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San Diego Unified’s First Phase Of In-Person Learning Gets Mixed Reviews

A teacher guides students through a lesson at Lafayette Elementary School in ...

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Above: A teacher guides students through a lesson at Lafayette Elementary School in Clairemont Mesa on Oct. 13, 2020.

After two weeks of limited in-person learning, San Diego Unified School District parents are finding that the level of services their children receive varies depending on which school they attend.

The district launched its first phase of school reopenings on Oct. 13, welcoming for in-person instruction elementary school students with special needs and those who had fallen behind during distance learning.

Listen to this story by Joe Hong.

One parent said she was at first relieved when she heard about the plan, but quickly learned that not all students would be accommodated.

“I was excited because I felt like it would be great to get him back,” said Ashley Lewis, a parent of a fourth-grader at Ocean Beach Elementary. “It wasn’t until I found that it was going to be different on a school-by-school basis. It was just a huge disappointment when we found out, oh he’s not gonna get these services in person.”

Lewis’ son is on the autism spectrum and struggles with focusing in front of the computer. She said the school wasn’t offering much in-person instruction because not enough teachers had volunteered to participate in the first phase of reopening.

“From what I understand talking to our principal, it’s optional for our teachers,” Lewis said. “So if they don’t want to come back and teach in person, he can’t force them.”

RELATED: SD Unified, SDSU Taking Baby Steps Toward In-Person Learning

Reported by Joe Hong

Other schools have apparently had more success during the first two weeks.

“It’s been so smooth, and it’s been so wonderful to see the kids,” said Kathy Burns, the principal at Gage Elementary School in the Lake Murray neighborhood of east San Diego.

Burns said as of now, 11 teachers and teaching assistants are participating in Phase 1 at Gage. She said she expects to add three more teachers in the coming weeks as they resolve their own childcare needs.

“One of the things that helped is I asked the teachers to create a schedule that works for them,” she said. “I think that encouraged a lot more of them to want to come in and do this because they knew it wouldn’t interfere with the Zoom classes they were already doing with their kids.”

District Spokesman Andrew Sharp said he expects Phase 1 will attract more students as more teachers volunteer for in-person instruction.

Teachers union president Kisha Borden said the willingness of teachers to volunteer for in-person learning is impacted by a lack of consistent safety protocols across all district schools. She said some schools have more detailed plans for checking-in students, escorting them to classes and maintaining social distance.

“I think where the school site has went through and answered all of those questions around details and logistics, I think educators are far more confident in Phase 1,” Borden said. “I think wherever there are questions and confusion, we might see less buy-in and participation because people just don’t feel comfortable with the plan.”

As the district looks to expand Phase 1 to serve at-risk middle and high school students, district leaders say they’re working to make sure more teachers feel safe coming back to campus.

RELATED: San Diego Unified Grappling With Significant Drop In Kindergarten Enrollment

“I think the way we address that is we get underneath why we have more participation at some schools than others,” said Richard Barrera, vice president of San Diego Unified’s board of trustees. “Our goal is that all of the students that are eligible for Phase 1 should be able to come on and get the services and get the instruction they need.”

This week the district announced details for Phase 2 of reopening, in which elementary school students would be on campus four days a week and middle and high school students would be on campuses twice a week. Barrera said the district leadership is working with state and local governments to develop a plan for regular asymptomatic testing for students and staff.

“Being able to regularly test, let’s say every two weeks, all of our adults and our students whether or not they’re symptomatic is a critical piece of not only getting open but staying open,” he said.

Barrera said the district will not be able to move to Phase 2 if the county enters the more restrictive purple tier of COVID-19 spread. The district has not yet set a date for starting Phase 2.

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Joe Hong
Education Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an education reporter, I'm always looking for stories about learning. My favorite education stories put a student's face on bigger policy issues. I regularly sift through enrollment data, test scores and school budgets, but telling student-centered stories is my top priority.

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