Since the transition to virtual education, school districts around the country have been contemplating the pros and cons of returning to in-person learning. Safety is of the utmost importance to each of the California Boards of Education, but certain considerations, such as students’ social interactions and productivity, have encouraged many to experiment with new ways of learning to get more students into the classroom.
Most Southern California school districts are slowly moving towards in-person schooling, starting with hybrid education in which students would attend school half of the week and work virtually the other half. Many districts developed this idea early into the pandemic but waited to enforce it until safety could be further ensured. Now that the majority of Southern California counties have progressed into the red tier and most teachers have been vaccinated, many school districts are using the hybrid model as a “soft-open” to fully in-person learning.
The Poway Unified School District (PUSD) started using the hybrid model for middle and high schools on March 15. At the time, San Diego County was still in the purple tier which required a schedule change: instead of having each half of the student body attend school twice a week, PUSD allowed students to step onto campus only one day a week, using their grade level and last name to separate them into cohorts and determine which day they would attend in person. Less than a week later, San Diego County entered the red tier. This progression reverted PUSD back to the original hybrid model with students in school two days each week. For all grade levels (6-12), Friday will remain asynchronous and students will be responsible for completing all of their school work from home.
The Huntington Beach Union High School District (HBUHSD) enacted a similar instructional system. Like PUSD, HBUHSD was able to get elementary students back on campus in Oct. 2020 with an AM/PM hybrid schedule, in which half of the study body attended school in the morning, and the other half came in the afternoon.
Although they achieved successful in-person learning for elementary students around the same time as many other SoCal districts did, HBUHSD is way ahead in regards to middle and high school on-campus education. Middle and high school students had the option to return to school as early as Nov. 3, 2020. Unfortunately, a rise in COVID-19 cases and a California stay-at-home order in mid-December forced the students to revert back to 100% distance learning for roughly two months. On Feb. 2, 2021, HBUHSD students were allowed back on campus.
Many other Southern California school districts are using a hybrid approach to get students back in the classroom. Although districts such as PUSD and HBUHSD successfully opened their doors in early 2021, many other districts cannot safely do so at this time. Long Beach Unified as well as Los Angeles Unified plan to take similar measures, but high COVID-19 county case rates have prohibited them from welcoming K-12 students back to school. Both districts have begun distributing vaccines to teachers and have recently moved from the purple tier to red, encouraging a push towards in-person schooling.
Each reopening plan takes the safety of students and staff members into consideration. In order to reopen, each school must enforce a mask mandate for individuals on campus. Additionally, social distancing must be maintained through the compression of class sizes and, according to the regulations provided by the California Department of Public Health, the separation of students within classrooms by at least three feet. Further safety measures, such as the regular availability of hand sanitizer or hand wash stations, are required to reopen California schools.
Numerous students, parents, teachers, and school faculty members are excited to resume in-person schooling. Daily trips to school would normalize many individuals’ weekdays and would likely help many students stay on track academically. In addition to individual gains, the return to school would have community benefits as well. Many parents could go back to work without having to watch over their children throughout the day and some schools could be entitled to compensation. California Governor Gavin Newsom is using this idea as an incentive to reopen schools. Newsom’s Safe School for All plan grants $2 billion total to school districts to reopen K-2 schools.
California school boards are eager to return to normalcy, but, as all have agreed, safety is the number one priority. Rushing the transition from distance learning to in-person education may create further damage and will likely lead to a large setback, as seen in the Vista Unified (VUSD) experiment.
In mid-Oct. 2020, Mission Vista High School allowed students back on campus. Just two days after reopening, a student tested positive for COVID-19, which forced 130 students, four teachers, and one aide into a 14-day quarantine. According to CBS8, some Mission Vista teachers expressed concerns that there “weren’t enough consistent safety protocols in place.” The district says they have since worked with UCSD to extend their safety measures; according to CBS8, they have purchased $45 million worth of PPE as well as other safety upgrades such as masks and hand sanitizer.
Each California reopening plan has been carefully thought over to ensure maximum safety and success. Although risks are present and small setbacks are inevitable, SoCal school boards are of the opinion that the pros outweigh the cons in this situation. With state support and a large desire for normalcy, many California school districts continue on the road to recovery in hopes of providing a safe academic environment for all students and staff.