West Contra Costa Unified’s efforts to reopen classrooms have hit numerous roadblocks over the past month, but the district’s latest effort could bring all willing students back to schools on April 19.

The district has increasingly stood out from the crowd in continuing distance learning while coronavirus cases have declined the past two months. Many other districts in California, including neighboring Mount Diablo Unified, have approved plans to reopen.

And a dramatic, often contentious meeting of West Contra Costa Unified’s board of trustees on Wednesday resulted in hours of meandering procedure with a final decision still days away.

“We are going to commit to negotiating differently going forward,” Tony Wold, the associate superintendent, said at one point during the meeting. “This has created way too much conflict, and it has been way too emotional of a process, so we have to do it better.”

District staff discussed the latest reopening concept during last-minute labor negotiations on Wednesday. A previous, more restrictive proposal that the board had been set to consider was scrapped after it outraged families to the point that some threatened legal action, since it fell far short of local reopening guidance.

Here’s the current plan: If students do return, most would attend “instructional hubs,” with or without teachers, in four- or five-hour blocks on three or four days a week. A three-hour block on a separate day would be set aside for “social emotional activities” like storytelling or art classes, Wold said at the meeting.

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Students who need “intervention,” or additional help to catch up on their learning, would attend in-person instruction for two hours in either the morning or afternoon. For both groups, families would have the option of keeping their students in distance learning.

Similarly, educators could return to school sites purely on a voluntary basis. A teacher who sticks to remote instruction would videocall into classrooms where students have gathered. And teacher-less instructional hubs would be managed by any available school staff.

The proposal’s outline also includes a guarantee that summer and fall instruction will be fully in-person, with the expectation that COVID-19 cases continue to decline. Summer classes would be robust, giving students an opportunity to catch up on education they lost during remote instruction, Wold said.

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A concept schedule of the West Contra Costa Unified School District’s latest reopening plan. Note: Students would return for intervention in either the AM or PM blocks, not both. (Screenshot) 

The district’s board of trustees has not yet approved the plan. District staff is still drafting the formal agreement, which the board will consider at a special meeting on Friday.

“For transparency purposes, we did not want to bring in a new proposal at the eleventh hour that no one has seen, and then just turn around and vote on that,” said board President Mister Phillips.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Phillips called up union heads as panelists and repeatedly asked them if enough staff and teachers would voluntarily return to meet student demand.

While the presidents of two labor groups — respectively representing adult education instructors and Teamsters workers — said they were confident there would be a critical mass number of volunteers, other union heads declined to answer.

“I don’t bargain in public, and I’m not prepared to bargain in public right now,” said Marissa Glidden, president of the United Teachers of Richmond. Glidden noted that she and other union representatives had requested to speak at previous public meetings, when they were more prepared, but hadn’t been given the opportunity.

Labor representatives said later in the meeting that they would need to fully review the formal agreement — which hasn’t yet been written — before their members agree to ratify it.

The board spent a large part of the meeting attempting to flesh out the plan’s details. Trustee Jamela Smith-Folds grilled Wold, the associate superintendent, about different scenarios where a lack of sufficient on-site staff or educators could leave students without proper supervision.

Some parents of students in the district who called in to Wednesday’s meeting urged the trustees to be decisive about reopening, saying their children had greatly struggled in distance learning.

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Tony Wold, associate superintendent at the West Contra Costa Unified School District, explains part of the district’s latest reopening plan during a school board meeting on Wednesday, March 24, 2021. 

But a few teachers said at public comment that in-person instruction may still be too unsafe for families in communities harder hit by the pandemic. Helen Kang, a teacher at Harding Elementary in El Cerrito, said the board meetings have excluded families in Richmond and San Pablo who do not feel comfortable sending their students back.

“We are constantly silencing Black and brown parent voices,” Kang said. “Many of them do not have the time or energy to come and comment at meetings like this, because they’re too busy working two or three jobs.”

The district will have until Friday to draft the formal agreement amid extensive pressure from an organized group of familes that wants to see something close to a full reopening plan.

Ernesto Falcon, a parent in the district who is also an attorney, wrote a letter to the district on Monday threatening legal action if reopening plans don’t take into account the latest guidance from the California Department of Public Health.

In the state’s current recommendations, masked students can be within three feet distance of each other, instead of six feet.

Despite tensions betewen district staff, the trustees, unionized teachers and the community at Wednesday’s meeting, Superintendent Matthew Duffy maintained there was “good-faith optimism” among educators and staff who “want to come back and work with students.”

“We were proud of the fact that we were able to be one of the first districts to get into distance learning,” Duffy said at the meeting. “We are now ready and open to serve (students) and be open for them.”