What classrooms look like if schools are allowed to reopen in the fall is yet to be determined due to the unpredictability of the novel coronavirus, but officials like those at the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District are in the planning stages to get students safely back onto campuses.
At a town hall on July 1 hosted by the school district, Superintendent Alex Cherniss said in absence of a traditional school model of teaching with all of the students in the classroom, they are developing a “hybrid” model, which would be approximately 50% instruction on campus and 50% remote learning.
“You achieve the social distancing requirements as well as the on-campus instruction,” said Cherniss of the hybrid approach.
And Cherniss added the school district will have to strictly follow future county or state health orders before opening campuses to their 11,000-plus students.
“(We) anticipate that the health order to be face coverings or masks on all employees and kids and social distancing, which will require us to space kids to have a hybrid model,” Cherniss said.
Cherniss said parents will have an option of choosing a hybrid model or solely remote learning. He said within the next two or three weeks the school district will reach out to families with details on the options. Families will have until late July or early August to make a decision.
“I understand the need to want to make plans now, but we also have time on our side,” Cherniss said. “Things are continually changing, so we wouldn't want our families to be pigeonholed into an option when things change and look different.”
Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services, Linsey Gotanda, said they want students involved as much as possible, safely based on health guidelines. This includes clubs and other campus groups and activities as well as sports.
Gotanda added that support for students with disabilities as well as mental health support for students, with counselors, psychologists and therapists available, is a priority.
“Whether that is in a hybrid model or in an online model, we want to make sure that we're engaging with our students,” Gotanda said.
Some in the community are worried with students back in school, children could spread the coronavirus. But, that's not what the research shows, said Abigail Fletcher, program director for Family Medicine, Graduate Medical Education at Long Beach Medical Center.
Fletcher said the virus affects children differently than adults with the infection rate much lower in children. Symptoms in children are milder if they have any at all, she said. Fletcher is part of a committee of healthcare professionals focusing on screening and containment of the virus.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics just put out a very strong statement, recommending that we do everything we can to get kids back to school, because the negative consequences of mental health issues, academic issues, social isolation, not having them in school outweighs the risk of COVID in this patient population,” Fletcher said.
Clayton Kazan, the medical director for the Los Angeles County Fire Department who is also on the healthcare committee, said “zero cases is impossible” when it comes to the virus.
“We have roughly 4 to 5% of the community has already developed antibodies, which means 95% of us are still susceptible,” Kazan said. “So this is something that's going to be with us for quite a while.”
Kazan added, “What we are doing is really a strategy around containing and trying to mitigate as best we can to contain any large spikes or large outbreaks within any small community, the same as we do in fire stations.”
District nurse Kathy Barry said it was imperative to keep sick children home.
“We send kids home all the time that their parents have sent them to school knowing that they're sick, to take a test, or to finish a project or to do something that they feel really is mandatory when they unfortunately are infecting lots of people,” Barry said.
Enforcing face coverings for staff and students, disinfecting surfaces throughout the day and social distancing in classrooms and playgrounds are some of the guidelines from the Center of Disease Control and discussed in “Stronger Together: A Guidebook for the Safe Reopening of California’s Public Schools” that was released by the California Department of Education last month.
In a May letter, Cherniss and other superintendents, from Hermosa Beach to Beverly Hills, sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom stating some school guidelines were impractical or difficult to enforce including social distancing six-feet apart and requiring face coverings.
Cherniss said face coverings will become mandatory in the next health order from the Los Angeles Department of Public Heath, but there will be exemptions for medical reasons.
“We've heard from parents who have said, ‘Can we sign a waiver? We want our kids to come to school every day. We want it to be traditional, we don't want to have them wear masks.’” Cherniss said. “I have been an advocate for flexibility around that with little kids particularly.”
Cherniss added there will be disciplinary action for students who do not wear masks, as with any rule violation, excepting those with a medical condition.
“Keeping masks on, that's gonna be a real challenge,” Cherniss said. “We're going to need help from all our staff because we can't watch everyone.”
Cherniss added, “We’ve already talked with our medical professionals about ways to start conversation with families, and it's going to be an education process.”
Gotanda said parents have been concerned about learning gaps during the spring semester, but she said the school district will be more ready for the fall semester.
The students will be required daily attendance, the school district will implement standards-based teaching, and students and teachers will have scheduled interaction. Diagnostic testing will be performed to pinpoint any achievement gaps.
“There will be much more structure to the student’s day whether they are online or in a hybrid situation,” Gotanda said.