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Solana Beach public schools have expanded in-person instruction for K-3 students from two to four days per week. Fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders will follow suit by March 1. Photo via Facebook
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Solana Beach elementary schools to ramp up in-person instruction

SOLANA BEACH — The Solana Beach School District board of trustees unanimously supported increasing the frequency of in-person instruction over the next month for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders during its Jan. 21 meeting.

Sixth-graders are slated to attend in-person classes four days per week — up from two days currently — beginning Feb. 8. Fifth-graders will return on Feb. 22, fourth-graders on March 1.

The push furthers the district’s aim, reiterated since last summer, to “return as many students to school as many days as possible.”

Asked to choose before the school year began, about two-thirds of families opted to return their children as campuses reopened; the rest decided to stick with all-online classes.

Students whose parents chose the in-person route started “hybrid” instruction — two days a week on campus, two days online from home — in September.

The district began expanding on-campus instruction to four days per week, one grade level at a time, starting with kindergarten in November. First-graders followed in December, second- and third-graders in January.

Since September, 22 employees and 52 students have tested positive for COVID-19, forcing 16 classrooms to revert to online instruction. But “we have not had one case of transmission throughout any of our schools,” Student Services Coordinator Lesa Denham said.

Last week, the district began “field testing” three fourth- and fifth-grade “pilot” in-person classrooms. Using feedback from these pilots, the district aims to hone operations, including a variety of COVID mitigation measures, before returning all students and staff.

“I want things to go back to normal, this seems like a really good way to take a big step closer toward that,” Matt Singley, one of the pilot teachers, said. “I found that the experience of teaching online in the spring, and the hybrid model, to be a soul-crushing experience.”

The district may establish a process for other teachers to observe the pilots, since “seeing it in action can help with [their] comfort level,” Assistant Superintendent Courtney Goode said.

Safety measures will include, among other things: facial covering and social distancing requirements for all grade levels; daily symptom and temperature checks; optional testing on a rotating basis for students who don’t show symptoms; staggered arrival and dismissal times; appointed restrooms; and larger teaching spaces, spilling into adjacent classrooms, multipurpose rooms, and other facilities as necessary.

Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger recommended against allowing parents who opted for all-online instruction to change their minds midway through the school year. Doing so “would disrupt many classrooms,” she said.

“I continue to believe [students] learn best when they are in school, and I think we’ve heard from a lot [of constituents] who support that,” President Vicki King said. Though “students who chose online school are thriving.”

“So many parents … really are wanting the kids on campus,” Trustee Julie Union said. “I believe we’re doing the right thing for our kids,” though “some teachers … have trepidation.”

“We need to … meet these [target return-to-campus] dates with vigor,” Trustee Debra Schade said. “I do believe we have done everything in our power to mitigate the risk.”