Encinitas Union to remain in hybrid model until January

An outdoor classroom in use at Flora Vista Elementary School.

The Encinitas Union School District plans to remain in the hybrid model through the end of year, planning to phase in more in-person learning beginning in January. According to Superintendent Andrée Grey, the district is working with its reopening committees to finalize the details and the full plan including logistics, metrics and timelines will be shared with the board at its Nov. 10 meeting.

Currently students attend two days a week in a hybrid model. Students can also opt to remain in the distance learning model, called the Cloud Campus—less than 10% of district families have selected that option.

“We do have many parents who want to have their kids back five days,” said Grey at the school board’s Oct. 13 meeting. “But I assure you we also have many parents who recognize and are trusting of our safety protocols and procedures and they are thankful that we have been intentional and gradual. They are confident when they’re sending their kids to school that their kids are safe.”

In order to reopen in the hybrid model, students are kept in small cohorts to provide as much physical distancing as possible—all cohorts have 16 students or less with maximum spacing in the classroom and during lunch, recess, arrival and dismissal.

Grey said the district will be looking at their physical spaces as they consider what a gradual return of full classes could look like starting in January, assuming that the local COVID-19 case numbers show improvement and in adherence to the California Department of Public Health guidelines.

“I can’t see making shifts now for our students to come back full time before January based on our current data,” Grey said, adding there is only six weeks of instruction from the beginning of November to winter break, a time when there is traditionally more illnesses on campus. “I don’t think its the ideal time to risk increasing our class sizes.”

Grey said the district faces challenges in that only 40% of their class sizes this year are 20 students are less. She said surrounding districts who are opening sooner benefit from having lower class sizes and more space or having a larger population of students opt for distance learning. As an example in the Rancho Santa Fe School District, which opened five days a week starting in Aug, 24, most classes are 16 to 18 students. Sixty percent of EUSD classes have 21 to 32 students.

Grey said if they were to bring back all students in a class, she knows they would not have six feet of distancing and the closer students are, the higher the risk of transmission.

Board members spent time visiting EUSD schools before their meeting and board member Emily Andrade said some of the upper grade classes, even with 16 students, felt close together and she couldn’t imagine a room with a full 30 to 32 students.

“I would love to see children get back to school too, I don’t think there is one of us that doesn’t want that,” Andrade said. “It was so wonderful to see children at school…It just fills your heart, you want them there. I’m hopeful that maybe by January we can start doing that.”

Recently the district surveyed parents and teachers about what was and wasn’t working with the hybrid model. The survey found that parents are happy about the academic and social-emotional benefits of their kids being back at school and parents were complimentary of the “amazing” teachers, smaller class sizes and the lack of traffic during the staggered pick-up/drop-off times. Parents were impressed that students are following the health protocols although a few comments mentioned the need for more mask breaks.

Teachers who were surveyed said they are loving seeing their students and that the smaller class sizes allow for lots of individualized instruction and increased productivity, however, there were also many drawbacks. Teachers shared that they are “exhausted” with the amount of work planning for both in class and at home learning. They expressed challenges such as an inability to support students at home while teaching in the class and problems with glitchy Zooms. They said having only two days of live instruction is not enough and helping students while maintaining physical distancing is “near impossible.”

In the survey, parents said there was not enough work or teacher interaction during the three days at home, there is too much screen time and that kids are feeling unmotivated. There was a desire to return to five full days of at school or at least to bring students back on Fridays.

“It’s no secret I’m in favor of bringing kids back to school sooner versus later,” said board member Leslie Schneider. “I hear a lot of parents every day wishing that their kids were back on campus.”

Schneider said she would like to see the district extend learning spaces to open areas on campus with temporary structures and to better utilize all of their extra spaces such as the Farm Lab. She also suggested reaching out to community partners like the library and community center to get kids back more days. Schneider said she trusts Superintendent Grey to put together an “impeccable” plan but by November, she would like to see a goal of students being on campus at least three days a week, even if it means hiring more staff.

”We’re a school and our job is to educate kids five days a week. That is our whole job,” Schneider said. “Whatever we need to spend in order to make sure that happens, I’m ok with it. This is why we save for a rainy day. This is that rainy day.”

Board member Gregg Sonken agreed with Schneider, that the district should “think outside the box” pitching ideas like adding Fridays, having a rotation of grades on campus for two week periods, doing in-person project-based learning at the Farm Lab or bringing back the lower grade levels with smaller class sizes sooner.

“We’re all on the same page here. We all want the kids back in school full time,” Sonken said. “We all want everyone safe.”

Grey said there would be a significant cost to hire more teachers as well as the logistical questions of whether they could find those teachers, where the schools would find the extra spaces to fit more classes and how they would fully equip those classrooms with what they need.

As for utilizing outdoor learning spaces, Grey said they have prepared all the sites for outdoor learning but teachers are making instructional choices based on what they’re able to do and what the best atmosphere is for the task that students are working on. Some teachers are using the outdoor spaces more than others but no one is spending all day outside. During the heat wave this month, it was especially problematic for teachers to try to teach outside, she said.

Regarding changing Fridays from a planning day to an instructional day Grey said there are concerns around teacher prep time.

“Our teachers are working harder than ever,” said Grey. “I believe that we would be putting our teachers at risk of tremendous burnout if we don’t have another method for giving them some time to do adequate planning.”

Grey said she would like teachers to be a part of the conversation as they talk about the options of what a gradual return looks like, so they feel like they are part of the solution.

EUSD President Rimga Viskanta said that bringing students back more days is no easy task and the district will continue to look to the data and safety guidelines to inform their reopening decisions. Board member Marla Strich said safety should continue to be the board’s foremost consideration, as well as listening to and collaborating with staff, teachers and parents as they try to figure out the best way forward.