County schools banned from reopening until COVID-19 numbers improve

SDUHSD building
(File photo)

On July 17, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that COVID-19 health data will determine when a school can physically open, prohibiting all public and private schools in San Diego County and most others in the state from holding in-person classes until the counties do a better job of containing the coronavirus.

The governor’s order changed the plans of many local school districts that were moving ahead with reopening.

“We all prefer in-classroom instruction… but only if it can be done safely,” Newsom said. “Safety is foundational and safety will ultimately make the determination of how we go about educating our kids as we move into the fall and we work our way through this pandemic.”

Public schools in the Encinitas Union and Cardiff School Districts, as well as Encinitas private schools like The Rhoades School and The Grauer School, were planning to reopen for in-person school in some form in August. San Dieguito Union High School District has been looking at a wide variety of instructional models including online and in-class instruction.

At its special board meeting on July 30, the SDUHSD board will get an update on its reopening and consider a timeline for a local decision consistent with the state and county guidelines.

It has been recommended that the district operate on the distance learning model for the entirety of the first quarter of the 2020-21 academic year.

According to Newsom’s order, schools can physically open for in-person education when the county has been off the monitoring list for 14 consecutive days. San Diego County has been on the list since July 3 because it has a case rate greater than 100 per 100,000 people; the county’s rate is currently 153.2.

When schools do reopen they must follow the state’s plan for safe in-person school which includes new mask requirements: All staff and all students in third grade and above must wear masks. For students in second grade or below, the state strongly encourages masks or face shields. Last week Encinitas Union School District Superintendent Andrée Grey said that they will require all students, K-6, to wear masks.

School staff must be tested regularly for the virus and they must keep a six-foot distance from students and other staff. Per the new guidance, schools are no longer required to do temperature checks for students.

Newsom also announced requirements specifying when schools should close if a student or staff member tests positive for the virus while in-person classes are in session. A school classroom would be closed if a student or teacher tests positive, and an entire school would close if multiple student cohorts or 5% of its students and teachers test positive. A school district would have to close if a quarter of its schools close within a 14-day period.

Per Newsom’s mandate, the distance learning that is offered to students in place of in-person school must be “rigorous” with daily live interaction with teachers and other students.

“Learning in the state of California is simply non-negotiable,” Newsom said. “Schools must provide meaningful instruction during this pandemic whether they are physically opened or not.”

At an Encinitas Union School District board meeting on reopening on July 23, Superintendent Grey said they are planning and preparing for everything, with models of a full return, a hybrid schedule and distance learning—the full-year distance learning option has been named the “Cloud Campus.”

Their priority for a return to in-person instruction is a safe and conducive environment for learning and for work—they have purchased PPE, outdoor tents and systems for teaching outside, plexiglass installations and small group dividers, social distancing markers and there will be sinks and touchless hand sanitizer in all classrooms, “We want people to be confident, we want them to send their children to school and know that they’re safe and we also want to make sure that we’re focused on learning,” Grey said.

Grey said when Encinitas shifted to distance learning in March they were very much in crisis emergency mode and her teachers did an “incredible” job attempting to do things that had never been done with limited resources and training.

“We recognize that as we move into distance learning this year, it cannot be the same,” Grey said, noting that it is no longer an emergency situation and they have the benefit of time to plan, armed with feedback from teachers and parents about what worked and what is needed. “Doing the very best for our families and students with distance learning is the most critical thing we need to be focused on right now.”

All EUSD teachers will engage in professional development before the school year to address online teaching and the Cloud Campus will have required daily attendance and a mix of asynchronous and synchronous instruction with at least two full-class Zoom/Google meets per week and at least two live small group sessions a week. While all students may begin the year with distance learning, the district has asked parents to commit to a full-year of Cloud Campus or in-person instruction before the school year begins.

As parents nationwide face starting another school year with distance learning, a new trend is emerging around the formation of “learning pods,” which are small groups of students who meet for social interaction and learning and are often led by parents or hired teachers or tutors.

Board member Emily Andrade said while pods are a lovely idea, she has some concerns about equity, given the socio-economic differences of families in the district.

Grey agreed that the equity gap only gets wider as the supports at home differ.

“We are fortunate that we know based on our work last year that 100% of our students have access,” said Grey. The district has provided hotspots for wireless access and district mentors and community liaisons make sure students who are struggling at home have some support. “Is it the same as someone hiring a one-on-one teacher to be with their child to do distance learning? No. But we will continue to add intervention supports to reach more children,” Grey said. “It is an issue and it’s something that every school district is talking about.”

Before San Dieguito’s closed session special meeting on July 16 on labor negotiations with the teachers union, 34 teachers and parents submitted public comment that the district should only consider distance learning in the fall. Teachers wrote about being scared and worried to return to classrooms where the average class size is 40 students, questioning if the district can realistically meet the physical distancing and cleaning requirements.

“We love our students. We would love nothing more than to come back to school. Distance learning is extremely difficult and time-consuming and it lacks the connectedness that drives our passion to work with kids,” wrote Duncan Brown, president of the San Dieguito Faculty Association. “We certainly understand the impact of distance learning on students but with the recent increases in positive cases in the state and San Diego County, we have a responsibility to err on the side of caution to ensure the health and safety of our students, staff and community.”

An additional 10 of parents provided comments that reopening schools safely is possible and that in-person school is the best option for students’ mental health and academic progress; others asked that they are given a choice between the two models.