On August 18, San Diego County was removed from the state’s COVID-19 watchlist, allowing schools to reopen their facilities for in-person learning beginning September 1. On September 15, CUSD began Phase One of reopening, bringing moderate to severe special needs students back on campus. Early last week it appeared that, based on COVID-19 case numbers, San Diego County was at risk of moving from the Red Tier back into the more restrictive Purple Tier on California’s four tier color-coded tracking system. As of Tuesday, September 21 that did not occur, but the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) guidelines state that if a county moves to a more restrictive tier at any time, schools that have already opened are not required to close. Therefore, on September 18, CUSD announced plans to continue its reopening with Phase Two (grades K-5) the week of October 5.
Superintendents and school officials across the county are hustling to accommodate students, families, and teachers, while attempting to adhere to the ever-changing regulations coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Governor Newsom, the California Department of Education (CDE), the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE), and the San Diego County Public Health Officer. Guidelines from the alphabet soup of regulatory offices frequently contradict each other.
In preparation for the phased reopening, last week CUSD sent out a weekly newsletter with a survey asking parents to indicate if, when schools reopen, they intend for their student to remain in distance learning or participate in educational experiences in-person, on the school campus.
According to Superintendent Karl Mueller, results of this generic survey will be used to guide staffing and programming and to build stable cohorts for the next reopening phase. The district also posted a Frequently Asked Questions page on its website to help parents make decisions. Superintendent Mueller responded to the following questions regarding the district’s plans for the fall:
EJ: Your survey indicates that parents are making a placement decision for the remainder of the first semester, which ends on January 28. Why?
KM: Stable cohorts are essential for us to open and remain open. In order to comply with mandated guidelines we must be able to monitor and contact trace should we have a positive case of COVID-19 within a cohort. Current health guidelines allow for a 14:1 student/teacher ratio, so we need to know how many students want to come back for in-person experiences in order to plan for appropriate staffing and space. The information we receive from the commitment survey gives us the ability to plan for the safe return of students on-campus. We recognize that individual student/family needs may change and we will adjust accordingly.
EJ: Phase 2, scheduled to begin on October 5, is bringing options for TK-5th grade students to return with a structured AM/PM schedule. How many hours/days and day/week will students be on campus? Will Village Elementary and Silver Strand Elementary operate on the same schedule?
KM: All elementary students at both Village and Silver Strand will be on the same schedule. The morning group will be 8:00am-10:45am and the afternoon will be 12:15pm - 3pm. Students will be on campus four days per week (Monday-Thursday) and will continue to participate in the distance learning “BRIDGE” program on Fridays.
EJ: Middle and High school students will be brought back for “on campus experiences TBD” during part of Phase 2 and expanding into Phase 3 on October 26. What are some of those experiences and how will the district determine which classes and students will be included?
KM: Again, the classes that we can open for in-person will depend on the numbers of students requesting to be in-person. For example: if there are 40 students enrolled in ASB and 30 of them opt for in-person we will need to divide them into two cohorts that each come on campus two days per week. Depending on how many in each grade level they could split along grade level and have 9th and 10th graders on campus in one cohort and 11th and 12th in another cohort. If only 12 of the enrolled students opt for in-person then they can all be accommodated together. This is an example of one class on one campus so you can see just how complicated a master schedule for middle and high school is. And why we need the numbers before we can tell parents exactly what it will look like.
EJ: It looks like there is a possibility that many middle and high school students will only get to be in one class on campus each day, why?
KM: Current guidance from CDE does not allow a child to be with more than one cohort of his/her peers per day. Example of what we can’t do: if a student is in their math class and then transitions to chemistry on the same day, the school is now mixing cohorts. Secure cohorts (one group of students) allows the school the opportunity to complete contact tracing if/when needed. Under current guidance this is the safest way for us to offer in-person learning experiences while managing the safety of our students and staff.
EJ: What will a student do when they are not on campus?
KM: Students will remain engaged in BRIDGE instruction when not on campus. All students will receive equitable access and continuity of learning in current courses throughout phases.
EJ: Are there protocols in place for closing individual classes, schools, or the entire district if there is an outbreak of COVID-19?
KM: Yes. The current guidelines say that if five percent of teachers and students in a cohort test positive then the cohort will quarantine for 14 days. If five percent of teachers and students in a school site are positive then the school will close for 14 days. If 1 in 4 schools had a five percent positive rate the entire district closes for 14 days. These are state mandated rules.
EJ: Is there anything else you would like to add?
KM: We understand the frustration of our parents. We are trying to accommodate diverse points of view of our constituents while adhering to the directives which govern our role as a public school district. Much of this is out of our control. The rationale behind CDC guidelines is simple: schools play a critical role in slowing the spread of COVID-19. If we attempted to accommodate all who wanted to return outside of the guidance from public health officials, we would potentially prolong the eventual safe return for all. This is a public health crisis and the restrictions set are intended to slow or stop the spread for all. Schools will face liability claims (from employees and students alike) if we operate outside of the guidelines and directives from CDPH. We understand that our students are already participating in youth sports, camps, and other activities; they are not beholden to the same safety measures and regulations as public schools. As we all navigate this pandemic we realize there are inconsistencies, but we are aware that what happens on and off of our campus to a small group may ultimately impact how and when we can all return to normal. Ultimately, our responsibility is to ensure the safety of our staff and students and, when it comes to safety, we will always operate in an abundance of caution.