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San Diego County School Districts Detail Plans For Return To In-Person Learning

The San Marcos Senior Center was transformed into a learning hub for students...

Photo by Andi Dukleth

Above: The San Marcos Senior Center was transformed into a learning hub for students for distance learning. The program was created to help City of San Marcos employees return to work. Oct. 8, 2020.

Listen to this story by Joe Hong.

Ashley Lewis, a parent with two students at Ocean Beach Elementary, has spent the past year mourning the loss of the daily experience the school gave her family.

“In the past we would all gather together on the black top and listen to the morning announcements and all the parents would have their coffee and we would chat,” Lewis said of her pre-pandemic reality. “It was this real center of our community, and now we won’t have that.”

Video by Roland Lizarondo

That said, she and her kids are grateful for plans by the San Diego Unified School District to start part-time in-person instruction on April 12.

“It’s been more than a year, and I just can’t wait for them to get back,” Lewis said.

As things stand now, all San Diego Unified schools will offer three hours of in-person instruction per day and students will be on campus either two or four days each week. Elementary students will be able to stay on campus for another two hours each day to work independently. Middle and high schoolers can stay for one extra hour.

District officials say they are well prepared to welcome students back.

“Everybody will be wearing masks,” said Richard Barrera, president of the school board at San Diego Unified. “We’ve gone through and improved the ventilation in all of our classrooms which is maybe the most important strategy because we know COVID is an air-based virus.”

RELATED: San Diego Unified Expands In-Person Instruction With Learning Labs

How many days per week students can be on campus will depend on the physical distancing rules and on the number of students who want to return. Per the district’s agreement with the teachers union, students will be required to sit six feet apart. This is despite new guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week that allows for three feet of distancing in elementary classrooms.

As of now, the district is sticking to six feet, but it will drop the requirement to five feet if it would allow one or two additional students to join a classroom.

“Our biggest concern is safety,” said Kisha Borden, president of the district’s teachers union. “If a large number of students in a classroom want to return, those students would then be split into two groups and those students can come back two days a week. If there’s low numbers and the entire class can fit safely in a classroom, then they can come back four days.”

Lewis says the district should renegotiate its agreement with the teachers union to allow three feet of distancing, especially if it means students can be on campus four days a week.

“It’s very frustrating to me that they can’t reevaluate at this point and say, look the CDC says it’s safe,” Lewis said. “Why can’t we do three feet of spacing and let everybody come back who wants to come back four days a week?”

While their reopening timelines vary, the majority of school districts in the county have plans that are similar to those at San Diego Unified.

Chula Vista Elementary School District, the state’s largest K-6 district, is expecting about 60% of its students to come back for in-person instruction starting April 12. Students will be split into morning and afternoon cohorts, with each cohort on campus for two and a half hours each day.

RELATED: Pandemic Life: Students, Experts Reflect On A Year Of Online Education

“I would believe that as the situation continues to improve, more parents would want their kids to go in person,” said Chula Vista Superintendent Francisco Escobedo. “We’ll definitely try to be flexible as long as we have the capacity, we will definitely want the students in an in-person environment.”

Escobedo said teachers will try to focus on physical and social activities in the classroom to make up for a year of excessive screen time. As for the next school year, which starts in July, he’s hopeful that most students will be back on campus.

“I think there might be some families that will still want a distance learning component,” he said. “If the demand is there, we will set that up for them, but I would love to have as robust, in-person approach to education as possible.”

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Photo of Joe Hong

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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