As school year ends, Del Mar district plans for fall reopening

The exterior of the Del Mar Union School District office building.
The exterior of the Del Mar Union School District office building.

(Karen Billing)

The Del Mar Union School District is preparing to potentially reopen schools on Aug. 24, planning ways to modify its daily operations to ensure the health of students and staff.

“I will state it very loudly and clearly that we are striving to go back full-time with regular schedules at the earliest opportunity,” DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg said at the board’s virtual board meeting on May 27.

According to McClurg, the district continues to work with the San Diego County Office of Education and local department of public health to prepare a flexible plan for reopening school. She said that there are still a lot of unknowns as they do not yet have the state guidelines for what will be required for schools to reopen but as much as possible they want to involve parents in the planning.

Already they have sent out a parent survey asking their preference for the 2020-21 school year between a traditional school or a distance learning experience. Sixty percent of the over 2,000 respondents said they would prefer in-person school. As a lot can change between now and Aug. 24, McClurg said they plan to survey parents again this summer.

In anticipation of schools opening, the district has begun ordering face coverings and gloves, no-touch thermometers and is conducting facilities preparations such as daily cleaning and sanitizing schedules, and the addition of hand sanitizer foam dispensers in high-traffic areas. They have deep-cleaned classrooms and bathrooms, replaced HVAC filters and added temporary plexiglass barriers in the front offices.

Shelley Petersen, assistant superintendent of educational services, said they will be looking at staff training as well as utilizing outdoor learning areas. She said she does not anticipate students sitting in hula hoops to practice physical distancing.

“The goal is to make the return to school as normal as possible,” Petersen said.

The district is also planning for a dual model and temporary year-long distance learning for families to opt into this fall.

At the meeting, parent Eduardo Dunayevich expressed his concerns about the challenges faced over the last 10 weeks of distance learning, noting that students have been limited to about two hours of live weekly engagement with the vast majority of work occurring offline as homework.

“Elementary school children are poor candidates for learning based on homework. Barring a change in approach, our children will either continue to lose academic ground or parents will need to fill the gaps as best as they can,” Dunayevich said, noting parents may need to consider long-term tutoring or even applying to private schools.

Dunayevich said he appreciated the district’s recent survey and stressed that collaboration with parents will be needed to help shape the approach moving forward.

As McClurg and Petersen have stated, the current distance learning program was an emergency —their schools are designed to be interactive with person-to-person instruction and immediate feedback to learners. Petersen said typically the district plans for programs that are research-based and intentional such as their Spanish immersion program that will start this fall with kindergarten classes at Ashley Falls and Del Mar Hills.

Looking ahead to the fall, the district is planning for a more robust, research-based online learning program that will be significantly different than what was offered during the school closure. It will include regularly scheduled instruction at periods throughout the day and in-person contact for teachers to meet with students for assessments or small group instruction.

Petersen said with distance learning, it has been a bit like building the plane as they fly it.

“In our district, we talk about a personalized education and we talk about transforming what education looks like for children. I do think this presents us with an extraordinary opportunity to really act on that for some children and some families,” Petersen said. “What we develop might be an option where some families and children can really thrive.”

At the board’s June 24 meeting, they will approve their budget for the 2020-21 school year. There are still some unknowns in regard to state funding and economic uncertainty due to the impact of COVID-19 but at the first read of the budget on May 27, the district is projecting a balanced budget that includes the reduction of two general education teachers due to a decline in enrollment and the reduction of 3.6 STEAM + teachers due to estimated fundraising from the Del Mar Schools Education Foundation (DMSEF).

Due to the pandemic, the DMSEF was only able to host three of its eight school jogathon fundraisers to assist in funding specialists in science, engineering, technology, art , music and PE. DMUSD board member Scott Wooden expressed his desire to keep as much of the STEAM + program intact as possible and proposed dipping into their $15 million reserves for one year to help supplement the program.

A call for civility
At the beginning of the May 27 meeting, DMUSD President Erica Halpern made a statement regarding some heated exchanges and personal threats during public comment in recent board meetings and addressed requests made of the board to intervene.

“Intervening in public comment raises first amendment issues,” Halpern said. “The first amendment protects speech that some people would find objectionable and board members are not allowed to decide what is acceptable and what is not.”

While the board may not be able to intervene, Halpern said she would like to encourage people to choose to practice civility. She stated that the board is committed to public input and engagement and while public comment is technically limited to 20 minutes on any topic, the board has consistently agreed to allow each member of the public to speak for the full three minutes.

Halpern said the board values both free speech and “constructive public debate.”

“Passions run high because so many people care deeply about our kids, our schools and our community. I’m grateful that is the case and I appreciate that there can be many different opinions on any one issue,” Halpern said. “I’ve said many times that these varied opinions tend to lead to better results.”