Del Mar Schools to reopen next week

Tents for outdoor learning on the Sycamore Ridge campus.
(Courtesy)

Parents share concerns about distance learning program

The Del Mar Union School District will welcome students back to campuses on Sept. 8, with all students and teachers in face masks, practicing physical distancing and exploring new adventures in outdoor learning. There are about 50 white tents set up at each school site in the district; a pending donation from One Paseo will help the district fund additional chairs for outdoor use.

The new school year officially started on Aug. 24 with all students in the distance learning model, including three kindergarten classes in Del Mar’s new Spanish immersion program. At the Aug. 26 board meeting, DMUSD Trustee Scott Wooden thanked the staff for doing everything they could to open schools safely and get students back in the classroom. He also applauded the Launch program, which he believes will be the best online program in the county and state for those families who want it.

DMUSD Board President Erica Halpern shared some of her experiences of starting the school year with three kids going to three different schools, without leaving the house.

“We have been muddling through videos, instructions and web links and a ton of communication and it’s a lot. Some of the most competent and impressive parents that I know have told me that they’re just overwhelmed with getting their kids ready to go back to school,” Halpern said.

Despite a hard first day full of technology glitches and Wi-Fi interruptions, she said her child already loved her teacher and was engaged with learning. “That is possible because our teachers have so much talent and warmth and it just comes right through a computer screen,” Halpern said. “And it’s possible because we’ve had hundreds of staff members across the district just throw themselves into this totally unreasonable situation, determined to make it all work.”

Sixty-five percent of the district, or 2,461 students, have selected to return for in-person school. A total of 1,305 students have opted into the district’s distance learning program, called Launch.

When students return on Tuesday, Sept. 8, masks will be required for all students and they will be kept in stable cohorts that don’t co-mingle, with staggered recess, lunch and dismissal times. Staff will also not be allowed to congregate.

Parents will be asked to perform symptom checks at home but the schools will perform temperature checks of all students upon entering the classroom, although it is not required.

Due to the pandemic, the district has seen an additional $4.4 million in expenditures in preparing for the school year. Del Mar received about $2.5 million in federal and state COVID-19 emergency response and learning loss mitigation funds.

The district has purchased personal protective equipment, plexiglass barriers, hand sanitizing stations, disinfectant equipment, contactless thermometers and floor stickers that promote 6 feet of distance. For facilities, $460,000 has been spent on permanent hand washing stations, the highest quality air filters, tents and umbrellas for outdoor learning and an additional bus to transport Del Mar Heights students to Ocean Air with physical distancing. A total of $507,000 went toward technology hardware such as Launch teacher monitors, Chromebooks, Apple pencils, student headphones, iPads and more; $201,000 was spent on software to support distance learning.

An additional $3.6 million has been spent on staffing this year including dedicated Launch administrators, seven additional custodial staff, 20 additional teachers than what was budgeted for, library media specialists to support Launch and psychologist interns. Due to the state and federal funding and savings recognized from the school closure in spring, the district is estimating a $1.3 million reduction from the district’s reserves, which are anticipated to remain at a level of 18-20%

“We will use available resources to ensure the safety of students and staff and to provide a high quality educational program,” said Cathy Birks, assistant superintendent of business services. “The district has been steadfast with the right focus and the right priorities. We have invested in what is important and that is the district’s students and staff.”

Launch parents question large class sizes

Halpern said thousands of parents have been engaged in the district’s back to school effort, attending webinars, calling and sending emails, offering suggestions and constructive criticism—she said she believes the school year will be better because of all of the parent involvement.

“I hope for my kids this is going to teach them some lessons about adaptability, patience and grace and I hope I can learn those lessons too,” she said.

At the Aug. 26 meeting, several parents provided public comment about their concerns with the Launch distance learning program.

Ocean Air School parent Lisa Kradjian thanked the district for already making adjustments on issues that parents have felt very strongly about including minimizing combo classes, allowing students to change programs during the year if necessary and affiliating Launch kids with their home school.

“I know those are costly and Herculean tasks and it’s impossible to please everyone,” Kradjian said. “With the school year begun, there are new challenges that we’re all seeing.”

Launch parents shared continued concerns about equity as it relates to class sizes and an “unfair” allocation of STEAM + specialists. Ocean Air parent Adam Fischer said that Launch students are at a disadvantage as of the 32 STEAM + teachers in the district only 6.5, or 20%, are allocated to Launch, however, Launch has 35% of the district enrollment. He said an equitable share would be 11 teachers.

Jason Romero, assistant superintendent of human resources, said they are staffing Launch at 22:1 for K-3 and 28:1 for 4-6. For in-person instruction, the average class size is 16:1 for K-3 and 17.9:1 for 4th through sixth, which helps the schools meet the requirement for physical distancing. Romero said the district has staffed Launch classes higher in an effort to keep cohorts of friends together and to maintain the tie to their local schools.

Carmel Del Mar parent Ruby Evans shared her concerns that her daughter’s fifth grade Launch class has 29 students, which is above the district averages for the last four years. Despite the stated efforts to keep schools together, she said the CDM fifth graders are spread out over four different Launch classes. Evans said while her daughter’s teacher is “incredible,” she requested that the district keep class size averages consistent, which is how Launch was represented to parents.

During public comment, parent Loren Henry said there has been a lack of communication to Launch parents—he said the district set the expectations for the program and when they weren’t met, parents were left frustrated. Henry said parents are being told that the program will be the best in the state, however, teachers didn’t have all the tools available for the program available on day one.

“As parents if we had been aware of that situation, that they were delayed a couple of weeks, we could come into it with a different set of expectations,” Henry said.

Parent Jay Liu said Launch has exceeded his expectations in terms of quality but he and other parents would love to see more support for Launch teachers such as aids for larger classes, more training and additional equipment like bigger monitors to allow a teacher to view more than 25 students at a time, headsets or microphones that enhance distance learning: “Let’s work together so everyone can have success this year,” Liu said.

According to Romero, STEAM + specialists in science, technology, engineering, art, music and PE are fully staffed for both the on-site and Launch programs this year, even if their delivery will be a little different due to cohorting. He said STEAM + staffing is not done by enrollment but has always been done by class sections, offering, as an example, that a class of 19 students wouldn’t get any less or more STEAM time than a class of 30. He said that there is parity in the STEAM allocation, ensuring that all students no matter what instructional model they are in this year will receive the same number of minutes and experience.

At the Aug. 26 meeting, the district was still only three days into Launch and board members such as Halpern and Gee Wah Mok asked that they revisit the program in a month to see what adjustments may be needed. Trustee Katherine Fitzpatrick said rather than making class sizes smaller, the district has an opportunity to use their reserves to add supports such as more training, technology supplies or aids for the virtual classrooms.

“This is definitely the rainy day and so if we need to go into our reserves more to fund anything that we need throughout this time, we need to keep that at the forefront of our minds,” Fitzpatrick said. “I don’t think it can get any wetter than this rainy day.”


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