary as an example, if there are three teachers for a grade, 1 teacher becomes full-time remote and the other two are the in-person teachers.

The exact split might vary based on parent/student choice and county and state requirements, but having only 65% of students on campus should allow the district to meet safety guidelines without the huge disruption and confusion of trying to implement the hybrid model, the instructional loss, and the burden you're placing on parents to find childcare and become educators. I heard that classrooms could take 26-28 students and meet the guidelines. I also heard that 31 is the average class size, so it doesn't take a large reduction to meet guidelines.

Among parents, the interest in school being in session 5 days is as much about childcare as it is about education. Whether it is safe or not, there are people who cannot work and who cannot make ends meet if school is not in session. This, and not education, is the primary reason parents are so interested in schools re-opening. Giving full time instruction and childcare to the people who are drowning without it is what you should be doing.

That said, there are many people who want fully remote learning for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, I have seen no focus or attention on what a high quality distance learning program might be. Based on case trajectories, simple math and continued politicization and denial of the pandemic, it is highly likely that schools are going to be forced to shut again and everyone will be remote learning, whether you like or agree with it or not.

As Ken pointed out during yesterday's meeting, where is our planning for this outcome?

Remote learning should mean 5 days per week and a full schedule from 8am - 3pm. Remote learning does not mean independent study...or drop it on the parents. As a group I see only short term planning and the assumption that the pandemic is going to go away.

What evidence is there to support this?

What actions are being taken to stop the pandemic?

Sadly, the answer for America is little or none. Greg mentioned yesterday that South Korea, Germany, Hong Kong etc are opening schools and what do they know that we don't...but what's different is that they took fast and swift actions and have their caseloads under control. America does not and will not until it changes course.

So where is the attention to a real high quality remote learning experience and the possibility that this is forced on us whether we think it's better for instruction or not?

We cannot keep our collective heads in the sand and hope that things have magically gone away come Sept 4 when we do our "check in" to see how the hybrid model is working.

As a board you recognized that this may be the most important decision you've ever had to make, but you may not realize just how much a Waterloo moment this may be for you.

Parents and students district-wide have now been forced into homeschooling--something they might have never tried previously. It was disillusioning at best to see what our children are actually doing in school, how much of school is actually daycare and not education, and how the rigidity of the current schooling model teaches to the average and crushes creativity.

My son is a rising 4th grader at Green Valley Elementary. Last year he took the CoGat and scored in the 98th percentile, placing him in the district's GATE program. What happened next? Nothing. Nothing happened. Nothing changed at school for him. He's still getting the same teach-to-the-average instruction as everyone else.

I am an angel investor and am seeing an increasing number of modern and innovative schools emerging that deeply understand remote learning and personalized, mastery based education. Jason Calacanis' Syndicate is one group I'm part of and the syndicate made an investment in one such school named Dexter. Their Chief Academic Officer is from Nueva School. Varsity Tutors, who has raised more than $100 million from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and TCV (among others), is also in the process of launching school@home, a national fully online program.

You might think of homeschooling and alternative schools as a non-serious fringe activity, but I can tell you a similar story about cable companies, Netflix and "cord-cutters". No one at Comcast thought that opting out of traditional television service would happen. But the world changed. Adoption happened gradually and then suddenly. The way all exponential growth curves happen. And their customers went elsewhere.

Well, the world has changed again.

We have a pandemic that has forced parents to homeschool and fend for themselves. And we have a massive proliferation of digital video services like Peloton (now public, offering live video exercise classes), Outschool (live online classes), Zoom, and countless others.

Parents and students want to know why the high quality online experiences they get as consumers are not available in education. And parents have been given an inside view into what's actually happening at local schools and they're not impressed.

This is your Waterloo moment.

Ultimately, whether you like it or not, you are going to be judged on the quality of the *remote* instruction you can provide.

If the district had budget challenges before, imagine what they will face if parents begin opting out of public schools in significant numbers.

And parents like us, with two students at Green Valley Elementary, are very seriously considering doing just that. Hidden in your own surveys is that we are not alone. And as an angel investor, I have a birds eye view into what's coming down the track, and I can assure you that it is not friendly to public school education as it is conceived today.

I do not want to see a hollowing out of our public schools.

I do not want to see our schools stop being the bedrocks of our communities and social lives that they are today.

But for that to happen, we need to do much better than what I saw yesterday.

The world has changed.

The question for you is, will public school change with it?