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La Jolla Cluster schools prepare for online learning as parents voice worry and frustration

This is one of several signs seen posted Aug. 24 on the perimeter of La Jolla High School.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

As the San Diego Unified School District nears the beginning of its new school year Monday, Aug. 31, its five La Jolla schools are preparing to teach their students online and are sharing information about their plans with the community.

La Jolla, Torrey Pines and Bird Rock elementary schools, along with Muirlands Middle and La Jolla High schools, have held Zoom webinars, sent emails and held Q&As via social media to inform parents and others about changes to online curriculum following restrictions related to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic that closed schools around the state to in-person learning in March and sent them scrambling to provide distance learning to finish the academic year.

SDUSD schools will remain closed to in-person learning for now — possibly for months — after the district determined it is not yet safe enough to reopen. After consulting with UC San Diego science and health experts, the district announced Aug. 10 that it had decided to set higher standards for reopening than the state requires.

Maureen Magee, SDUSD communications director, said in an email Aug. 24 that the district emailed all parents a Back-to-School Guide with information and resources regarding its online education plan for the new school year.

San Diego County was removed from the state’s COVID-19 watch list Aug. 18, beginning a 14-day waiting period before schools may be allowed to reopen their campuses. Many area private schools applied for a county waiver to reopen elementary classes, even if higher grades can’t.

Gillispie, La Jolla Country Day, San Diego French American, The Bishop’s and The Evans schools in La Jolla are among 27 San Diego County schools to get county approval to reopen in-person instruction for elementary grades, having obtained waivers from the state school closure mandate prompted by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

SDUSD’s decision to remain online rather than pursue a waiver upset some parents. Alexandra Yerbury, a parent of students at La Jolla Elementary and Muirlands, said she wants an explanation “as to why the district didn’t choose to apply for the waiver and why there appears to be not a single plan in place to reopen at all.”

She said she sent an email to school and district officials but hadn’t received a response.

SDUSD Area 5 Superintendent Mitzi Merino, who supervises the La Jolla Cluster schools, did not respond to the La Jolla Light’s request for comment Aug. 21.

District board President John Lee Evans said earlier this month that “we’ve seen the mistakes that have been made in other places with other venues where they suddenly open and then had to re-close because they made an arbitrary decision that wasn’t really based on science.”

The state requires that San Diego County maintain a coronavirus case rate of 100 or fewer per 100,000 people for two consecutive weeks in order for all public and private schools to be allowed to reopen. SDUSD is using not only that requirement but also said it won’t reopen until the county is meeting “trigger” criteria such as fewer than seven community outbreaks over a week-long period.

Yerbury said she doesn’t understand why the district is waiting to reopen based on metrics different from the state’s. “It’s impossible for us to return; it’s almost designed to fail,” she said. “There seems to be a complete lack of proactive behavior” toward reopening.

In another letter to SDUSD leadership, its board members and La Jolla Cluster principals, Kat Peppers, who has children attending La Jolla Elementary and La Jolla High, wrote, “I am concerned about the divide that is going to be created between the haves and the have-nots as parents with resources supplement their children’s educations — or leave the district entirely — and that those who cannot afford to do so will fall farther behind.”

Peppers wrote that she has concern “for students who have no representation or resources to supplement their education, concern for parents who cannot take time off of work to guide their students through distance learning and who distrust the teachers union (and the district and Board of Education by association), and for the professional, dedicated teachers who want to return to the classroom but whose voices are eclipsed or who do not trust the district to provide a safe environment.”

Local parent Victoria Pearce, whose children attend La Jolla Elementary and Muirlands, called the district’s decision to stay online a “community crisis.”

“Our public schools are really important to this town,” she said.

Pearce said she’s worried that, as cluster schools stay closed, enrollment will drop as parents send their students to private schools or “pandemic pods” or leave La Jolla entirely, causing local schools to lose state funding.

With schools not permitted to offer in-person instruction because of the continuing coronavirus outbreak, many parents are looking for alternatives as their schools prepare to start the academic year online.

“We have everything to lose because we have a choice,” she said, adding that if classrooms are lost because of an “exodus,” nearby businesses also will suffer. “We have a town to lose.”

SDUSD board Vice President Richard Barrera said this month that the district is “extremely aware and extremely concerned” about possible consequences of students not being at school for such a long time.

But “what we need to be doing as a school district is our part to ... slow down the spread of this virus so that, in fact, we can return our students to school, where they need to be,” Barrera said.

Pearce said she’d like the district to make an exception in La Jolla and some other communities, apply for a waiver and “pilot” reopening schools for students up to second grade, which would enable the district to weigh the viability of reopening districtwide.

Cluster schools do not have the autonomy to apply for a waiver on their own; it must be done at the district level.

Local principals, however, said they’re confident they can provide quality online learning until campuses are deemed safe to reopen.

In one of a few recent Zoom meetings with community members, Torrey Pines Elementary Principal Nona Richard said, “We have a very robust program lined up; we’ve learned from what didn’t go well in the spring.”

Torrey Pines Elementary School Principal Nona Richard speaks about fall online learning during a community Zoom meeting.
Torrey Pines Elementary School Principal Nona Richard presents information about fall online learning during a community Zoom meeting.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Richard detailed the previously announced six hours of daily learning districtwide and included slides showing how the hours would be broken down: three hours of live instruction — which will be a “combination of whole-group and small-group instruction,” she said — plus an hour for “one-on-one conferring, office hours and additional small-group instruction” and two hours during which students will be assigned independent work.

The district’s new distance learning ground rules set higher standards than distance learning in the spring.

Sample schedules Richard shared during the meeting showed students alternating between whole-group Zoom lessons and individual or small-group practice time.

Richard said designated English-learners and students with individualized education plans will receive extra small-group and service time with teachers and support staff as needed.

Materials and technology needed to complete online learning at home will be distributed Friday, Aug. 28, Richard said. It will be a drive-through system in which materials are placed in the backs of cars. A schedule has not yet been released.

Richard said there also will be monthly dates to return work done on paper and to replenish supplies.

La Jolla Elementary Principal Stephanie Hasselbrink and Bird Rock Elementary Principal Andi Frost also held Zoom meetings to disseminate similar information to their communities.

At Muirlands Middle and La Jolla High, both principals have worked to reorganize students’ class schedules, aiming for better concentration and a smoother transition to in-person learning upon reopening.

Instead of six shorter classes per day, students will have three longer classes each day in alternating nine-week sessions, covering the same class time and material for the year.

The reformatting came after parent and teacher feedback following the spring distance learning.

“In the online learning format … we’re lowering the number of courses students have to focus on at one time,” said Muirlands Principal Jeff Luna. “There’s still going to be rigor.”

The new course format will remain in place once schools reopen. “Hopefully that will increase our success rate with our transition back to campus,” Luna said.

At all district schools, the first week of school will not include instruction but rather daily meetings with teachers to get to know their classes as well as online training modules for parents and students to complete while teachers participate in professional development sessions.

There are steps middle and high school students and their parents can take to help ensure a smooth start, according to Jennifer Winward, who founded online tutoring service Winward Academy and has privately tutored local students for years, in addition to teaching undergraduate students in the UC San Diego psychology department.

“In a virtual environment,” Winward said, “it’s very easy for us to learn passively. We’re used to watching videos on Instagram, streaming Netflix.” To learn actively, she said, it’s important that students are “taking notes, preparing for classes in advance … and monitor their own mistakes.”

Students also should work at building relationships with teachers, “which takes more effort in this virtual space,” Winward said.

Once the district decides to reopen campuses, parents will still have the option to keep their children in online school should they want or need to, and the reopening itself will be done in phases, according to Luna.

Regardless of when campuses open, Richard said “learning is important, and online learning is learning. … We’re in this with you. We will get through this.”

San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Kristen Taketa contributed to this report.