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Back to school, again: La Jolla elementary schools reopen to small groups of students

Torrey Pines Elementary fourth grader Olivia Wood, pictured with paraeducator RoseMarie Lynn
Torrey Pines Elementary School fourth-grader Olivia Wood, pictured with paraeducator
RoseMarie Lynn, was “so happy” to return to school Oct. 13.
(Courtesy)

Local elementary schools welcomed a small number of students back to campus Oct. 13, exactly seven months after they closed their doors to in-person instruction.

Small groups of students are now attending class at public schools in La Jolla for short periods throughout the week, following the San Diego Unified School District’s announcement last month that it would begin the first phase of reopenings.

As Bird Rock Elementary School prepares to welcome a “very small” number of students to in-person learning Oct. 13 as part of the San Diego Unified School District’s first phase for reopening its campuses from coronavirus-related closures, it faces a “heartbreaking” reduction of more than 7 percent in its student population.

Students were invited to the appointment-based learning sessions based on need, with priority given to students with Individualized Education Plans or other special education services and those not meeting grade-level standards for progress.

At Torrey Pines Elementary School, Principal Nona Richard said 12 students were invited to the optional in-person return, with about eight students accepting. Richard hopes to get about 10 students back on campus in this first phase.

The students who arrived the first week are in first to fourth grades, some with IEPs and some who are learning English. “We’ve also had kids who are just not at grade level but don’t necessarily have an IEP,” Richard said.

Invitations are based on “the availability of our paraeducators and schedules,” she said, noting only one adult is allowed in a classroom at a time, with up to eight students allowed in a classroom at a time for fourth- and fifth-graders and six children allowed in one room from kindergarten through third grades.

“Right now we are focusing on groups of two to six to begin with,” Richard said. “As we get more comfortable, we will add in more students.”

She said the students are on campus Tuesdays and Thursdays at TPES, in staggered blocks of 40 minutes to one hour in the afternoons. “We don’t want to sign ourselves up for more than what is safe and what we can support.”

TPES fourth-grader Olivia Wood was the first student back at school Oct. 13. Her mother, Gen Léger, said: “Olivia really enjoyed going back to school. At first she didn’t want to go, but when I picked her up, she had the biggest smile on her face.”

Olivia said she was “so happy so see my school again and get to be in a classroom instead of my bedroom. The teacher was really nice.”

The paraeducators in class with students on campus currently are “working really closely with the classroom teacher and the education specialists,” Richard said. “It’s really nice to see such intense planning. It’s not just paraeducators doing homework with the kids; there’s a lot of collaboration that’s going on behind the scenes.”

She said a benefit to the small groups in each class is student support is “very targeted, which I think is really neat. The lesson and instruction is very intentional and meaningful.”

While on campus, staff and students are required to wear masks and undergo a health screening and hand washing before entering class, Richard said. Doors are kept open and each room contains two air purifiers to aid in ventilation.

“The teachers and I are meeting at least once a week throughout the month of October to continue to evaluate and refine our COVID-19 plan,” she said.

“We’re working to put the needs of the kids first in all we do. When we hold that in our hearts and use that as the guiding commitment, we make the best decisions as a school, even when it’s a difficult time.”

Similar preparations went into welcoming students back to La Jolla Elementary school, where Principal Stephanie Hasselbrink said 15 students returned in grades 1-3 to learn in groups ranging from two to six students each.

“We’re starting small,” she said, “because we want to make sure we get it right and then we can scale it up and grow our reopening.”

“The students we selected to start [were] really based on a lot of different factors,” Hasselbrink said, like “students’ needs, their ability to wear a mask, the availability of our staff and classroom resources [and] my and my staff’s availability to supervise and observe.”

Almost all of LJES’ invited students accepted, she said. “It was so nice to welcome students back to campus, and our educators that were participating were so excited to see our students in person.”

Hasselbrink said “a huge component of our reopening is really looking at our procedures, policies [and] protocols and kind of stepping back and analyzing them and fine tuning them to make sure that we can ensure the safety of our staff and students.”

Students at LJES attend class for one hour Tuesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons.

Hasselbrink said “it’s really nice to have students back on campus. None of us became educators to sit behind computers, so it’s really nice to have some in-person interaction with kids. To hear them on campus is really nice too. It’s a really exciting time, shifting from online back to in-person. We look forward to scaling it up once we feel comfortable with where we are then we’ll invite some more students to come back.”

Bird Rock Elementary Principal Andi Frost did not respond to requests for comment. ◆