‘All hands on deck’: La Jolla Cluster discusses school reopening details

Torrey Pines Elementary is one of the La Jolla Cluster schools preparing to welcome students back to campus Monday, April 12.

“We’re on track” to reopen April 12, San Diego Unified School District Area 5 Superintendent Mitzi Merino told the La Jolla Cluster Association during its March 18 meeting, referring to the district’s plan to have students return to campuses for up to four days a week of in-person instruction in a hybrid model with online learning.

The association also heard local principals’ preparations for their schools.

The cluster represents the five La Jolla schools in San Diego Unified. The district has kept schools closed to regular in-person instruction since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with only small numbers of students identified as struggling invited for appointment-based learning on campuses since October.

Families were asked to fill out a survey from the district, due March 22, indicating whether they would stay in online learning through the rest of the school year, which ends June 15, or opt for an onsite/online hybrid.

The number of days a week on campus would depend on the number of students returning to each site. For example, a school where all families choose to return in person may be more likely to offer two days a week of in-person instruction for each student, but a school where only half of families choose to return to campus may be more likely to offer four days, according to officials.

Teachers will be preparing their classrooms and participating in district- and site-level training the week of April 5, following SDUSD’s spring break. The training will focus on supporting students as they transition from online learning back to on-campus instruction, Merino said.

As the San Diego Unified School District prepares to welcome students back to campuses for its April 12 reopening from more than a year of pandemic closure, it’s offering families and staff members several resources intended to support their physical, emotional and social health.

“Every site is going to have different ways they will safely get kids into their classrooms,” she said.

Families who do not return the survey by the deadline will be automatically enrolled in the online-only option.

The survey also asked families to indicate whether they are interested in opportunities for their children to be at school after the instructional day ends.

Survey results were not immediately available.

The hybrid and online-only options will follow the same structure, Merino said. At the elementary school level, students will have three hours of instruction before lunch, learning at the same time whether in class or at home, all using district-provided technological devices.

Elementary school students, whether onsite or online, will have a similar structure to their day, Mitzi Merino says.
Elementary school students, whether onsite or online, will have a similar structure to their day, Area 5 Superintendent Mitzi Merino says.

Elementary students will get a 30-minute wellness break within that three-hour time frame, she said. The on-campus lunch break will be in an outdoor “safe space” for students to eat.

After lunch, those on campus will receive two hours of in-person instruction, which might mean individual discussion, small-group lessons or district-developed social-emotional lessons.

Some sites also will offer an hour of “extended learning” time, Merino said, which could include outdoor play, tutoring or appointment-based services “if they’re able to provide that.”

Those at home will have three hours after lunch of asynchronous learning “in a parallel experience,” Merino said, with participation in social-emotional lessons or completion of other activities, sometimes onscreen with a teacher or another staff member.

Bird Rock Elementary School Principal Andi Frost said that in addition to maximizing classroom space, she is working on implementing staggered start times.

She said the staff will be thinking through “social-emotional impacts” for returning students. “We know and recognize we need to be prepared for those needs.”

Torrey Pines Elementary School Principal Nona Richard said staff is looking at changes to the direction in which students travel and other accommodations to ensure safety. “It’s all hands on deck,” she said.

Richard said the teachers are working to “prepare kids for what they can expect.”

Stephanie Hasselbrink, principal of La Jolla Elementary School, did not attend the cluster meeting.

The secondary learning schedule also is constructed similarly for students onsite and online.

Secondary students — those in grades six through 12 — will follow a similar parallel schedule, Merino said, with both onsite and online learners having four hours of class-period rotation with embedded office hours, followed by a lunch break in which on-campus students can obtain lunch at school and then leave for home.

The school day will then continue for all secondary students with two hours of independent asynchronous learning, followed by opportunities for participation in activities such as clubs, athletics or tutoring.

Muirlands Middle School Principal Jeff Luna said he is “trying to fit as many kids as we safely can” on campus to accommodate all who opt for the hybrid model.

“It will be dependent on the data we receive back from the surveys,” he said.

School staff is placing signs limiting restroom capacity and implementing longer periods between classes “to allow students more time to get where they need to go,” Luna said.

As another safety precaution, middle school students will not be using lockers, Luna said.

La Jolla High School Principal Chuck Podhorsky said “all of our classrooms are set up” with hand sanitizer stations.

Teachers will be preparing for a “heightened sense of awareness to students’ needs” as they transition back to campus, Podhorsky said.

Students on all campuses will have to wear masks and fill out ClearPass daily, listing any symptoms or possible coronavirus exposure, per district requirements. ClearPass will be required either electronically or via paper upon entry to campus, depending on the school site.

Sites this week are engaging in daily work “around health, safety and mitigation,” Merino said, from setting and maintaining cleaning schedules to evaluating traffic flow around the campuses. “That takes considerable time and energy,” she said.

Classroom setup is being done with the goal of having six feet between chairs, Merino said. In cases where six feet is not possible, other measures will be taken, such as using outdoor space or additional air purifiers, she said.

“Under no circumstances would the distance between student chairs be less than five feet,” she said, with a minimum of six feet between adults and students.

On March 19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adjusted its recommendation for schools, allowing for three feet between students. SDUSD spokeswoman Maureen Magee said March 22 that the district plans “no changes at this time.”

Desktop barriers between students in classrooms will not be required, Merino said, but “are available upon request.”

Coronavirus testing numbers for SDUSD are available on the district’s dashboard at, Merino said.

Jennifer Alfonso, program manager for the district’s nursing and wellness department, said that by April 9, “all comprehensive sites will have COVID testing onsite,” provided free through a partnership with UC San Diego.

Testing is mandated for staff members every two weeks and is optional for most students, Alfonso said. Certain student-athletes, such as those who participate in indoor sports, will have to be tested weekly.

“Whether you remain online or choose to participate in a hybrid, you will have a very robust experience,” Merino said. “We are going to support teachers, leaders and families through this transition.”

The La Jolla Cluster Association next meets at 4:15 p.m. Thursday, April 15. Learn more at