Del Mar district sees first positive COVID-19 cases since reopening schools

Del Mar Union School District administration offices.
(Karen Billing)

Since returning to in-person instruction on Sept. 8, the Del Mar Union School District has confirmed five positive cases of COVID-19. There were two cases at Sage Canyon School, one at Torrey Hills, one at Del Mar Hills Academy and one at Sycamore Ridge School. All cases were students.

According to Jennifer Huh, director of student services, due to the district’s reopening protocols in place they were able to immediately notify students and staff members who were impacted about possible exposure and “seamlessly” begin remote learning for the impacted cohorts. The district’s nursing team also followed up with the county and the individuals who were positive, as well as others in the cohorts, to assist in contact tracing.

“The individuals are all doing well. None of the cases are related to one another or connected and we haven’t had any other evidence of transmission at our schools or in the impacted cohorts,” Huh said. “We had a plan in place, we were prepared and both the schools and our response team did a fantastic job.”

The district has now created a COVID-19 dashboard on its website that will provide a count of active cases for the community at dmusd.org/domain/1304

Along with neighboring Rancho Santa Fe School District, Del Mar is the only district in the county that is open for full time, five days a week in-person instruction. Other districts have reopened in a hybrid model or have remained entirely in distance learning. DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg said that the district determined early on that children need to be in school and began planning for a safe reopening with determination, parent and teacher input, and a strong focus on the needs of kids.

At the board’s Sept. 23 meeting, Assistant Superintendent Shelley Petersen commended the entire staff for being committed to reopening schools and to being at work, never having a mindset of “if we come back” but rather “how we come back.”

“I can’t overstate the drive of teachers to ensure that we successfully started this school year,” Petersen said. “They have been a voice for our children because they know that children need to learn and in order to do that they need to have skilled teachers and they need to be in school.”

Tapping into their reserves, the district spent an additional $4.4 million in preparing for this school year—the district received about $2.5 million in federal and state COVID-19 emergency response and learning loss mitigation funds.

They hired additional teachers and custodial staff, purchased personal protective equipment, plexiglass barriers, hand sanitizing stations, contactless thermometers, hand washing stations, the highest quality air filters, tents for outdoor learning, and technology hardware and software to support Launch technology.

Students on campus are following new routines such as wearing face masks and keeping their distance—kindergartners sing a handwashing song during a hygiene break.

“These first few weeks of in-person learning have been marked with incredible success and I will tell you, joy-filled schools,” said McClurg. “It has renewed my spirit in a way you can probably imagine because we all know how important it is to have children in our schools.”

“I believe that all children should have the opportunity to be in school. Not only in Del Mar,” McClurg continued. “We need to advocate for all school-aged children to have the chance to attend school in person now. It cannot be overstated how important it is for all school-aged children, in every district, to be in school.”

DMUSD Trustee Scott Wooden echoed that sentiment in his board comments, encouraging other districts in the county and state to safely reopen: “Any district can do it if you put the time and the effort in it. I think having the choice between online programs and in-person programs is great for any district.”

While Petersen said the district has heard positive feedback about Launch being an “outstanding” online option for students at home, about a month into the distance learning program there are some parents who still see the need for improvements. Last week, the district received a letter signed by 58 Launch parents regarding their concerns about equity, sufficiency of resources and larger class sizes.

During public comment, Julie Reynolds, a parent of a fifth-grade Launch student, said her child’s “extremely large” class makes one-on-one time with the teacher minimal or nonexistent, which makes differentiated instruction “impossible.” Reynolds said she doesn’t blame the teachers, who are doing best they can under difficult circumstances, but she believes teachers need more support from the district.

“I’m delighted to hear that on-site kids are enjoying a morale boost and that joy is filling the schools,” Reynolds said. “What seems to be overlooked in all the congratulatory talk is the only reason the district has been able to resume on-site learning is because so many of us opted for Launch.”

Carmel Del Mar Launch parent Ruby Evans had a similar concern about the large class sizes, sharing that her daughter is struggling in multiple subjects. As her daughter’s learning coach, she is trying to help her work through some of the problems but there is some parts of the math curriculum she just can’t teach. She asked the district to provide more small group instruction and additional resources for fifth and sixth grades. Library media specialists were added to provide additional support for K-4 students but not the upper grades.

DMUSD Associate Superintendent Jason Romero said Launch classes, like in-person school, are being staffed at a maximum class size of 28 students. When they have gone over, it was done in an effort to keep cohorts and school groups together. Romero said there are some upper grade cohorts of 30 but most are at 28 or below, including some at 21 students. Now that the school year has started, Romero said classes will not go over 28 students.

“Class sizes do mimic what we have seen in a traditional school year,” Romero said.

In his public comments, parent Adam Fischer disputed that fact and stated that Launch class sizes are one to two students higher than previous years.

Tamara Wells, the Carmel Del Mar PTA president, said parents want to collaborate with the district to help come up with solutions, recommending the creation of Launch parent group —Reynolds agreed, stating that Launch parents need an organized way to bring concerns to the district.

“This is becoming an increasingly desperate plea to be heard and responded to with compassion and a drive to resolve problems,” Wells said.

DMUSD Clerk Gee Wah Mok said that while he has seen his kindergarten son’s Launch teacher find opportunities to work individually with students, he sympathizes with the Launch parents who have expressed concerns—he asked if there were ways to break up the larger upper grade classes to make them feel a bit smaller.

Petersen said the district is working on utilizing break-out rooms more, getting volunteers to help facilitate learning and thinking about how to provide opportunities for smaller groups of children to work with the teacher throughout the school day. She said the district is also looking at Launch teacher schedules to find time where they could support a colleague with instruction in the virtual classrooms.

Halpern and Mok liked the idea of Launch parent advisory council and Petersen said the district is working in that direction as they look to get more Launch parent volunteers and create room parents and PTA liaisons to home school sites.

The district has also surveyed Launch teachers about their individual needs and has worked to make adjustments to provide resources that will help the program be more successful. Petersen said teachers have expressed needs for more professional learning around the technology and digital platforms as well as the need for more equipment. All teachers have laptops but the district has ordered a large monitor and desktop computer for every Launch teacher along with things like iPad stands, additional iPads and Apple Pencils. The desktop monitors allow teachers to see up to 49 people in a teleconference.


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