On March 7, 2020, Christopher Hoffman made an unprecedented move that would soon echo across the state.
The superintendent of the Elk Grove Unified School District announced that all classes and school activities would be canceled for one week after several students in one family were close contacts to someone who tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
“The best case scenario was we were wrong, and we did react too soon and that the virus wasn't that bad and that people weren't in danger. That was the best,” Hoffman said. “The best case scenario was that I was going to look like an idiot.”
A week later, after community spread of COVID-19 increased, the district extended its closure. Other school districts across the state followed suit — Los Angeles Unified School District, then San Diego Unified, and then more than 650 of California’s school districts by March 13.
At first, the districts closed for a few weeks. Then, in April, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced schools would remain closed for the rest of the academic year, pivoting to online distance learning until the COVID-19 pandemic was under control.
Now, one year later, more schools are beginning to reopen. That includes EGUSD, the fifth-largest district in California, which will soon operate under a hybrid model — both in-person and online classes — for some of its youngest students.
In an interview with CapRadio’s Mike Hagerty, EGUSD Superintendent Hoffman talked about what he’s learned since making the decision to close schools and how his district will adjust moving forward.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Last year, you announced that Elk Grove Unified would be the first district in the state to close because of COVID-19. How did you come to make that decision?
Well, the process had been going on for weeks as we were working through the outbreaks that were happening throughout the community, and we had a dozen or so close contacts — family members that apparently worked in hospitals. So we had about a dozen of those issues going on and all under control. Then Friday afternoon, we received a call from one of my cabinet members that said, “Hey, we just got a call from the public health department, and it looks like we have four children that live in a household where the grandparents had been confirmed to have COVID. And we need to have a conversation with public health.”
And that was a conversation that went on, you know, until after 8 o'clock on Friday evening. So we didn't make a decision that night and we decided we were going to come back together in the morning. We got back together [with the county and state health officials]. Our question was, you know, what do we do… So we made a decision that we thought it was probably best to give ourselves some time, because we didn't have enough information to decide what to do.
And we didn't actually take full action to close schools on a longer term basis until [the following] Friday when we had a special meeting of the board. But many had actually already made that decision prior to us taking official action. All we did originally was make a calendar change to buy ourselves time.
So your decision was 12 days before Gov. Newsom’s initial stay-at-home order. A lot of people at that time thought that the virus wasn't that big a threat. How much heat did you take from those people?
Heat's relative. There were many people that were very gracious and knew that the decision was made from the right place. And whether that proved to be the right decision or the wrong decision, long term, they knew us and they knew the decision was from the right place. Others were less gracious. That's just the reality of it.
The best case scenario was we were wrong, and we did react too soon and that the virus wasn't that bad and that people weren't in danger. That was the best. The best case scenario was that I was going to look like an idiot.
Obviously, there are still deniers, still people who think it's been overdone. But have you since heard from people who gave you a hard time initially who now understand and agree that you did do the right thing?
Those that believed in us the whole time — just in who we were, maybe not knowing whether the decision was right or not, but knew who we were as people — many of them said, “Hey, I'm glad you were proven right. Doesn't that feel great?” It doesn't feel great because it means things went really, really bad. And maybe I wasn't as gracious as I could have been in responding [to others], but we did have to admit that there were things we didn't know, none of us knew. And all we could do, and this is what we've done since last March, is make the best decision we can in the moment with the information we have at the time.
And tomorrow — every tomorrow — the information's a little bit different. The guidance is different. The conditions of the pandemic are different. So that's one of the things that's been most challenging in all of this, is building plans while you're flying the plane and being able to change course, whether it's a micro change or a pretty significant change while you're still building the plane.
You've got a plan about to get underway to bring students back onto campus. Give us a brief outline of how you're going to do that.
So we call it the concurrent model. It's interesting that that term didn't exist back in September, October either, but now I hear about it a few places across the state. So the concurrent model, it's different than a hybrid, in that a hybrid is every other day, kids are on campus with their teacher, but the days that they're not on campus, they're doing independent work. And we went and visited schools that were doing hybrid and it was working, but one of the big feedback pieces was the days that the kids aren't on campus, they're just doing independent study and they're losing instructional time. And so that was a huge concern for us as we were building our plan.
The biggest reason distance learning is working to the degree it’s working is because of the relationships that exist between the teachers and the kids and the families. And if you disrupt that, that's going to be a huge problem. So the concurrent model is if I'm a third grade teacher, and I have 20 kids, I keep my 20 kids. Those 20 kids and families have the choice to come back to school two days a week, or to stay in full distance learning. If they stay in full distance learning, nothing really changes for them. They're just they're just interacting with the teachers they have.
We don't lose any instructional time that we would lose if we went to our original model, which was a form of a hybrid model. But we're going to roll kids back. Pre-K through [3rd grade] will be the first group of students to come back. The following week, our grades 4 through 6 come back, and then the following week, our 7 through 12 kids come back — providing with the 7-12, there is the caveat that we would have to be in the red tier for them to come back. It's a little more complicated and also unified, because we have year-round calendars, we have a modified traditional calendar and we have a traditional calendar. So it's a little more complicated than most places.
English language learners, students with disabilities and those with mental health struggles need very specific help that comes down to more than just getting into a classroom. Do you have specific plans to address that as you attempt to get the other elements of concurrent learning in place?
What's interesting is that we did a full survey with all of our parents, and our English language learner families are some of the most highly satisfied parents and students across our district. And part of that is we have invested in some additional technology and software programs that have given teachers additional tools that are really helping those kids with language acquisition and accessing the core content as well. It's actually a system that we've discovered through this process that we will continue as we move forward and move back to “regular school” with our students.
So special needs students have been some of the kids that have had the most challenges through all of this. We've done a ton of work in putting together actually in-person assessments. Those have been going on this whole time where we actually have kids coming to their school, meeting with their psychologist or their case provider and actually doing the assessments and the things that we need to do to plan their programs moving forward. Our speech and language pathologists, our mental health therapists, all of our support folks, have had to modify their work in trying to meet the needs of kids as best they can in these circumstances.
As we roll kids back into school, there'll be more opportunities for our support staff to be able to work directly with the kids, and they need that. So I think we'll be able to ramp it up even more than we've done through this distance learning model. But a great deal of the work has been done in trying to meet the needs of each kid and meeting their needs as best we can, knowing that we have fallen short in some situations.
How about the students who traditionally have not been considered special needs but who during the pandemic have fallen behind?
I think the experiences of kids is very individual, and it's not family by family. It's really kid by kid and so on. Our teachers know which kids are flourishing, which kids are doing OK and which kids are struggling. And we've been reaching out and we are not waiting for the kids to come back to campus to start intervening with the kids that are struggling. We have 17 day camps that are set at 17 of our school sites that we've been running for several months now for some of our highest needs students, foster foster youth, homeless students, other students that have either had technology issues and or other challenges. And those kids are on campus every day. They're in a classroom social distance with other kids. There's an instructional assistant that is actually in the room supporting them as they're doing the work while they're tuned in to their actual teacher of record.
So we've done a lot of work to be able to support kids that we know needed additional support through this entire pandemic. That work has been very, very successful. So we know those kids that have fallen through. We know we have the kids. Some kids aren't being as successful as they normally are. That's part of why our summer program is so critical, is to be able to help those kids recover.
What do you see for summer? Do you expect greater participation than usual in your summer schedule?
We'll see if the kids participate. What we're going to offer is going to be significantly more robust than what we normally offer, because we have multiple things we need to do. We always have to do credit recovery, and that's a normal part of summer school, especially in our secondary schools to get kids keep them on track for graduation. So that will certainly be in place. And we'll have to have more of that likely to be able to meet the needs of our secondary kids.
We need to also look at the ideas around learning recovery. So are there key things that a second grader needs to make sure to have competency and prior to moving into third grade? So do we have some day camp intervention opportunities for kids that need to brush up on some skills and getting ready for the next grade level at the elementary? We're also going to need to do the same thing for secondary kids. So, you know, Math 1 is an example as a tough transition course for kids, but going into Math 2 is also challenging. So… we will do some type of intervention that gives kids a brush up on Math 1 in preparation for the second level math.
At some point, the hope and expectation of most people is that we're going to get back to normal. But will there be permanent changes because of what you've learned during the pandemic?
Absolutely. Elk Grove Unified will never be what we were in January 2020. We will be better. We have learned so much. We learned a great deal about ourselves. We've learned that we are better together than we are apart. We learned that the relationships we built over the past several years paid off when things really got tough. We came together, we didn't fracture and so we learned that about ourselves. We also learned that our commitment to continuous improvement is the right work.
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