Superintendent David Miyashiro of the Cajon Valley Union School District. Photo by Ken Stone

The clock is ticking on San Diego County school districts to decide whether to bring students back to campus, continue distance learning or offer a hybrid learning model when the academic year begins next month.

The Cajon Valley Union School District in East County reopened Monday for in-person teaching for the first time since schools were ordered to close by public health orders. Every elementary and middle school is open in Cajon Valley.

Using money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act allocated for safety supplies, distance learning tools and learning loss recovery, Cajon Valley principals and their teams prepared a free summer learning program for interested families. While finalizing the district reopening plan early last month, the Cajon Valley management team along with union leaders discussed the practicality of starting small with the most conservative safety measures in place during summer.

“It’s such a blessing both to have our kids back on campus and also to start small and learn how to best implement the new safety guidelines ahead of all students coming back in August,” said Mike Kuhfal, principal at Flying Hills K-8 School of the Arts.

School districts are in a difficult spot as educators and administrators navigate rapidly changing information and work to come up with a plan to serve students.

Those decisions are being met with both criticism and praise.

Faced with the resurgent coronavirus pandemic, the San Diego and Los Angeles unified school districts Monday announced jointly that school would reopen strictly online in August. President Trump voiced displeasure with the plan Tuesday, saying the school districts were making a “terrible mistake” by making students stay home for the upcoming term.

“I would tell parents and teachers that you should find yourself a new person, whoever’s in charge of that decision, because it’s a terrible decision,” Trump said in an interview with CBS News.

State Superintendent Tony Thurmond took a supportive stance during a Wednesday morning press conference.

“We want to acknowledge and commend that two of our largest districts (Los Angeles Unified School District and San Diego Unified School District), made the decision to start under distance learning in the best interest of their students’ and educators’ safety,” Thurmond said. “The order of the day is to keep planning for some form of in-person learning, but develop the contingency plans for distance learning. And to keep monitoring information and guidance from health officers.”

With more than 500,000 K-12 students attending more than 1,000 public and private schools in the county, one thing is for certain: there is no one-size-fits-all model for reopening.

When all San Diego school districts were forced to shut down on March 13, Cajon Valley staff and trustees immediately began weekly meetings via Zoom with employee groups and parents, which included virtual town hall meetings with every school community. These meetings led to the formation of its school reopening plan in the first week of June.

Those plans include four options: home school, complete distance learning with no physical school, a hybrid model that combines some physical school with some distance learning and five-day-a-week regular school, space permitting.

Justin Goodrich, Cajon Valley Middle School principal, said “by simulating what school is going to look like in the fall our teachers are fine- tuning our safety protocols and instructional plans. Cajon Valley Middle School is so excited to have our staff and students back on campus. Everyone is adhering to the social distance guidelines and showing a great deal of appreciation and respect for one another.”

District administrators claim that with proper protocols, spread of the illness can be prevented. They cite the district’s Extended Day Program, which for the last four months has provided free distance learning support and care for parents working in essential jobs. According to the district, in serving more than 130 families, Cajon Valley hasn’t had any staff or students test positive for COVID-19.

San Diego Unified will begin the school year remotely until going back to school is deemed a low-risk environment for students.

Chula Vista Elementary School District — the largest elementary district in the state — announced Tuesday it would follow SDUSD’s lead and wait to open classrooms.

“We will continue to work towards transitioning to in-person instruction but will only do so when guidance from local health officials supports a safe transition back to learning on site in classrooms,” Superintendent Francisco Escobedo wrote in a message to parents.

Poway Unified, Escondido Union and San Dieguito Union school districts are all waiting for additional information, but each have developed or are developing hybrid learning plans to split students between in-person home and remote learning.

The San Ysidro School District opted to start the year later, moving the first day of school from July 20 to Aug. 17. According to data gathered from a survey of district parents, most families prefer a blended learning model with in-class and online learning. Trustees will consider a reopening plan and instructional delivery methods at a special governing board meeting July 28.

“Our district’s Reopening Schools Task Force has been focused on implementing the safety and health guidance from the state and county health departments which include precautions such as social distancing, sanitation and disinfection protocols, health screenings, temperature checks, cloth facial coverings, hand washing, teaching staff and students the latter protocols, and more,” Superintendent Gina Potter said.

The National School District will present a safe reopening plan to its trustees July 21.

“The governing board has directed administration to draft a plan that puts staff and student safety at the forefront,” Superintendent Leighangela Brady said. “If it is unsafe to open, we will start with distance learning as well.”

The will look at local public health conditions and metrics such as decreasing infection rates, case rates per 100,000, ability to trace and monitor community outbreaks, hospitalization rates, and availability of sufficient PPE.

“Our goal will be for local criteria to be at or below the county threshold for reopening,” Brady said.

The San Diego County Office of Education, which operates schools for foster youths, and severely disabled students and homeless students, as well as the Juvenile Court and Community Schools program, has not yet finalized its plans for reopening and what format will be offered.

There will be no major instructional changes, however, even if campuses do not immediately reopen in the fall.

“Distance learning for programs that directly support students – particularly our Juvenile Court and Community Schools – has never been online only,” Chief of Staff Music Watson said.

SDCOE’s distance learning curriculum is delivered in two formats: online platforms, including Google Classroom, Haiku, Seesaw, and Canvas, and printed curriculum.

“This is a hybrid of the work that teachers were already facilitating for students in the classroom and for independent study, and for those in institutions and without technology,” Watson said.

— Staff and wire reports

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