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In-person learning picks up gradually in North County school districts

REGION — Reopening plans for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year are underway in North County school districts, but not without contentious debate.

Many districts are continuing distance learning for middle and high schools through January, but for now, districts are employing a hybrid model for elementary, where designated cohorts of students alternate their days of in-person instruction.

For the Encinitas Union Elementary School District, each classroom cohort consists of 16 students at most. “Group A” students come on-campus Mondays and Wednesdays and “Group B” comes Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Leonardo DiMedio, an Encinitas Union Elementary parent, says that though it’s not every day, the hybrid has allowed his third-grade daughter to gain back some social interaction he feels is key for her educational experience.

But with three school days still being spent at home, parents want more than a hybrid.

“We’re just sick and tired of [the school board] not taking the proper action,” said DiMedio, who chose to run in the Encinitas school board Nov. 3 election out of frustration with the district’s slow reopening.

While planning for fall, the Oceanside Unified School District sent a survey to parents last spring,  where 53% of parents said they would prefer in-person learning over hybrid or distance learning. Still, Oceanside Unified won’t begin implementing a hybrid model until Nov. 2.

Largely as a result of COVID-19 distance learning, Oceanside Unified student enrollment dropped 9.38% when comparing numbers from Sept. 16 of 2020 and 2019, according to district public records reviewed by The Coast News.

Oceanside is one of the many districts across North County with declining enrollment as students switch to alternatives such as homeschooling and charters.

“The fundamental issue here is [that] the District is losing enrollment because it’s not providing the service that parents want — their kids, in school,” said Todd Maddison, an Oceanside Unified school board candidate and parent.

Maddison says that Oceanside families who have lower incomes, two working parents or language barriers, are all disproportionately struggling with distance learning. For some single working mothers, their only option is to leave their elementary kids at home to navigate distance learning alone.

“They express tremendous guilt when telling me that,” Maddison said.

Other families aren’t in support of school reopenings just yet.

Amanda Chavez withdrew her first and third-grade kids from San Marcos Unified School District after the challenges of distance learning last spring. Now, through the Classical Academy Charter School, Chavez was provided with homeschooling materials and pre-recorded video lessons for her kids.

Though San Marcos Unified will begin gradually reopening elementary schools starting Oct. 20, Chavez said she’s not ready to come back just yet since COVID-19 conditions may force schools to close once again.

“I didn’t want my kids to be in school and out of school,” Chavez said. “I just wanted consistency this school year.”

The hybrid model has already posed health concerns for districts. One Encinitas Union survey from October reported that students have been taking off masks, breaking social distancing and interacting with students outside their assigned groups.

Survey respondents were also concerned about “uncertain protocols around attendance and student sickness” and substitute teachers not getting tested for COVID-19.

In the Carlsbad Unified School District, special education classes are held in-person five days a week, while elementary schools use the cohort hybrid model.

According to Rick Grove, assistant superintendent of personnel services at Carlsbad Unified, in just a week and a half, the school district added four elementary teachers to Carlsbad Seaside Academy, the district’s independent study program, to accommodate the influx of families who prefer the school’s flexible distance learning structure over the gradual reopening plans.

“The challenge is that no matter what path we take, you kind of have two-thirds of the people who are not very happy with the selection we’ve made,” Grove said.

As San Diego County remains in the red tier of COVID-19 restrictions with a “substantial” risk of infection, plans for school reopenings align with guidelines from the County, California Department of Public Health and the Center for Disease Control.

Countywide, children 10-19 years old make up 10% of positive COVID-19 cases and children 0-9 years old make up 3.6%, according to county government data from Feb. 14 through Oct. 17.