The New Haven Unified School District, which serves about 11,000 students across 12 schools in Union City and South Hayward, will begin the upcoming school year with fully virtual learning, officials have decided.

By a unanimous vote, the New Haven school board approved a plan at its meeting Tuesday to start the year on Aug. 12 with complete virtual learning, also called distance learning, and the board will revisit the decision at its meeting on Sept. 15.

Superintendent John Thompson said he had received “hundreds of emails” and messages from parents, teachers, and community members in the past week supporting a distance learning start to the year.

“The trend through the communication has been almost singular in the desire to have the school start in 100 percent virtual mode, which is quite a bit different” than earlier in the month, he said.

In the days following a July 1 town hall meeting on reopening, more than half of those who commented suggested school should start with in-person learning models, Thompson said, noting how sentiments locally had shifted.

Thompson said the district administration felt distance learning was the right move for a variety of reasons, including that the district on Monday made updates to some of its draft plans for hybrid models of learning with part-time in-person instruction.

“Given the current situation in Alameda County with Covid cases, and given some of the limitations around the public health guidance we’re getting, I don’t believe we’re ready to make those operational right now,” he said of the hybrid models.

Alameda County on Sunday was put on the state’s watch list due to elevated COVID-19 transmission levels.

He also noted that in just the past week, many Alameda County school districts have approved plans or announced plans to go fully virtual to begin the school year.

“It’s really difficult for us, for example, if Fremont, Newark, Hayward are all operating in one mode and we’re not, it makes it very challenging for us,” he said.

The board has seen draft plans of the district’s plans for hybrid learning, with different schedule models for elementary, middle, and high school levels. At a July 28 meeting, the board is expected to hear more details about those plans, and consider approving them.

On Sept. 1, the board will discuss what kind of criteria they will use to evaluate if and when school should be moved to hybrid models, but that criteria wasn’t discussed Tuesday, even as Thompson noted there had been a lot of community concern about that topic.

“One of the things that we’ve learned and that has been consistently true through this pandemic, is that health data changes rapidly, the recommendations from our health officials continue to change, sometimes rapidly, and local factors change,” Thompson said.

“The decision to shift into a different phase is going to need to take into consideration the current information in those three areas, and I can’t tell you right now what that information will be in September.”

“Personally, I wanted there to be a small percentage of in-person or hybrid learning for those very vulnerable populations that we tend to overlook,” Sharan Kaur, a board member said Tuesday.

Though she voted to support the distance learning start, she said she was hoping the district could have considered making a “priority list” in schools “for students who really need to be in front of a teacher in a physical space.”

The board also approved updated and new digital learning platforms aimed at helping students better engage with teachers and schoolwork during virtual learning, and Kaur praised the platforms and new detailed virtual learning plans as a needed change.

“More structured, more robust, more synchronous, and more rigorous distance learning as opposed to no grades, no accountability in some forms,” she said, referring to the distance learning models hurriedly put into use after the pandemic hit.

The distance learning plans will have scheduled learning and work times for students, which concerned some parents who might have to figure out a way to pull double duty as both home educators and breadwinners.

“When parents are working full time still and not able to meet the timeframe of the scheduled classes, what options do we have where our kids will not be held accountable or marked absent,?” asked one woman who said she has three kids in the district.

Some teachers were also concerned about the potential hybrid models, worried that there may be too little space in the classrooms for students to socially distance themselves.

“And that’s a big concern,” John Mattos, the director of assessment and evaluations for the district said.

“Alameda County Health Department stated we could decrease the physical distance, making sure to implement such things as masks, and handwashing, but this is still something that we need to work out,” Mattos said.

“There are so many unknowns and things keep on changing, and sometimes we have no control over things,” board member Linda Canlas said.

Canlas thanked staff for their work to put together learning plans, and emphasized that everyone will need to be flexible as the situation evolves.

“I know we’re building this plane as we fly it,” she said.