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School district prepares for COVID-19, hybrid learning alternatives

REGION – The San Dieguito Union High School District is considering a hybrid approach to instruction for the 2020-2021 school year, although area schools still face far more questions than answers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students will likely return to campus on Aug. 25—the scheduled first day of class for the district’s 10 middle and high schools. However, there would still be an option to do distance learning on the same bell schedule.

But given the oft-changing nature of the COVID-19 crisis, very little is certain, including what exactly the school environment will look like come fall.

“Staff is being asked to plan for everything, without very clear orders or guidance coming from the Department of Public Health, either at the state or county level or the governor’s office,” said District Superintendent Robert Haley.

And regardless of the logistics or educational structures they opt to pursue, the district also has to remain alert to the possibility that schools could be shut down again at a moment’s notice.

Honing in on learning models

According to a recent survey conducted by the district, the vast majority of parents and students are ready to get back on campus. Of the survey’s nearly 6,000 respondents, 84.6% supported on-campus, in-class learning with “reasonable precautions.”

Roughly 13.9% supported distance learning that would follow the school’s normal bell schedule, with an opportunity for on-campus (“hybrid”) learning, with the remainder supporting independent study.

At the district board’s June 18 meeting, Haley said the district is “quite certain that we will need to provide some kind of on-campus, in-class instruction.”

But the district will also have to allow distance learning for students with health concerns, or who may have a high-risk family member at home.

According to District Board President Beth Hergesheimer, the district will eventually have to communicate with parents over which options are right for their children.

“We will likely seek a commitment from parents as to which mode of learning their students will participate in for at least a semester at a time so that our district can plan and staff accordingly,” she said, in an e-mail to The Coast News.

In terms of grading policy—which caused quite the stir during the spring semester—Haley said the school will need a grading system to apply to both in-class instruction and distance learning. However, he said a credit/no credit structure has not been ruled out.

When it comes to mask-wearing

 Some of the district’s key sticking points relate to mask-wearing and social distancing—particularly when and where such spacing will be required.

In an interview with The Coast News, Haley said the district has been hearing a lot of “should’s” from public health officials, with few concrete guidelines.

According to the county’s June 19 public health orders, “all public, charter and private schools may hold classes or school business operations on the school campus,” provided the school complies with measures in the State COVID-19 Industry Guidance: Schools and School-Based Programs issued by the California Department of Public Health, and incorporates guidelines from the department’s “Stronger Together” guidebook.

The 14-page industry guidance document, released on June 5, outlines general recommendations for reopening campuses, including recommendations for staff and student hygiene, cleaning, social distancing inside and outside the classroom, and planning for when students or staff become sick.

The guiding document says that schools should “teach and reinforce use of cloth face coverings, masks or face shields,” particularly when “physical distancing is not practicable.”

The report says all staff “should” use cloth face coverings and students “should be encouraged” to use them.

Some are concerned with this vagueness—including parent Joshua Graff Zivin, who spoke during public comments at the June virtual board meeting.

“I understand that it is neither practical nor conducive to learning to have students wear masks all day long,” he said. “However, a hybrid policy—one that requires masks during class transition times when students are crowded together in hallways…does not seem unduly burdensome and would substantially reduce the risk to students, staff and all of their families.”

On June 18, the state’s Department of Public Health announced that California residents and visitors “must wear face coverings when they are in high-risk situations,” which includes being in enclosed rooms or common areas.

Social distancing, five days a week

As far as classroom spaces go, the state’s report recommends that students stay in the same place throughout the day to minimize movement, and remain in small groups.

Space should be maximized between desks, and staff should consider separation of students through six feet between desks, partitions between desks, or arranging desks in such a way as to minimize face-to-face contact.

According to Haley, this kind of distancing would allow “at best” 10 students at a time in the district’s average 960-square-foot classroom, with the instructor also six feet away.

So, for example, at a school like Torrey Pines High School—which has about 2,600 students—you might only be able to have a third or a fourth of the students on campus at a time. This might allow students to be on campus only one day a week.

Haley said that adhering to six feet of social distancing at all times, and enforcing that throughout the day, will pose a challenge to districts.

“Most of our education is project-based, with teachers moving throughout the classroom, students working with each other, and that does not match up with six feet apart at all times, or desks in rows,” he said. “It goes against everything we know about how students learn.”

This requirement also butts heads with what has been the desire of most parents in the district: to have students on campus every day of the week. This approach was recently approved by San Diego Unified School District.

“Most of the energy that we’ve had has asked, please just allow there to be a full-time distance learning option, and a lot of people (saying), I want my kid on campus, five days a week,” Haley said at the board meeting.

Looking ahead

The district has been working daily to meet this uncertain future, having assembled a working group of staff and teachers to provide input on instructional models. They’ve also put together a steering committee of key district directors and associate superintendents that meets every day, “trying to figure out how to get kids back to school.”

With the start of school still about two months away, the district is planning steps forward without overpreparing, with the concern that things could change drastically in that time period.

“Trying to put too much information out right now with specifics really runs the danger of having orders and guidance render it obsolete,” Haley said at the meeting. “The state’s going to pass, I’m sure, bills, trailer bills to implement the budget that will impact what we’re able to do as a school district or what we’re required to do as a school district.”

The district is hoping to communicate a more concrete future to students and parents by early August, pending more information from the governor’s office and state and county health authorities.

“In the meantime, we’re building out scenarios and really lobbying and advocating on the part of our students for more clear and more firm guidelines.”

According to Haley, the district has yet to receive any funding under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to respond to COVID-19-related district needs. This week, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the state’s 2020-21 budget will preserve spending for K-12 schools, amidst initial concerns that K-12 spending would need to be cut by 8% or $6.5 billion.

“It’s more beneficial for schools than the original proposal from the governor,” said Haley. “But it’s still going to present challenges to school districts across the state – being asked to do more with less.”

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