Peninsula High stock

Peninsula High School (File photo by Lisa Jacobs)

Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District will try to bring all of its students, including those in intermediate and high school, back to campus by April 12, its top education official has said.

Superintendent Alex Cherniss, who has openly pushed for the state to return students to campus much faster than allowed under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus reopening plan, made the announcement in a Friday, Feb. 19, newsletter emailed to parents.

Under the district’s reopening plan, intermediate and high school students would return to campuses for half days Monday to Friday and then go home for virtual learning. Each level at the district would have some degree of hybrid learning.

“Today is a milestone for our district’s kids who now have hope that they didn’t have before,” Cherniss said in a phone interview. “They’ll be able to come back to school to learn, to see their friends, to see their teachers.”

Whether older students will return by April, however, is largely out of the district’s hands.

Los Angeles County officials this week announced that students in grades six and below could return to campus, if local districts get their reopening plans approved by both the county and the state. That’s because the county’s adjusted coronavirus case rate has fallen below 25 per 100,000 people.

But those in grades 7 to 12 cannot return to campuses until the county moves from the most-restrictive purple tier to the second most-restrictive red tier. To do so, LA County must have both a new daily case rate of 7 or fewer per 100,000 people and a positive testing rate of 8% or lower.

Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified has brought its youngest students back to campuses earlier this month, with those in transitional kindergarten through second grade learning partly in-person four days a week. Those students are under a hybrid learning system, with some of their education still occurring online.

Students in grades 3 to 6, Cherniss said, will be phased onto campuses through March 15.

The reasons the district set April 12 as the target for all students to be back on campus, Cherniss said, include declining coronavirus case rates, the California Department of Public Health making it easier for outdoor high-contact sports to resume, and the county looking to begin teacher vaccinations on March 1. Cherniss’s district is not the only one for which vaccinations are critical to reopening. Long Beach Unified announced earlier this week that students in grades five and below will return to school at the end of March, a delay from the initial March 1 goal that’s intended to give all teachers a chance to become fully vaccinated; LBUSD also set April 26 as the target for when all of its students could return to campus.

“The more we can vaccinate,” Cherniss said, “the more comfortable the teachers will feel.”

Patti Petrucci, president of the Palos Verdes Faculty Association, agreed.

There’s been an outcry from teachers in the district, she said, demanding access to the vaccine.

“It became real when they announced (the April 12 date) and that was reality for many of our members today,” said Petrucci, a special education teacher at Ridgecrest Intermediate School, who’s been head of the teachers union since September.

So far, the superintendent said, healthcare employees within the district have been vaccinated and teachers who are at least 65 years old have had at least their first shot of the vaccine.

Cherniss said he’s heard from many happy parents and students since making the announcement on Friday, Feb. 19. Many teenagers, he added, have been hit hard by the isolation of the pandemic.

“Hopelessness, fear and anxiety are magnified in this environment,” Cherniss said. “The reality for us is the best thing we can do to help many, many of these kids is to return to in-class learning.”

While most parents — 80%, according to a district survey — want students back in classrooms, some remain uncomfortable with the prospect. About 20% of families and 25% of teachers, Cherniss said, have opted to stick with distance learning for the remainder of the school year.

Teachers, Petrucci said, are excited about going back to the classroom, but there are challenges.

“We’ve been back and forth and in and out, so it’s quite the roller coaster this year,” Petrucci said.

The special education and TK-2 cohorts who are on campus were better prepared because they had time to make the transition, she said.

Still, Petrucci said she hoped students would realize being back on campus is a privilege and that they take the coronavirus guidelines seriously.

“It’s going to take a lot of planning on the district’s part,” Petrucci said.

The district, though, has spent $1 to $2 million in federal stimulus money on coronavirus mitigation measures, Cherniss said, and schools will have to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing protocols.

“I’m confident that the procedures and protocols we have in place will keep everyone safe,” he said. “If you’re wearing your mask and doing the spacing, you’ll be fine.”

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