Photo credit: Alison Yin for EdSource Today

West Contra Costa Unified in the East Bay Area is creating a “virtual academy” to enable families to continue distance learning in the fall and beyond, regardless of whether the district resumes in-person tuition.

Photo credit: Alison Yin for EdSource Today

West Contra Costa Unified in the East Bay Area is creating a “virtual academy” to enable families to continue distance learning in the fall and beyond, regardless of whether the district resumes in-person tuition.

It remains unclear when California’s K-12 locations will reopen for face-to-face tuition, but a Bay Area school district has pledged to resume distance learning through the fall and beyond – at least as an option.

West Contra Costa Unified officials last week unveiled their first plans for a permanent K-12 district-wide academy for virtual learning for the 2021-2022 school year and beyond. They also introduced two additional virtual programs for high school students to improve distance learning: a visual and performing arts academy and a technical careers academy. The school board unanimously approved the concepts for all three academies and directed the administrators to start working on models for each.

Superintendent Matthew Duffy said the district does not expect to keep campus closed this fall. However, it is intended to be able to provide distance learning opportunities for families who are not yet comfortable sending their students back to class or who feel that distance learning is better for them.

“We believe that so many families have now experienced virtual ones [learning] that they found it useful and that they want to get on with it, ”Duffy said. “We know this was asked beforehand because families were talking about it. We even saw a charter and tried to start a virtual school. We’re happy to open this up when families decide they want this. “

West Contra Costa Unified appears to be ahead of the curve in distance learning planning for the case of large neighborhoods. Many are also trying to work out reopening plans by February 1 in order to secure additional government funding under the governor’s proposed incentive program. Oakland Unified and Elk Grove Unified said they hadn’t planned theirs yet Distance learning offers for autumn. Long Beach Unified expects to be able to offer distance learning in the fall, but has only had preliminary discussions about what that might look like, district spokesman Chris Eftychiou said via email.

Governor Gavin Newsom and lawmakers are pushing for schools to reopen quickly, but the superintendents of the state’s largest public school districts and others say there are still too many unaddressed safety concerns to bring students back to campus en masse. Newsom’s Safe Schools For All plan offers parents who have chosen to continue their distance learning opportunities.

Tony Wold, associate superintendent of business services at West Contra Costa Unified, said via email that the district is evaluating its options for reopening for personal instruction and is talking to Contra Costa County health officials. He added that the district does not have a specific reopening schedule.

West Contra Costa Unified’s “virtual academy” offers a combination of live virtual lessons that students participate in and guided assignments as presented by the administrators. The academy’s teachers will focus solely on distance learning so teachers dealing with face-to-face teaching don’t have to balance the two. The district will work with its teachers’ union. United Teachers of Richmond, and other workers’ unions about filling the program, Wold said.

Marissa Gliden, president of United Teachers of Richmond, said the virtual academy is “really exciting” and looks forward to working out the personnel details when the union and district return to the negotiating table for the next school year contract.

“I think any time we can add extra options to our students and families, it’s great,” said Gliden. “It would be a shame if we returned to school as usual after this pandemic because we should use that time to change what wasn’t working before.”

Gliden said teachers hope to return to the classroom next school year but won’t feel safe until more Covid vaccines are distributed and the spread of the virus in the area slows. She said the union would be “very disappointed” if it were still unsafe to resume face-to-face classes at West Contra Costa Unified by the fall.

The virtual academy will be available to all K-12 students in the district and transfer students who can all enroll for the program when the district’s enrollment period begins in February. The district will continue to accept registration based on availability, Wold said.

Once the district sees how high the demand is during the enrollment period, it will determine how many full-time teachers the academy will assign, Duffy said.

School council members said they still had many questions about the programs, including how they would be funded and how they would work, but they neglected to ask for too many details because the programs are still in the drafting phase. Board members Jamela Smith-Folds and Mister Phillips urged the district to work with teachers to move the concepts forward.

“Please make sure you include the people who will be working there and the ideas they have,” Phillips said. “This is a collaboration. It doesn’t mean everyone gets what they ask, but they have to be part of the process.”

The Academy of Visual and Performing Arts would function as an after-school program and would be available to all students in the district who audition or apply. Finally, the district hopes to offer the program to middle school students.

The academy won’t be fully developed in the first year, but when finished it will include performance dance, theater, music, media, costume design, production and theater engineering programs with concerts and performances throughout the year.

“We really want to establish these arts, which are shown both in front of and behind the camera. So it’s not just the students who perform or do the art, but also the students who support this work behind the scenes,” said Ruben , Chief Academic Officer Aurelio.

While district officials didn’t say how much they expect from the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, they hope the program will boost enrollment enough that the additional government funding will fund the program within three years. Officials said the district saw a 2.4% drop in enrollments of 676 students from November 2019 to November 2020 – 183 of them were from high school.

With Kennedy High School in Richmond being one of the sites where enrollment has declined in the past year, the district plans to house the academy there, although any district student can attend.

The technical career program, which the district calls the Future Technologies Pathway, would also begin in the fall and be open to all students. The district explores the offer virtually Classes in residential and commercial construction, welding, manufacturing, plumbing, mechanical systems installation and repair, woodworking and green energy.

The district is also committed to adding additional programs to its permanent distance learning list for the 2021-22 school year, including an associate degree program through Middle College High School, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate Access from all high schools, and more bilingual immersion programs in Spanish and Mandarin and an “Afro-centered model school”.

Editor’s Note: As a specific project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified school districts to illustrate some of the challenges facing other California boroughs. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito, and several other East Bay communities.

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