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District staff presented the board an option to begin full in-person instruction for K-3 students, five days per week, by March 1. File photo
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Oceanside school board rejects in-person elementary classes

OCEANSIDE — The Oceanside Unified School District board voted 4 to 1 on Tuesday against returning elementary students to in-person instruction, even though health restrictions wouldn’t preclude doing so.

In the fall, elementary students returned to school under a “hybrid instructional model,” whereby grade cohorts were divided into two groups trading-off days of in-person instruction. Group A went to school while Group B completed assigned work virtually, and vice versa. Grades 6-12 continued to take classes virtually.

But in December, given the surge in COVID-19 cases, the school board decided to send elementary students back to virtual-only classes, promising to revisit the decision in January.

“Even though we’re now in the purple tier” — the most restrictive of four state-defined COVID risk categories — “we can open up for in-person instruction with elementary at any time of the board’s choosing,” Superintendent Julie Vitale told the board Tuesday.

In-person instruction would still need to adhere to guidelines from the state departments of health and education.

District staff presented the board an option to begin full in-person instruction for K-3 students, five days per week, by March 1. This would’ve been possible by hiring 36 additional teachers to accommodate smaller class sizes, using existing federal CARES Act funds.

But staff advised keeping schools closed until San Diego County drops into the state’s red tier, a lower risk category, which might not happen during the current school year.

While the board approved hiring extra teachers, it opted not to launch K-3 in-person instruction by March, citing concerns about COVID-19 spread.

“I don’t still fully understand why one would open back up in a purple tier, even if they were allowed to,” School Board Member Mike Blessing said. “I’m very concerned about opening under … the current conditions.”

Several COVID-related measures for San Diego County far surpass red-tier thresholds, Associate Superintendent Mercedes Lovie said. For example, while the red tier would require no more than 7 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people per day, as of Monday, the county’s case rate was 54. Oceanside’s case rate, as of Jan. 8, was about 56, Lovie said.

“We’re not even just purple, we’re black because we’re so far over the edge,” School Board m=Member Raquel Alvarez said.

“I don’t know if I’d be comfortable sending my kid back … and then they’re coming back home to me to spread it,” President Stacy Begin said. “We have our employees to think about, as well.”

Only Trustee Eric Joyce voted against the decision.

“We do not currently have evidence that we would need to wait for the (COVID-19) case rate to return to [red tier level] before returning safely to the in-person instruction for elementary school-aged children,” Joyce said. “We don’t have any evidence that we had transmissions on our campuses or that the case rates were impacted locally by elementary schools being open during our time that we were open. I do not think that the science supports a restrictive wait until the Red tier and I don’t think that strikes the right balance.”

While certain subgroups of students with special needs can see their teachers, meetings might last only “30 or 40 minutes, three times a week,” Joyce said. “What I would like more than anything would be … a plan for our special education students, K-12. Because, again, we have had permission to bring them back with their teachers since September.”

Several public speakers criticized the board for not returning to in-person instruction more aggressively, especially for students with special needs.

“Why have we not heard any information about your plans for the staff to receive [vaccinations] and what that means for the move to in-person learning?” public speaker Aimee Palmer said. She also complained of a perceived lack of transparency, saying: “The last board meeting was the first I’ve ever heard of us not having enough staff to return to in-person schooling. I’ve been on the district web page almost daily trying to glean even a tiny crumb of information out of you.”

“Every indication has [been] that we are supposed to start receiving the vaccination in February. Say that is all complete by March, and other factors change as well — the board could reconvene and make a different decision,” Vitale said. “While this is our decision for now, it’s the decision for now. And that could potentially change as circumstances change.”

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