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Back to school: La Jolla campuses prepare to welcome students back in August

La Jolla Elementary School is one of the La Jolla Cluster schools preparing to reopen its campus Aug. 31.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

La Jolla public and private schools are planning to reopen their campuses following a June 15 county health order allowing San Diego schools to resume in-person classes following the months-long closure and distance learning forced by the coronavirus pandemic.

Schools will have to comply with several state and county safety guidelines for reopening.

The California Department of Public Health issued a 14-page document (bit.ly/stateschoolreopen) on June 5 outlining measures such as teaching healthy hygiene practices, intensified cleaning procedures, maximizing space between students and minimizing movement, training on and screening for COVID-19 symptoms and establishing plans for when someone gets sick.

The San Diego County Office of Education released its own set of reopening policies (covid-19.sdcoe.net/Reopening-Plan) that expand on the state guidelines, detailing changes to all areas of school operations, from sanitizing and capacity to enrollment procedures and professional learning.

Public schools provide learning options for 2020-21

The San Diego Unified School District board on June 16 approved a fall reopening plan (bit.ly/sdusdreopenplan) that will let families choose from on-campus learning, online learning and a blend of the two. The district also announced the 2020-21 school year will begin as previously scheduled on Monday, Aug. 31.

Distance-learning students would have four days a week of live and pre-recorded instruction and one day a week to catch up on assignments.

Onsite offerings for distance learners would include science labs, career technical courses, special-education services, teacher office hours, physical education, community college courses and internships.

Sofia Friere, the district’s chief of leadership and learning, said the district will incorporate more-engaging activities such as hands-on projects, group discussions and enrichment.

For in-person instruction, San Diego Unified’s plan includes daily temperature checks for students and staff, maximizing ventilation, and surface disinfection daily and between uses by multiple groups.

The plan also states the district is considering methods for distancing such as physical barriers and staggered arrival times.

The county Office of Education said June 17 that schools should prepare as if masks will be mandatory for all students and staff on campus.

“Masks or face coverings will likely become ubiquitous in our society as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with school campuses no exception,” Adrienne Konigar-Macklin, general counsel for the county education office, said in a letter to school districts.

San Diego County already requires everyone 2 and older to have a face mask when outside and within six feet of someone who is not part of the same household.

The state is providing the county with millions of masks to help ensure every student gets one. The county office said it would receive more than 1 million cloth masks, more than 1 million disposable masks, 99,000 disposable face shields and 12,300 gallon-size jugs of hand sanitizer.

Officials said schools will have to make drastic, and likely expensive, changes to scheduling, staffing and the use of school spaces to allow for physical distancing and provide flexibility and choice for parents.

Among the county’s suggestions — not mandates — are that schools could use spaces such as their gyms, libraries, cafeterias, theaters and outdoor tables as classrooms. They also could make agreements with groups such as the YMCA, libraries or churches to use community spaces for classes.

Schools also could open six or seven days a week to reduce the number of students on campus at a time. And they could extend the school day and have students go to school in shifts to allow for lower capacity.

The La Jolla Cluster of schools, which includes three elementary schools, Muirlands Middle and La Jolla High, met June 17 to begin the first of many planning sessions to implement the outlined procedures.

Torrey Pines Elementary School Principal Nona Richard said “the La Jolla Cluster principals are enthusiastically planning for the reopening of school on Aug. 31, with both onsite and distance learning options. We are committed to communicating with parents consistently and clearly throughout the summer so our community stays informed. In addition, administrators will involve all stakeholders to design the learning experiences our students deserve.”

Recognizing that not all parents will feel comfortable sending their children back to campuses, the district sent a survey to all families June 18 asking for “input regarding … current attendance preference.” The survey, due Thursday, June 25, asks parents to choose from one of three options: full-time onsite learning, all online learning and online learning with some voluntary onsite options.

The survey states its purpose is “only to help schools plan for next year,” noting that formal registration for one of the three options will occur later in the summer.

Mike McQuary, board member for District C, which includes all La Jolla cluster schools, indicated the choice is important to meet communities’ “unique needs.”

“We always work through a lens of equity, providing high excellence in instruction for all students, no matter where they live,” he said. “But we do want flexibility, for parents to take a look at their options and come up with their best solutions for making it happen.”

In considering the options, Sharon Miller, La Jolla High School PTSA president and mother of an incoming LJHS sophomore, said “we want our kids back in school, but the [board meeting] just left us with more questions. What are the specific plans?”

Miller said she questions how principals will acquire masks and partitions and what online platform the district is using to create the hybrid model.

“We need these questions answered before we can make truly informed decisions about returning our kids to the classroom,” she said.

Debbie Yelon, who has sons attending LJHS and La Jolla Elementary School, said she’s “quite confident I would send my kids to the in-person learning. I’m confident that there are safe ways to manage [that]. The concern that comes to mind is they seem very well aware of how to do things safely but they’re under-resourced.”

Some San Diego Unified leaders say it’s still unclear whether all schools will be financially able to physically reopen or whether sufficient contact tracing or COVID-19 testing will happen by the fall to help keep schools open safely.

State legislators passed a budget proposal June 15 that would reverse Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed cuts to education, but it is unlikely to become law.

The proposal would be enough to keep schools open for only half the school year, San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten said June 16. The district would need additional federal money to open for all of next school year, or it would have to revert to distance learning for the second half of the year, said board President John Lee Evans.

“But we can’t wait any longer to begin planning for the next year,” Evans said.

La Jolla’s three public elementary schools held reunions this month of their Classes of 2013 as those students prepared to graduate from La Jolla High School, keeping traditions alive via new platforms.

Elizabeth Tobias, the mother of an incoming seventh-grader at Muirlands, said she’s “unsure of what we’re doing in the fall.” She may enroll her daughter in Mount Everest Academy, a district charter school for independent study online.

“We know that the district has so much to figure out right now that we are not certain that we want to have to be involved in that complex decision-making process at this point,” Tobias said. “We all need to make the decision to do what we feel is best for our families.”

Private schools anticipate in-person reopenings

The San Diego French American School anticipates welcoming its students back to campus for the new school year.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

At the San Diego French American School in La Jolla, Head of School Mark Rosenblum said he is preparing to open the campus to all its pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students, “properly social-distanced, properly following [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], state and county ... guidelines.”

Rosenblum said parents also will have options for remaining in distance-learning models, noting the school is “currently designing any curricular modifications necessary to be able to teach on campus in parallel with distance-learning options for students who are out of school for whatever reasons. It’s a tall order [with] intense planning, but we hope to be able to pull it off.”

La Jolla Country Day School, which serves preschool through high school students, is “committed to creating a campus reopening plan that is safe and prioritizes the health and well-being of our community,” according to a statement from marketing and communications director Tiffany Truong. “That plan includes a resumption of in-person classes starting in August. Given the complexity and fluidity of the situation, we are planning for multiple scenarios, including a hybrid learning model.”

The Bishop's School is planning to offer in-person instruction to its 800 students starting Aug. 18.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The Bishop’s School, for grades six through 12, intends to reopen its campus Aug. 18 while providing distance-learning options for its 800 students and 200 staff members.

“It’s really clear that COVID-19 is something that will still be with us,” said Michael Beamer, assistant head of school for internal affairs. “We need to find ways to mitigate that risk for students and employees.”

Beamer said Bishop’s “necessary pivot in March to distance learning is … still not a replacement for in-person instruction,” though the school faces a “real challenge” to meet physical distancing guidelines.

“We’re still figuring out what that will look like and going through a process of really reorganizing,” Beamer said.

Everyone at Bishop’s will wear a mask, he said, and the school is considering “how we use non-traditional spaces so we can get as many students on campus as possible.”

Bishop’s also will offer a “blended approach” of in-person and at-home learning, he said.

“We need to make accommodations for community members who have some measure of fear about exposing a child who then could be a conduit of disease to a population of 800 other students,” Beamer said.

Bishop’s Head of School Ron Kim said the “key to a great education is development of caring relationships, and we prefer to do that in person. But however we do it, we’ll make sure that [those relationships] happen.”

The San Diego Union-Tribune contributed to this report.