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La Jolla schools committed to ‘stronger, more robust online learning experience,’ discuss upcoming year

Torrey Pines Elementary is one of five La Jolla cluster schools preparing to begin the new school year online Aug. 31.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Halfway through the summer break, local school principals are scrambling to stay abreast of rapid changes to when and how schools are allowed to reopen, create curriculum for various learning models, and communicate to families needing details.

On July 17, Governor Newsom laid out his plan to allow for schools to reopen in person, which mandates that “schools located in counties on the Monitoring List must not physically open for in-person instruction until their county has come off the Monitoring List for 14 consecutive days,” according to details published on Newsom’s office website.

By having more than than 100 cases per 100,000 people, San Diego is one of more than 30 counties currently on the COVID-19 watchlist.

Once a county is allowed to reopen its schools, Newsom’s guidance requires masks to be worn by all staff and students third grade and up. Adults must stay six feet away from one other and children, and children “should maintain 6 feet of distance from one another as practicable.”

The plan also indicates a school “should revert to distance learning when multiple cohorts have cases or 5 percent of students and staff test positive within a 14-day period,” and that a district “should revert to distance learning when 25 percent or more of its schools have been physically closed due to COVID-19 within 14 days.”

Read more on the governor’s plan at bit.ly/newsomschools.

The announcement comes just days after San Diego Unified School District issued a joint statement with Los Angeles Unified School District, which reads the two districts will begin their 2020-21 school years online only, with instruction resuming in San Diego Aug. 31.

SDUSD “will continue planning for a return to in-person learning during the 2020-21 academic year, as soon as public health conditions allow,” the statement continued.

In an email to the community, SDUSD Superintendent Cindy Marten said she sympathized with parents, saying, “We understand our decision to start the new school year online for students may complicate your individual family situation, and we share the frustration you may be feeling brought on by this significant health crisis. ... As conditions with COVID-19 change over the weeks ahead, we’ll provide another update on Aug. 10 on the possible timeline to physically reopen schools, along with instructions for the first week of school online.”

Following the governor’s July 17 order, SDUSD communications director Maureen Magee told the Light the district plans “to start the school year on Aug. 31 with online instruction remain in place,” with the Aug. 10 date to assess “how soon after the first week of school it might be safe for students to return to campus. That reassessment will take into account the governor’s guidance.”

La Jolla schools weigh in

The La Jolla Cluster Association, formed to represent the five SDUSD schools in La Jolla, met on July 16 as previously scheduled to discuss current plans. Normally attended by approximately 40 people, the meeting format was adjusted to a webinar on Zoom to accommodate over 500 parents and community members who asked to attend.

SDUSD board member Mike McQuary said at the meeting’s outset, “We know that our communities are not safe, and if our communities are not safe, our schools, no matter what we do, will not be safe.”

Area 5 Superintendent Mitzi Merino, who supervises the La Jolla cluster schools, said parent surveys were distributed following a June 16 district announcement that schools would reopen with options for in-person and distance learning, and that “Every piece of feedback is being addressed.”

The feedback, Merino said, consistently indicated “we needed to become stronger in … [providing an] online learning experience. We want you to know we’re fully committed to developing a stronger, more robust online learning experience,” acknowledging that the distance learning model created in March following the emergency shut down of school buildings “wasn’t as good as it needs to be.”

The five cluster principals then presented information on current plans for the beginning of the school year.

“We want to assure you we are taking the next six weeks very seriously,” said Torrey Pines Elementary School principal Nona Richard. “We are really eager to work together to be [what] students need and deserve.”

Bird Rock Elementary School principal Andi Frost shared that “none of [the cluster principals] want a repeat of the emergency response” that led to the distance learning model launched in April 2020. “Our kids deserve a really great education, and we’re all committed to doing that.”

At Muirlands, principal Jeff Luna said the school’s parent organizations are assisting with plans to transition students from elementary to middle school, as well as helping with a virtual orientation and textbook distribution.

Questions for the panel were submitted, and cluster president Neha Bahadur said the principals would provide answers as they become available. “We hope to post these answers on the cluster website,” she said.

Alternative solutions?

After the meeting, Jessica Hughes, parent of a 15-year-old son enrolled at La Jolla High, told the Light her biggest takeaway is “distance learning is supposedly going to be much improved this time around. However, there were no concrete examples of how it’s going to be improved.”

Hughes said she plans to keep her son enrolled for now at LJHS, but is searching for a group of parents to “brainstorm ways we can enhance our kids’ education during this time of distance learning.” Interested parents are invited to email her at jesshughes100@gmail.com.

“I’m a big proponent of public education,” Hughes said. “I worry that [distance learning] will truly change the trajectory of our kids’ lives and futures.”

Alina Mullen, parent of three children at Torrey Pines Elementary, said, “We do understand that we need to be able to protect loved ones and ourselves from this crazy pandemic,” but that “there [are] big consequences to not having kids on site, big ones, that can affect their ability to thrive in society as they grow older.”

Mullen said she hopes to form an “educational cooperative,” a small group of families who pull away from public education and home-school their children together. However, after receiving “little to no response” from a post to the neighborhood based social media app Nextdoor, she said she’s touring with private schools as an alternative.

Private School plans

Prior to the July 17 announcement of Newsom’s plan, several area private schools were considering a return to campus, planning socially distant classrooms and options for families who preferred an online model.

The Gillispie School planned to open in-person Sept. 1, prior to the governor's July 17 guidelines to keep schools closed.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

In a statement to the Light July 21, Gillispie School marketing & communications lead Brittany Kaszas said the school “intends to open on Sept. 1, whether virtually or on-campus. The school is designing comprehensive and robust plans for either possibility. Given Governor Newsom’s current and future directives, the school will need to remain fluid.”

The Bishop’s School was planning to open in person Aug. 18. However, Bishop’s head of school Ron Kim said after Newsom’s updated regulations, “in all likelihood, we’re going to have to open in an online mode, and then be prepared to move to in-person as soon as the numbers start to go down.”

Bishop’s is nonetheless going ahead with plans that include scenarios for in-person, distance and hybrid learning.

“It’s like planning for three different school years,” assistant head-of-school Michael Beamer said. “Whatever mode we’re in, we’re supporting students. I’m hopeful that with the pulling back on some of the reopening, we can get a handle on it and allow us to reopen.”

La Jolla Country Day School released a statement from head of school Gary Krahn, which read “The health and safety of our community are paramount. La Jolla Country Day School’s policies, procedures and protocols exceed the San Diego County Health Order and state guidelines. Therefore, when the school is afforded the opportunity, we will be ready to reopen.”

Krahn’s statement also said the first day of school remains Aug. 19, whether online or on campus. “While the physical return may be delayed, the start of school will not be delayed.”◆