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‘A tiered approach’: La Jolla Cluster schools discuss reopening preparations and declining enrollment

Bird Rock Elementary School has experienced an enrollment decline and is piloting an independent study program in response.
Bird Rock Elementary School has experienced an enrollment decline and is piloting a new independent study program in response.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

San Diego Unified School District Area 5 Superintendent Mitzi Merino gave the La Jolla Cluster Association details of plans to eventually reopen classrooms “as soon as it’s safe to do so.”

SDUSD schools, including the five public schools that make up the La Jolla Cluster, began the 2020-21 school year online Aug. 31, choosing to keep campuses closed after the district determined the region’s coronavirus situation was 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.

Though no date was given to begin onsite learning, Merino, whose area includes the La Jolla Cluster, told the association during its Sept. 17 meeting that the district has been busy preparing for a return to school sites.

Preparation has involved spending $45 million, Merino said, $11 million of which was used to buy personal protective equipment. “We’ve ensured … all educators, staff members and students have access to gloves, masks and face shields if necessary,” she said.

Schools will be equipped with desk shields for front office staff, as well as thermometers.

Merino said the district also has “developed protocols and plans for daily disinfection of high-touch and horizontal surfaces” and plans to limit access to school grounds to staff and students only. Health screenings, physical distancing and hygiene practices also are accounted for in the reopening plans, she said.

The district is working on a “tiered approach to returning to onsite learning,” Merino said, with Phase 1 involving appointment-based learning for elementary students.

“Targeted instruction will be considered for students who performed below the standards” on their spring 2020 report cards, Merino said. Also eligible for onsite learning will be incoming transitional kindergarten and kindergarten students new to SDUSD who aren’t making progress toward grade-level standards, as well as students with an individualized education plan who aren’t meeting their goals or need additional support.

The number of students invited to appointments will be “contingent upon available staff and resources,” Merino said, and those who qualify will be contacted by school staff.

Onsite learning “will not supplant online learning but will complement it,” Merino said. “They will also participate in planned [virtual] instruction.”

If the first phase goes well, Merino said, “we hope to bring back additional students for in-person learning. We’re moving cautiously because we’re trying to avoid what has happened in many of the surrounding districts, where a date gets set and canceled. Some schools reopened and then been forced to close. We want to avoid putting our students through a disoriented cycle of closing and opening. Our decisions are being driven by science.”

However, a new group started by a parent in the Tierrasanta area is demanding that San Diego Unified set a reopening date.

Parent Gina Smith said she started the group, called Reopen SDUSD, last week because she is frustrated that other San Diego County districts have set reopening dates and many private schools are already open with safety measures in place.

Enrollment concerns

“Enrollment is down across the La Jolla Cluster,” Merino said.

Information included in the meeting agenda stated there are “significant decreases” at La Jolla Elementary and Bird Rock Elementary schools, with Torrey Pines Elementary’s numbers “stable.”

Specific enrollment details at La Jolla and Bird Rock Elementary were not available from school officials.

According to publicschoolreview.com, Bird Rock Elementary currently has 451 students enrolled, compared with state data that lists 515 students enrolled last year.

La Jolla Elementary currently has 535 students enrolled, according to Public School Review, compared with 575 in state data for last year.

Addressing worries about declining enrollment, Merino said “the No. 1 strategy for attracting our families, that we should be most proud of, is that we’re providing high-quality instruction and creating strong and well-connected learning communities. There’s no replacement for that. It’s my hope that as families talk, they’ll learn more about the experience that our students are having and they’ll return to our public schools.”

SDUSD announced Sept. 18 that its student enrollment numbers have dropped below projections made before the coronavirus pandemic forced school campuses to close in March.

As of Sept. 16, about 100,348 students were enrolled in district schools — 2,474 students, or 2.4 percent, less than what was expected, according to the district.

Merino said Bird Rock Elementary is piloting an independent study option “as an effort to improve enrollment.”

The option, Merino said, is “for the few families who are opposed to or are unable to have their students online because they’re working. We’re monitoring this pilot carefully.”

Nine families are enrolled in the program, Bird Rock Principal Andi Frost told the La Jolla Light. The families had unenrolled from the school, then re-enrolled when the independent study option became available, she said. To inquire about it, visit
bit.ly/bresindependentstudy.

Merino said parents of Bird Rock Elementary students can opt for the independent study pilot for a semester, with assignments and curriculum designed by school and district staff and tailored “to align with the rigorous experience students have in class.”

Students will turn in their work every 10 days to be graded, she said, and then “have appointments for formative assessments” with teachers and the principal.

“While nothing could ever replace the opportunity for a student to be taught by his or her classroom teacher … we hope that for the families who need this, it will keep them connected to their neighborhood school,” Merino said.

“We know that enrollment is a concern,” Merino said at the meeting, “and we’re excited to be able to offer this pilot in our La Jolla schools in response to a need that arose in this community.” She said the pilot may become “a districtwide strategy.”

Still, Frost said that “we strongly encourage those families for whom the online teaching can work to continue. It’s engaging, it’s robust, it’s more supportive. There’s opportunity for students to build classroom community, even through Zoom.”

Kelsey Martin, mother of a first-grader at Bird Rock and a parent representative to the cluster, told the Light that she’s concerned about the attrition rate and the length of time schools have been closed. Without dates and other reopening details, she feels “like there’s no sense of hope for parents; we don’t know what it is they’re working on,” she said.

Online learning is a struggle for Martin and her daughter. “Yesterday she had 45 minutes with her teacher,” Martin said. “That’s just not acceptable.”

Martin, an engineer, also said she’s experienced a strain on her time due to at-home instruction. “From 8:30 to 1:30, I can’t get anything done.”

Martin prepared a proposal intended to provide a “safe, accessible way to provide a safe learning environment during the pandemic.” It suggests using Bird Rock Elementary’s field, play areas and other outdoor spaces to create exterior classrooms where students could return to campus.

“The city of San Diego has declared all of its open spaces available for businesses in order to keep their operation open and safe,” Martin wrote in her proposal. “This should include the essential business of educating our children at schools, especially when the land is used by the school in a typical school year, such as the upper field at BRE.”

Martin sent the proposal to Merino, Frost, district Superintendent Cindy Marten and Bird Rock Foundation leadership. Only the foundation leaders replied, Martin said, telling her the “district has all these hurdles to go through.”

“Given that La Jolla is part of a cluster and the district itself is split into areas,” Martin asked why clusters couldn’t have “a bit of autonomy” in regard to reopening plans.

“I wanted to show a plan is not that hard,” she said. “I just think we need to think out of the box and use all our resources.”

Martin said other parents have been supportive of the possibility of outdoor learning. “There’s really no reason why we can’t make this happen somehow,” she said.

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