Encinitas district plans for further school reopening in red tier

The Encinitas Union School board met virtually on Feb. 9.

The Encinitas Union School District does not plan to expand the opening of its schools until San Diego County is in the red tier for at least two weeks. The district continues to prepare for its “phase three” of reopening, which includes continuing to follow all safety guidelines and the hiring of 15 additional teachers.

“We know we want to have all students back five days per week and we want to ensure safety for all,” EUSD Superintendent Andrée Grey said at the board’s Feb. 9 meeting. “Expanding our opening is currently targeted for the red tier when we can lessen social distancing and increase capacity at a time when there is no longer an extreme level of community spread.”

The county is currently in the purple tier with 34.2 cases per 100,000 residents— to get out of the purple tier that number needs to reach less than seven.

Since the fall, Encinitas students have attended school in-person two days a week in a hybrid model, the rest of the week they are in distance learning at home. Students can also opt to remain fully in a distance learning model, called the Cloud Campus. In January it was reported that 85 students moved from school sites to the Cloud for a total of 664 students in distance learning and 4,213 attending in the hybrid model.

At the Feb. 9 meeting, the board heard from 11 speakers during public comment, many parents asking for the schools to immediately open for in-person instruction five days a week. Parents said their children are struggling during the three days of distance learning and shared concerns about students’ mental health and learning loss as well as concerns with declining enrollment due to students leaving for private or charter schools.

Parents told the board that it is safe to open schools with the protocols they have had in place since fall and that to wait until they are in the red tier feels arbitrary, given that being in the red tier is not a state requirement for reopening.

“I realize that teachers and administrators are all working hard, that’s not an issue,” said parent Liz Ingle. “This format is not working. It’s being compounded and it’s getting more stressful by the fact that we can legally and successfully move into phase 3 and yet we won’t.”

During public comment, one parent played a recording of Encinitas student voices. The students spoke about Zoom being boring and long, missing connecting with their teachers, eating lunch with friends, art and group activities.

“I don’t like it when I’m alone, it’s just really hard for me,” said one little voice before the call ended with multiple children asking: “Can I log off?”

EUSD Board President Emily Andrade said it broke her heart to hear the children’s voices and said that she truly believes that the staff is doing everything they can to get kids back in school. Grey too, said she was touched to hear district families’ stories—while she is in the classrooms every week seeing the joy of in-person learning, she doesn’t see what is happening at home.

“I do think we have the same interest at heart, we all want our kids back,” Grey said. “We know that in-person learning is the best and we also want to continue to provide a safe environment for everyone.”

In expanding reopening and welcoming more kids back onto campuses, the district’s challenges include physical distancing, staffing, the number of people that would have to quarantine and the unknowns about teacher vaccinations. “All of these challenges are doable, there’s not any that we can’t get past,” Grey said.

Spacing is one of EUSD’s biggest challenges as per the California Department of Public Health guidelines “under no circumstances should distance between student chairs be less than 4 feet.” A large number of classrooms at district schools are not able to meet the 4-foot guidance so Grey said the district will need to use alternative spaces to ensure the distancing.

Grey said she has heard the comparisons to other districts that are open five days a week but said it is important to note that each school district has a unique context based on enrollment, school space availability, class size and in person numbers.

EUSD’s percentage of enrollment in the full distance learning model is considerably lower than every other surrounding district: “That means we have more students in our schools that we have to place and that means that there’s less space in general in our schools,” Grey said.

With more students in their schools, Encinitas has also had a larger number of COVID-19 cases than surrounding districts. Currently, the district has eight active cases and its high point in January was 28 cases. Since opening on Sept. 21, they have had 122 cases and 834 individuals have been required to quarantine.

Trustee Gregg Sonken commended Grey’s leadership and said while he appreciates all of the hard work being done he shares many of the parents’ frustrations and would like to move faster toward a full return.

“It’s time these kids come back to campus and I’m advocating they come back immediately, right now,” Sonken said, even proposing a five-day a week return the week of Feb. 22 “We need to bring our kids back.”

No other board member backed his proposal for an immediate return but all acknowledged hearing the concerns and emotions felt by the school community. Trustees Jodie Williams and Marlon Taylor, both parents of EUSD students, said they know their children do better and are happier in school, not to mention that having kids in school makes life easier while they are working from home. Taylor said both he and his wife are relegated to working out of their garage.

With the case numbers still high, board member Marla Strich said community behavior is critical—board members said that everyone needs to do their part to help reduce community spread to increase the chances of kids getting back to school sooner.

“We’re close. I feel like we’re so close and I don’t want to stumble at the finish line,” Taylor said. “We want our kids back in school but we want to have to do it the right way.”