Del Mar school district proud of reopening efforts during pandemic

DMUSD offered students a choice of full in-person school or distance learning.
DMUSD offered students a choice of full in-person school of distance learning.

In 2020, the Del Mar Union School District was one of the first public school districts in the state to open up to full-time in-person school and is still the only district in San Diego County to have full-time in-person school and a “top-quality” distance learning program.

“In spite of the pandemic, this is a happy place,” Superintendent Holly McClurg said.

At the DMUSD board’s Dec. 16 meeting to close out the year, the board members reflected on the district’s accomplishments and looked toward the future. In what was an atypical school year, Del Mar also pulled off the launch of a new Spanish immersion program: two kindergarten strands at two schools that will continue through sixth grade, adding a new grade each year.

At the virtual meeting, trustees Erica Halpern and Gee Wah Mok took the oath of office after being re-elected in the November election. Halpern was re-elected board president and Mok was re-elected board clerk.

“It is really an honor to be on this team,” Halpern said. “We don’t always agree, we have different perspectives but we’re all dedicated to working together.”

In 2021, the district hopes to break ground on the new Del Mar Heights School as well as the new school in Pacific Highlands Ranch. In the spring, the district aims to begin community outreach for the modernization of Del Mar Hills Academy.

In the lawsuit filed against the district by Save the Field, the judge ruled on Dec. 22 that the district must address three environmental issues before moving forward with the Heights rebuild. The district is also still in the process of securing a coastal development permit from the city of San Diego for the project.

McClurg said that now that schools are open they must be vigilant to maintain all safe reopening practices to ensure that they stay open.

Over the course of this school year, McClurg has advocated for all school-aged children in every district to be in school and said she is still “perplexed” by districts that are not open. Since opening in August, Del Mar has had positive COVID-19 student cases but no outbreaks, no transmissions on campus and they have not had to close schools.

In San Diego County, there are 28,287 students that are in school full time and 97,439 attending in a hybrid learning program—385,654 students remain in distance learning only, including 12,623 San Dieguito Union High School District students (465 students are on site attending school in small groups).

“Our school buildings themselves have always been safe. When we closed last March our school buildings didn’t all of a sudden change and become safe, it’s the behaviors of the people in our schools, in our communities and that is what we focused on: how can we impact that and bring our children back to school,” McClurg said. “That’s what’s been done so well here and that has been a priority for us from the very beginning.”

McClurg said she was thankful for the commitment of teachers, staff, students, families and the school board who allowed them to be successful in reopening. She said they never gave up on how they could give children the best education possible, whether it was in person or virtually. McClurg said they started planning in the spring with the question “What will it take to reopen?”, developed a plan to meet all the safety guidelines and were able to open and offer families a choice between full-time in person school and Launch online.

“We never wavered,” she said.

A Launch teacher at work.

Launch started out the school year with some issues and the district worked to address parent concerns about equity, the sufficiency of resources, larger class sizes and a lack of connection to students’ home schools. The program has seen a decrease in enrollment as more students opt to go back into the classroom, from 1,332 students at the beginning of the school year to now 1,266.

As McClurg said, Launch is a costly program in terms of time allocation and financial resources.

The district is projecting to deficit spend this year by $1.9 million due to an increase in COVID-19-related expenditures required to reopen, including 20 general education teachers, additional custodial staff and administrative staff to help with the Launch program.

On the revenue side, the district saw an increase in property tax revenues, $2.5 million in federal and state COVID-19 emergency response and learning loss mitigation funds (which have all been spent) and a Del Mar Education Foundation contribution that was higher than budgeted.

“It has not always been easy. It has been filled with countless challenges,” wrote Casey Lange, principal at Ashley Falls in a message to families as students returned to school on Jan. 4. “It has pushed many of us to the limit. It has forced us to see the world in a different way. And it has required us to muster strength that at times we maybe didn’t think we had. However, because of our resiliency, determination, and commitment, we are now entering 2021 stronger than we were in 2020.”