San Diego Unified cautiously looks to Jan. 4 to expand in-person learning

SAN DIEGO (KUSI) – Citing ballooning COVID-19 rates and multiple cases of the illness among students in other school districts, leaders of the San Diego Unified School District announced Tuesday they are cautiously looking to Jan. 4 for a major expansion of in-person learning — depending on the course of the pandemic.

Speaking Tuesday at Gage Elementary School, the SDUSD officials said safety measures put in place over the summer have so far prevented any documented cases of COVID-19 transmission on the campuses that have reopened on a limited basis.

“Safety has been our strategy from the start,” said SDUSD Superintendent Cindy Marten. “The safety precautions put in place at schools like Gage and elsewhere appear to be working. So far, we have had zero documented outbreaks of COVID-19 and zero documented cases of transmission on campus, as determined by the County Office of Public Health. Exactly two weeks into Phase 1, we are encouraged.”

On Oct. 13, SDUSD entered Phase 1 of its four-tier reopening plan. The district invited back some elementary school students “who have been uniquely identified by their teachers as experiencing learning loss” for limited in-person appointments. Participation has been voluntary, by invite only and students who participate in the sessions continue to receive online learning.

Since that time, there have been about 4,000 appointments for in-person learning across 106 schools within the state’s second-largest school district, according to SDUSD officials.

The next phases would continue to be rolled out gradually, Marten said. Schools will continue increasing the number of appointments in the weeks ahead, with the goal of soon providing time slots for secondary and pre-K students.

Board of Education President John Lee Evans said the district hopes to implement on-campus learning with large numbers of elementary school students coming onto campuses following winter break on Jan. 4, but he and other district leaders expressed concern over worsening COVID-19 conditions in the county.

“We are concerned by the continued spread of the virus in San Diego County but encouraged by the work of our educators and other employees to keep students safe at this difficult time,” Evans said. “Therefore, I believe it is important that we continue working towards a January start for Phase 2, even as we continue to monitor public health conditions and adjust. We will not hesitate to make any changes in this plan we deem necessary for the health and safety of our students, staff and community.”

Under Phase 2, pre-K through fifth-grade students would return to campus four days a week, split into two cohorts for either an a.m. or p.m. session in order to rotate children through classrooms with minimal opportunity to spread illness. Fridays would be set aside for “live” online check-ins and independent learning.

Similar to the first phase, Phase 2 would then grow to include middle and high school students, on Jan. 25, to coincide with the start of the third quarter. Evans said the timing was chosen to minimize any disruption academically. The older students would return to campus two days a week, with one cohort attending Monday and Tuesday and the second attending Wednesday and Thursday. Fridays would be set aside for online learning for all students. According to the district plan, classes will follow a typical bell schedule.

San Diego Unified has spent more than $45 million already in attempts to reopen, including more than $11 million on personal protective equipment alone, officials said. Since the start of the coronavirus crisis in March, the district has passed out more than 6 million free student meals and distributed over 85,000 Chromebooks.

Board Vice President Richard Barrera expressed concern over the high number of community outbreaks in San Diego County and said the county could move into the state-designated purple tier, which is the most restrictive. Barrera said one of the reasons the district chose to begin with small group instruction based on set appointments is precise because the model could continue even in the purple tier.

“We understand students and parents need stability at this time,” Barrera said. “That is why we have worked so hard to create sustainable models that will allow us to continue operating through difficult times.

“Ultimately, all large school districts like San Diego Unified will need a robust COVID-19 testing system in place to be able to continue operating safely, and we are working hard with community partners to make that goal a reality,” he said.

Categories: Coronavirus, Health, Local San Diego News