Escondido, CA

Opening delayed to Aug. 25 ‘Contingency’ use of virtual learning forced for launch of new school year

Last week, the Escondido Union School District board approved the use of distance learning primarily as a “contingency.” But it will now be required to use the virtual online approach at least for the first weeks of the new elementary school year.

The day after the board’s meeting on July 16, use of the contingency option – rather than some hybrid model with some face-to-face learning – was mandated by California Governor Gavin Newsom, who said that any counties not meeting minimum numbers of COVID-19 infections will be placed on a “watch list” and thus must use the online approach only. 

San Diego County is one of 32 counties on the watch list, and any county wishing to move to face-to-face learning must be removed from the list for two consecutive weeks to do so. To begin in-school instruction, a county’s virus rate has to be below 100 per 100,000; San Diego County’s rate as of last week was 147.2 per 100,000.

At the board meeting, trustees spent nearly an hour debating the administration’s proposed hybrid teaching models (a face-to-face/virtual combination), then went on to move school start from August 11 to August 25; it then approved the distance learning approach as a “contingency.”

The delay of school opening is intended to provide teachers more time to adapt to whatever approach is ultimately decided. And the board members said after another four weeks — to September 25 — they will then consider any change in circumstances and the possibility of moving to a hybrid model. But one board member noted the potential difficulties for teachers to quickly transition from distance learning to a hybrid approach.

Before voting on any plans, written comments from nearly 20 teachers and residents were read to the board, a large majority of these favoring the online approach because questioning the ability to keep students, teachers, and staff (along with their families) protected from the virus face-to-face.  

Most vocal in criticizing in-person instruction was Romero Maratea, president of the Escondido Elementary Educators Association (EEEA), who said that opening schools offered the possibility of creating viral “clusters.” 

Given the possibility of viral spread he called face-to-face instruction “borderline criminal.” Fearing the worst, some teachers, “are preparing their wills,” he said. “Nobody wants open schools more than us, but mistakes will cost real people their lives.”  

Gordon Walker, bargaining chair for the EEEA encouraged the board to make a clear decision at the meeting in order to allow for sufficient planning time. And in a phone conversation after the meeting, he said he thought the board had done a good job involving teachers and all other stakeholders in developing their plans. 

At least three of the comments to the board were critical of distance learning. One parent of a child with special needs said face-to-face learning had benefited her daughter’s development and that she would likely regress without personal contact with teachers. Others cited the difficulties, by children, parents and teachers, of using online technology successfully.

However, one resident noted that the board was holding its meeting virtually – via Zoom, with more than 600 people tuned in. 

At last week’s meeting board members spent about 45 minutes debating the hybrid models proposed by staff. They then approved, for grades K through 5, a model for four half-days on campus and one day of remote learning; and for grades 6 through 8, two full days on campus and three days of remote learning. If schools are eventually able to use these models, families will also be offered the alternative of total distance learning only for their children.

Board members emphasized that for parents to do their own planning, they need to be clearly informed about the plans for the new school year. But they also noted the unpredictability of changing circumstances – in regulatory guidelines and the possible variations in viral infection.

With the district having to use distance learning in one form or another, it will issue an iPad to every student and purchase 4,500 hotspots for those families that do not have their own internet connection. 

Joan Gardner, president of the board, said that the district has been doing “a lot of professional development,” primarily with work by a “design committee.” She said this will involve more training for teachers and students concerning use of computer technology, and even individual instruction with parents who made need it.

She said the virtual learning is not ideal, especially a problem for kids at the youngest ages. “It is what it is,” she said, “but we have a plan.”

The board’s decisions mirrored those made by the Escondido High School District earlier in the week (also before the governor’s distance learning mandate):  delaying the school year start and the approval of hybrid systems of instruction but also the option of independent virtual instruction for the first six weeks of school. High school board members also heard from several teachers who said they feared the health risks of in-person instruction.

Several private religious elementary schools in Escondido had told the Times-Advocate that they were going to provide face-to-face instruction — and were eager to do so. Some also reported receiving more than the usual enquiries from parents concerning enrollment of their children. But Newsom said that is distance learning mandate applied to both private and public schools.

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