Del Mar, Solana Beach districts prep for full reopening of schools

Students in DMUSD's summer camp.

The Del Mar Union and Solana Beach School Districts are refining two instructional models as they plan to reopen schools this fall under state and county guidelines: a full 5 days a week on-site learning and a more structured learning distance learning model online.

SBSD’s reopening plans are guided by bringing back as many students as possible as many days as possible, maximizing teaching and learning and providing for the social and emotional needs of students, families and staff.

A recent survey of 1,861 district families showed that 63% preferred an on-site learning model, 22.9% a hybrid model and 14% selected remote learning as their first choice. The most support for on-site model was at Solana Vista and Skyline Schools with 71 and 69% respectively. Only 55% of families at Solana Ranch preferred the on-site model.

The most support for a hybrid model was the 26 percent at Solana Pacific and the highest percent for remote learning was 20% at Solana Ranch.

Sixty-two percent of certificated teachers surveyed preferred the on-site model.

SBSD expects to send communication to families about the learning models the week of July 13 and ask parents to commit to a model by July 24 so they can finalize staffing.

Returning to school will mean the district, like all others, must follow the state and county guidance on the “big four”: face coverings, physical distancing, cleaning and sanitization and screening practices like temperature checks. Those guidelines continue to evolve, including those regarding masks.

“I do believe there is going to be a natural grieving process that we are going to go through regarding school looking different next year,” said SBSD Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger. “We need to give others and ourselves grace, we need to respect each other and we need to help each other move forward with what I’m calling this new reality.”

“We all want to reopen schools and we all want schools to get as many kids back as possible, however, we have been challenged and honestly frustrated by how the guidance continues to change.”

With SBSD’s on-site model, students would be placed in cohorts to minimize the exposure to other students and they will adhere to the latest distancing and face-covering guidelines. Most of the district classrooms have the possibility for 19 to 21 students with physical distancing—kindergarten and larger classrooms can possibly fit 23 to 24. There will be staggered lunches, recesses, arrival and departure times.

Lauren Hay, a Solana Santa Fe parent, shared her concerns with the board about bringing children back five days a week in full classrooms.

“We’re exhausted from the stress of the pandemic and juggling our careers and remote learning. While we’re all eager to put the pandemic behind us, in San Diego we’re seeing record case numbers and percent positive cases and an alarming number of outbreaks The expectation from county health officials is that incidents will only increase this summer,” Hay said. “Just because we dream of our kids being back at school and life going back to normal does not mean it’s best for our children, families, teachers and community.”

“I struggle to understand why we’re diving headfirst into the most risky option rather than taking a measured approach beginning with a hybrid option this fall,” Hay said.

DMUSD plans include new Launch distance learning program

In Del Mar Union School District’s survey of parents in June, 90 percent preferred in-person learning and 10 percent distance learning. Families will be expected to make their final choice by the first week of August.

Del Mar said they are committed to reopening schools that are safe, responsive and student-centered, focusing on a full return to school rather than any hybrid model.

“As we work through these huge issues I know that people are not always going to be in agreement with every decision and every next step but I want this community to know that there is an unwavering commitment to always working together, listening to each other and making decisions based on the best information we have,” DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg said. “There’s a lot that’s consuming our thinking, we’ve got a lot that people are worried about. As a district staff and whole governance team, we put our hearts and souls every day into this work and it’s because we love our kids, we love every one of our schools and we love our community.”

According to DMUSD Assistant Superintendent Jason Romero, DMUSD is looking at declining enrollment districtwide which presents an opportunity for increased space on campus and more physical distancing in classrooms.
The district is interested in having teachers participate in thinking about what classrooms will look like in the fall and how best to safely engage with students in that new environment.

Del Mar is currently running a summer camp at Sycamore Ridge School that they will use as a model for reopening schools. They have 87 campers on the campus and have been successfully keeping the students in small cohorts and cleaning and sanitizing spaces in between use. Teachers are wearing masks and students are wearing masks when they are within six feet of each other.

DMUSD President Erica Halpern questioned whether it was reasonable to expect that kids would stay six feet apart at all times in the classroom.

“We have given so much thought to this as far as what keeps them healthy and safe all around,” said DMUSD Assistant Superintendent Shelley Petersen.

Petersen said the schools will keep small cohorts of students together to minimize the risk of exposure while using all of the health and safety measures but they will never be able to completely eliminate risk. They also do not want the impact of social distancing to be so negative that it would counter the healthy social development of children.

“It still needs to be a place where children are children,” McClurg said.

The classroom needs to be an environment where children can engage with each other and not be fearful if their face covering slips down, Petersen said. “It really changes the dynamic when a teacher goes from leading the learning in the classroom to policing space and face coverings. That really isn’t a healthy environment for children to return to,” Petersen said.

Del Mar’s new distance learning program is named Launch and it will be a “robust” and comprehensive program with a consistent online school day. Parents will be required to commit to Launch for one year and it will not be affiliated with any physical school. There will be daily online live instruction as well as asynchronous instruction— in-person support and assessments will be scheduled according to individual student needs.

So far, approximately 400 families have confirmed their preference for distance learning, which will require 16 Launch teachers.

Concerns about Heights student housing during COVID-19
During the one-year rebuild of Del Mar Heights, students will be split between satellite campuses on the Del Mar Hills Academy and Ocean Air campuses. At the June 24 meeting, Del Mar Hills parent Laurie Glezer said while she was in support of the Heights rebuild and welcoming their kids, she questioned whether it was the right thing to do to demolish the school and increase the Hills campus’ size during a pandemic.

“One thing I think we’ve all learned is that things are always changing and we have no idea what’s in store for us,” Glezer said. “In light of that, I think it’s best to keep all of the options open and one of those options is the continued use of space at Del Mar Heights. At the very least any decision to demolish existing structures should wait until the district has the final numbers of on-site versus distance learning.”

Over the last two meetings, several parents referenced a petition that is circulating online against housing Heights students at Del Mar Hills, a petition Heights parent Sandip Patel denounced as “mean-spirited.”

“Given the current pending litigation and vociferous opposition of rebuilding the Heights, I think that this petition is divisive,” agreed Heights parent Ethan Franke. “I would propose that we instead focus on community problem-solving based on data and not fear.”

For the temporary re-location of Heights students, four portables will be placed at the Hills on the edge of the blacktop, resulting in an increase of classroom space of 3,840 square feet. The district will also increase sinks available outside of the restroom and lunch areas for hand-washing.

The total combined enrollment at Del Mar Hills is expected to be 426 students, which does not take into account those who opt for the Launch program. There were 267 students at the Hills this school year.

DMUSD Executive Director of Capital Programs Chris Delehanty said he believes there will be space to spread students out—the increased building size of Del Mar Hills is beyond the size of Carmel Del Mar, which housed 580 students this school year.

At Ocean Air, the district will add one portable building, adding 960 square feet of classroom space and there will also be an increase of sinks outside of the restrooms and lunch areas. The total Ocean Air and Heights enrollment will be 779 students. There were 613 students at Ocean Air in the 2019-20 school year.

“I’m going to trust the district that they’re doing everything they can to protect our kiddos,” said Del Mar Heights parent Arzo Nazeri. “ I don’t want our Heights kids in what’s already going to be a strange school year hearing any unwelcoming whispers or feeling that they’re not welcome somewhere. That’s something that I wouldn’t wish on any child.”

Delehanty reported that the district is still going through the process of securing a coastal development permit for the Del Mar Heights rebuild and the state has taken some interest—demolition of the campus may be delayed until the end of July.