Solana Beach’s grades K-3 are back four days a week, sixth grade to return Feb. 8

Scenes from Solana Beach School District classes back to four days a week in-person school.

The youngest Solana Beach School District students are experiencing less Zoom and more in-person learning and playing as the district continued its phased approach of returning more students more days this month. Now kindergarten through third grade students are in school in-person four days a week.

With third grade students returning on Jan. 25, Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services Sabrina Lee said at the Jan. 21 school board meeting that she knows there were smiles behind the masks: “You can’t see their faces but see their cheeks rise under their masks and hear the laughter in classrooms,” Lee said.

In San Diego County, 429,556 students remain in distance learning while 25,781 are in full-time learning on campus and 58,881 are attending school in a hybrid model like Solana Beach. Solana Beach’s phase-in will continue with sixth grade students returning first on Feb. 8 followed by fifth grade on Feb. 22 and fourth grade on March 1. Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger said the district is starting the planning now to bring students back five days a week in the fall, while maintaining an online model to provide choice for families.

In order to bring back the larger 4-6 grade classes in the coming weeks, the district is piloting extending into secondary learning spaces. There are currently four-day a week pilots at three different schools, with teachers using adjacent learning spaces in order to accommodate all students while maintaining stable groupings per California Department of Public Health guidelines.

At the board meeting, Solana Pacific School teachers Matt Singley, Kathy Stamer and Cara Spitzmiller shared their positive experiences with the pilot.

“I’m very grateful and thankful,” Singley said of the opportunity. “I wanted to go back to teaching all of the kids at the same time, I found the experience of teaching online in the spring and the hybrid model to be a pretty soul-crushing experience.”

Stamer said she has felt very strongly about bringing students back more days as Zooming with them just wasn’t the same. She said it has been a joy to watch 26 kids be so happy and engaged with school. The teachers said there are technical and logistical challenges that every school site will have to overcome but in just a few days they seem to have found their rhythm.

“For the kids this has been an epic change during such an emotionally challenging year,” Spitzmiller said.

“Our school district is so wonderful, we got it resolved, we’re going to do something new and I’m so excited,” said Stamer. “To the parents that are out there: hold tight. I think we’re almost there.”

During public comment, close to 40 parents had expressed frustrations with the district’s “go slow to go long” approach. Many wanted a faster timeline to return grades 4-6 and asked that students be back five days a week— parents feel students are at a learning disadvantage to the neighboring Del Mar Union School District which has been back five days a week since August. Parents wanted assurances now that the district will be back five days in the fall as they might need to make choices to leave for private schools if that is not the case.

While the 900 students who have opted to remain in distance learning with Online Scholars appear to be thriving, some students in Onsite Scholars are struggling with their Zoom school days in the hybrid model.

“All of our children deserve to be back in school full time now,” said parent Trisha Van Dillen. “We don’t have time for pilots which basically means certain schools and classrooms get the privilege of going back while others continue to suffer…Do whatever it takes to get our children back to school, this is where children belong, not staring at a screen for hours on end.”

Solana Beach Teachers Association President Jesse Mitchell said there are some teacher concerns with the further reopening, with specific details not yet in place and staffing not finalized.

“It’s difficult to feel confident about safety and instruction when important pieces are not figured out yet,” Mitchell said. “We understand that the students’ social and emotional wellbeing is the driving force in bringing back our 4-6 graders more days but the educational and safety impacts are worrisome to teachers too.”

As Mitchell said, many teachers have concerns about adequate supervision and having to move classrooms. Speaking on behalf of 24 Skyline School teachers, teacher Shannon Applegate said with the “split spaces” option, Skyline will be the most impacted due to the high number of Onsite Scholars, including Solana Vista third graders and the number of 4-6 classes with enrollments greater than 17 students.

“We can’t be in two rooms at the same time,” Applegate said, asking the district to provide adequate supervisory assistance.

She said 20 teachers will have to move classrooms and there are also logistical concerns with the lack of student furniture, schedules and traffic patterns.

Board members were able to visit the pilot classrooms last week and shared that they had confidence in the plan and supported the return dates as realistic. The board was sympathetic to the teachers’ concerns and said safety remains the number one priority, maintaining six feet of distancing and stable groups. President Vicki King said she believes the district has the most stringent safety protocols in the state—recently the district added offering N95 masks to all staff as part of their COVID-19 mitigations.

Brentlinger said the district hopes to support the workload of teachers and staff and pursue additional state and federal funding to support the phasing-in. At the last budget review, the district is projecting deficit spending of $5.8 million this school year.

SBSD Vice President Debra Schade said in a normal situation they would not ask teachers to move classrooms but this is not a normal time, it’s an emergency. She hopes the district can mitigate some of the teachers’ operational concerns in the interest of getting students back four days a week.

“I feel the urgency with being able to bring students back and accommodate those who want to be on campus with as many days as they can,” Schade said.

In December, target return dates for grades 4-6 were Feb. 1, 8 and 12 and Clerk Gaylin Allbaugh said while she supported phasing students back in a measured way, she was disappointed that the milestones were rolled out farther. She shared parent concerns about long Zoom days and sixth graders losing preparation for middle school.

“Everybody’s got angst right now about getting the kids back and doing the right thing for them,” Allbaugh said. “We have families, teachers and staff across the spectrum right now. We are listening to you. I know you feel like you aren’t being listened to sometimes but do know that we do listen and we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for all for the long term.”

Testing update
During public comment, several parents questioned the district spending funds on an asymptomatic testing program.

The testing is an above and beyond measure and SBSD is one of the only schools in the county to have an asymptomatic testing program for students and staff. Student testing is not required by the state but per the CDPH guidelines, it is considered an additional tool to support safe and successful in-person instruction when used in conjunction with other mitigation strategies. Testing can allow for early identification of cases and exclusion from school to prevent transmission.

The district’s contract with UC San Diego Health was not to exceed $450,000 and they are currently under that amount, according to Superintendent Brentlinger.

Neighboring Del Mar Union and Rancho Santa Fe School Districts have contracted with UC San Diego Health to provide symptomatic testing for staff and students and Rancho Santa Fe also provides asymptomatic re-entry testing for staff after longer breaks such as the recent winter break and upcoming family week.

While teachers are required to be tested, it is voluntary for students and Solana Beach has a 76-80% participation rate.

In the January re-entry testing before returning to school, all staff and 1,284 students participated, returning six positive student cases and three teacher cases. The district’s winter asymptomatic testing cycle (its fourth asymptomatic testing cycle) began on Jan. 21 and will run through March 4.

Since school opened on Sept. 28, 22 employees and 52 students have tested positive, however, there has not been a case of transmission at school. There have been no school closures and since September, 16 classrooms have pivoted to online learning due to a positive test.