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San Marcos students return to class despite virus surge, staffing shortages
San Marcos students have returned to school amidst rising COVID-19 cases and staffing shortages throughout the school district. Courtesy photo
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San Marcos students return to class amidst surging virus, staff shortages

SAN MARCOS — The San Marcos Unified School District is pushing ahead with in-person classes for the upcoming semester, even as COVID-19 cases have surged across San Diego County, leaving some parents concerned about school safety and staffing shortages. 

In an email sent out to SMUSD families on Jan. 7, the district announced that it would remain in-person for the foreseeable future despite the “increase in COVID cases locally and across the nation.”

While COVID-19 precautions such as mandatory masking, social distancing and vaccination/testing requirements for district staff and teachers will continue to be utilized, administrators said that there are no plans in place to revert to hybrid learning even should cases continue to rise. 

As of Friday, the county was experiencing over 13,000 new cases per day — a 448% increase in the daily case average from two weeks ago, per data analysis by the New York Times. The city of San Marcos has totaled 14,475 coronavirus cases so far, according to county numbers. 

The district’s announcement acknowledged that since December, positive COVID-19 cases amongst staff, students and families had risen noticeably. Nonetheless, administrators expressed confidence in their ability to keep schools both safe and open for the upcoming semester. 

“The number one goal is to keep students in class so that in-person learning can continue, and there’s no option for us to back to virtual learning…instead we’re going to have in place the same safety mitigation methods we’ve used from the start of this year,” said Steve Baum, the district’s director of secondary education.

Such precautions include mandatory masking on campus, robust air filtration systems in all school buildings, deep cleaning protocols for facilities, distributing free test kits to families, and a comprehensive contact-tracing program, Baum said. 

Baum pointed out that the district has been spared any overwhelming surge in cases so far, noting that the case positivity rate in the SMUSD community so far is hovering around just 1%.

However, he also acknowledged that the rise in positive cases has created staffing challenges, with the district increasingly having to rely on substitute teachers or staff to take the place of full-time faculty members who have tested positive for the virus. 

Lauren Holman is a San Marcos resident with two children, both of whom attend Twin Oaks Elementary. While she praised the work of district officials to keep schools in-person, Holman said that numerous schools in the district are desperately struggling to keep teachers in the classrooms due to the staffing shortages. 

“It’s very challenging…in some schools I’ve heard about half of the teachers are out with COVID…the substitute pool is extremely low already,” Holman said. Holman added that she personally knows some stay-at-home mothers who have gotten their emergency substitute credentials and gone to teach for schools in the district, due to the shortages. 

Teachers or staff members who test positive must subsequently quarantine for at least five days in accordance with federal health guidelines. All district staff members are required to either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested on a weekly basis, Baum said. 

Katie Wade, parent of second grader at Discovery Elementary School, said that she’s been frustrated by a lack of transparency from the district in terms of the staffing challenges.

Administrators should clearly communicate to families when a substitute teacher will be taking over a class or when classes are coupled due to staffing issues, Wade said, as knowing this may affect whether a parent decides to send their kid to school for the day. 

“I would love more communication about teachers being out, like if our child’s teacher is going to be out and they put him into a gym with 100 other kids adding more risk with COVID…it’d be nice to know if the teacher will be out for the day so that you can make a more informed about the risk you’ll be taking,” Wade said. “Having substitute teachers and combining classes isn’t an ideal learning environment, and if we’re going to be taking the risk of having him in class we want him to be learning.” 

Gabrielle Lieberg, whose son goes to Mission Hills High School, said that while district staff are doing their best under difficult circumstances, she already has doubts about whether the return to in-person learning this semester was the best decision given the evolving nature of the pandemic. 

“While I think the best place for our kids is in school, we also have to be mindful of this ever-changing pandemic,” Lieberg said. “I wouldn’t have a problem when there aren’t enough staff to cover classrooms, just going back to virtually learning for a couple of weeks.” 

Both Wade and Lieberg said they knew of numerous instances where teachers at their children’s schools had been unable to prep for their next class because they had to cover the shift of a teacher who was out due to testing positive. In other cases, the mothers said they had heard of administrative staff having to fill in for teachers because there were no substitutes available. 

“The whole system seems stressed, there’s a huge lack of resources for everybody, even though it isn’t necessarily anybody’s fault…they’re just trying the best with the hand they’ve been dealt,” Wade said. 

“When you have these kinds of things happening, I don’t think it’s unreasonable…just to take a couple weeks off at least before going back to in-person,” Lieberg said. 

But district administrators said that for all intents and purposes, a return to virtual learning is off the table, regardless of how the pandemic develops. 

“We don’t really have a threshold of cases where we’d close down…we’re operating under the thought that we will continue to remain open and do everything we can to stay open while offering safety mitigation methods to continue our in-person learning,” Baum said. 

District officials also emphasized that a vast majority of families in the district are fully supportive of this semester’s return to classrooms. 

“The families have said that they want their students to be in person, they want that in-person experience —that’s overwhelming the sense we’ve gotten with feedback from parents so far,” said Amy Ventetuolo, the school district’s public information officer. 

Ventetuolo said that the district has tried to balance public safety with education as best its can, noting the unique burden that the pandemic has placed on administrative decisionmakers. 

“This is an unprecedented time for schools,” Ventetuolo. “I mean never in modern-day times have schools had to contend with being both public health experts as well as education experts…our commitment is to stay open safely and that’s the heartbeat of us all.” 

While still concerned about the coronavirus, Holman expressed that the majority of district parents, including herself, support having children back at school. She said that for her family, distance learning was a chaotic, frustrating experience where the quality of education offered fell significantly. 

“Distance learning was basically the blind leading the blind, although they were doing their very best,” she said. “Last year’s online learning and lack of leadership by the district was a disaster. As wonderful as our teachers were, they simply did not have the resources to conduct online learning especially for that age group [1st and 3rd grade].” 

Holman credited SMUSD’s new superintendent Andrew Johnsen, who took over last spring, as helping successfully steer the schools out of the hybrid learning model and safely back into full time in-person classes. 

This year has been a completely different story with a new superintendent…he’s turned things around, he’s willing to do whatever it takes to keep our kids safely in school as much as possible,” Holman said.