Parents push back against Solana Beach Schools’ phased reopening

Solana Beach School District is developing plans to bring more students back more days.
(Karen Billing)

The Solana Beach School District continues to move toward its goal of bringing students back five days a week, planning to bring back K-3 students four days a week by December. While parents have applauded Solana Beach’s efforts to “Go slow, go small to go long,” implementing testing and safety protocols beyond other school districts in the county, some parents are now pleading for their kids to be in school for more days.

“It is difficult watching students in school districts literally across the street attend school five days a week,” said parent Laura Green of neighboring Del Mar Union School District at the board’s Oct. 8 virtual meeting.

Parents said online cannot compare to in-person school and they worry that students in the hybrid model are falling behind and are receiving a “subpar” education when neighboring schools are pushing forward with on-site five days a week. With SBSD students only at school two days a week, parents have said that their children are suffering from a lack of proper learning on the three days they are left to “fend for themselves online,” many of them regularly reduced to tears of frustration.

“We are harming our children’s growth and development by having them sit in front of a screen six hours a day, three days a week,” said parent Eric Hennings. “This is unacceptable.”

With direction from the board on Oct. 8, the district’s plan includes gradually increasing the return of students who receive special programming to a four-day a week model beginning this month. They are placing a priority on the district’s youngest students, planning to bring back kindergarteners and first graders four days a week beginning Nov. 9, followed by grades 2-3 on Dec. 7.

Staff recommended the phasing-in of grades 4-6 to four days a week in early 2021 as planning continues around classroom configurations, scheduling and additional protective measures. The board is expected to revisit the timeline for returning grades 4-6 at its Dec. 10 meeting.

The board also directed the district to communicate that Onsite Scholars will return from winter break to a week of online instruction in order to facilitate re-entry testing, resuming in-person school on Jan. 11.

In a letter to the school board and superintendent, parent Grant Watkins said he was “incredibly discouraged, tired and overwhelmingly saddened” about the board’s decision on the phasing-in timelines. He said since August his attempts to encourage the district to return students full time have fallen on deaf ears.

“After being a past foundation site president and logging countless volunteer hours, I have lost faith in the Solana Beach School District which is incredibly disheartening,” wrote Watkins. “I agree that it’s more imperative for K-3 to go back, but why discriminate against 4th-6th grade? These children’s lives matter, don’t they?”

In neighboring Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe School Districts, students are in school five days a week. Like Solana Beach, the Encinitas and Cardiff districts are in a hybrid model of two days a week on-site; Poway Unified returned students this month five days a week in a morning and afternoon hybrid schedule. San Dieguito Union High School District remains in the distance learning model only, as does San Diego Unified, the largest district in the county—only groups of students such as special education, English learners and those who have inadequate learning environments or are in danger of failing courses have been brought back on the middle school and high school campuses.

“We are open and so far our hybrid model has been extremely successful and I think we’re improving every day,” SBSD Vice President Debra Schade said.

In using a hybrid model, Schade said schools are trying to reduce cohort sizes by 50% to be able to open safely and remain open successfully when San Diego County is still in the “substantial risk” red tier (the red tier is 5-8% positivity cases per 100,000 residents).

Since reopening, Solana Beach had its first active case this week—a student at Skyline School. The district was one of the few schools in the county to implement re-entry COVID-19 testing— 100% of teachers and 80% of the district’s students participated in the testing prior to the return to school. Fall asymptomatic testing will begin on Oct. 15 and continues through Nov. 19.

As of press time, Del Mar had one active student case at Torrey Hills. Encinitas Union has four active student cases and one teacher case.

Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger said that returning more students more days is not as easy as just flipping a switch. There is complexity around spaces and schedules. The district has implemented staggered arrival and dismissal schedules, a total of 19 schedules across the six sites with active symptom and temperature checks. To keep kids in their stable cohorts throughout the day they have 38 different recess and lunch schedules as well as handwashing breaks built in throughout the day, with restroom assignments.

More students on campus at one time requires larger areas for play and eating, increased points of entry, further staggered schedules, more consideration of classroom configurations and cleaning and disinfecting schedules.

“Our guiding principle is really around getting our kids back in school as often as we can, as safely as we can. We’re not trying to come up with a bunch of reasons why we can’t do it, “ said SBSD Clerk Gaylin Allbaugh. “Every day that kids are in school is a value add over a day that they do distance learning at home….it’s so very important to me that we don’t rush this, that we continue to be methodical because we don’t want to end up back at home for five days a week.”

Teacher Neva Ayn Megalnick said that it is very difficult to make comparisons between districts—noting for example that Del Mar has smaller class sizes and hired additional teachers for their separate online Launch program: “It’s not the same.” Megalnick said teachers are not against additional re-openings, they just want there to be clear communication and collaboration between the district and staff.

During public comment, Solana Beach Teachers Association President Jessi Mitchell said there needs to be sufficient time for the district to work out the logistics of phasing in more students more days. She said it sounds great to have students back more days but she asked the board to consider the kind of classroom management that it involves—describing keeping 20 five-year-olds six feet apart with their masks all while ensuring that online students are engaged and differentiating instruction for all.

“Any change in model has a huge domino effect,” Mitchell said. “When rushed and things are not finalized and figured out, it creates stress and chaos for teachers, families and especially students and this doesn’t create an effective learning environment.”

SBSD President Julie Union said she hears the frustration of the parents, as well as those of the teachers about classroom management and wanting to be safe. Last week she reached out to school site parent teacher organizations to hear from them about what families are experiencing and their suggestions.

She said she heard stories about families not having support at home for online learning, job loss and frustrated parents looking into private schools as an alternative. As a Casa De Amistad tutor, she has also seen firsthand how students are struggling with online learning. Union said while she understands this time can offer lessons in resilience, she is concerned about students who are being severely hurt by not being at school, with increases in anxiety, depression, isolation and thoughts of suicide: “A lot of families are in crisis.”

“I can just feel the collective sigh and sadness from a lot of parents that were really hoping we were going to open up more than we are,” Union said. “For me I understand the ‘Go slow, so small to go long’ but I believe this is going too slow and this is going too small to go long. I think we need to continue looking at what’s best for kids.”

Union said personally she would love to see K-3 start in November four days a week but she knew it was likely not practical. She proposed bringing back K-1 and 2-3 together, which the rest of the board supported— staff’s original proposal was for just kindergarten to return in November, first grade in December and 2-6 grades following in 2021.

Schade said she understands the parents’ concerns and also heard Union’s request to accelerate reopening. If the district finds they can open up sooner, Schade said the district will return to the board with a proposal: “Any acceleration has got to be done very methodically and we need our staff and our teachers to let us know if it can be done safely,” she said.

Schade said the board and district remain committed to the safety of students and teachers and to staying open to mitigate learning loss and help with students’ mental health and isolation issues. She said the last thing they want to do is put too many people back on campus too soon without making sure they can do it safely. She acknowledged that the current plan does go slow but it is also bringing students back to campus in a way that has the “utmost protection for all involved.”

During public comment Skyline School parent Kristin Brenner shared her support for the district’s plan and urged the district to act cautiously about moving to five-day a week school until San Diego County is in the less restrictive tier.

“I know it is a hardship for all of us but I think it’s a good balance between keeping us all safe and keeping our community safe and also providing the kids with the social experience of being with their friends at least two days a week,” Brenner said.