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The State of Secondary School Reopening in PUSD

Just after six pm on November 12, 2020, the Poway Unified School District Board of Education began their meeting to once again reassess secondary school reopening.  

Before this however, the board spent a couple hours discussing things like their financial deficits and the future of an Ethnic Studies and Ethnic Literature course in PUSD. The future of those courses in particular will begin to be discussed more fully next year.

The discussion then switched to in-person learning for approximately two more hours and involved all members of the Board of Education and the Superintendent. This included Student Board representative Jacob Todd, standing in for Emily Bylsma who is the official appointed board representative. 

Beginning with a fifteen-minute public comment period, the  Board was exposed to numerous perspectives concerning school reopening. Parents and teachers stood predominantly on opposite sides sharing their views on the matter. 

Board Meeting as seen from the livestreamed video | Photo Courtesy of PUSD

One comment came from Kelly Logan, the current President of the Poway Federation of Teachers. She pointed out that San Diego County had moved into the most restrictive COVID-19 transmission tier, the purple tier, and listed safer plans presented by other school districts. 

“With upcoming travel and holiday gatherings, in addition to rising case rates, exposure to such a high number of contacts is unsafe,” Logan said. “Instead of rushing to further reopen secondary schools when it is not safe, PUSD should continue the virtual instruction with emotional and academic support on campus for those in need.”

In comparison, another public comment cited a growing need for kids to return to campus in order to address possible emotional and physical abuse occurring at home. 

“School closures result in mandated reporters not being able to see and report child abuse,” community member Tova Terranova said. “We must triage this community like a 911 call or an ER. Those who are in the red need relief at this time, treat those patients. Students are in that danger zone. This is your chance to make your community a safer one, please consider bringing our middle and high school students back part time at least, it might save one.”

This comment in particular was not lost on the board who cited it a few times when discussing why teachers should be in the classrooms with students sooner rather than later. 

After hearing from the public, Associate Superintendent Carol Osborne and her team presented their updated reopening recommendations. 

Highlighting the county’s move to the purple tier for COVID-19 transmission, the lack of available “substitutes” — which in certain cases need to be credentialed and in others only have to function as supervisors — and the rather robust teacher resistance to full reopening by November 30th, Osborne acknowledged that changes had to be made from their original plan. 

However, the Board presentation underscored the fact that PUSD neighborhoods have significantly lower case rates (3.5 to 5.35 per 100k) than the county at large (8.9 per 100k). 

Section of the presentation | Photo Courtesy of PUSD

Additionally, the presentation displayed positive reviews from students who have already returned to campus. These optimistic comments were paired directly with more tumultuous student comments describing the pain many of them are experiencing while they continue with virtual learning.

“I’m crying every day, but pretending everything is great,” a Mesa Verde student said.

The presentation also showcased the many safety precautions being considered by PUSD. Chief among them is the split into A/B cohorts. 

The district also spoke to the great job it felt it was doing concerning the continued safety of elementary schools. As of November 13 however, there have been 28 confirmed cases within the months of October and November, including four within the last week, in the district. 

At the end of the presentation, Osborne’s team asked the board to approve four recommendations for school reopening. The first one asked that PUSD continue full virtual learning while allowing  kids deemed at risk to attend in-person.

“At risk” was defined as any kids who are failing or are close to failing any of their courses —as these numbers have skyrocketed during virtual learning—or kids that are suffering from physical or emotional abuse at home. 

Many  Board members were hesitant to continue virtual learning rather than reopening secondary schools on the 30th. 

“I certainly don’t want to downplay  [COVID-19] or give anyone the impression that I don’t think that it’s dangerous, it is,” President Michelle O’Conner-Ratcliff said. “And we’re talking about it already, but I want everyone to remember there’s more than one type of health and safety concern here.” 

President Michelle O’Conner-Ratcliff | Photo Courtesy of PUSD

President O’Conner-Ratcliff, alongside Vice President Ginger Couvrette, was the most vocal about virtual learning concerns, although almost all Board members expressed hesitation in some variety. The crux of their argument centered around the detrimental effects that the pandemic was having on student mental health. 

“What I’m afraid of is […] this time next year, we’re gonna see dropout rates, suicide, cutting, abuse and it’s just delayed we don’t have those numbers yet,” Couvrette said. “But I’m afraid [those issues] will be here so I share in our president’s thoughts that there’s an urgency to this [reopening].”

Osborne’s second recommendation was that all teachers be trained on the concurrent model. Notably, as Board Member Dr. Darshana Patel pointed  out, this recommendation did not come with a timeline of implementation, but would simply be based on resources available. 

The third recommendation was that secondary schools reopen under the concurrent model on January 19th. As mentioned earlier, there was hesitation to push this date back, but as Superintendent Dr. Marian Kim Phelps explained,  the specific date was chosen because it is about two weeks out from winter break. This allows for anyone who traveled during that time to have an appropriate quarantine before returning to campus.  The San Diego, Carlsbad, and San Marcos School Districts have decided to reopen in early January 2021 as well. 

The fourth and final recommendation was that all teachers and staff begin working on campus by November 30th. This final recommendation is somewhat surprising considering the presented teacher data. 

“In the past two weeks, we have received a significant number of doctor’s notes, stating that staff need to continue to work virtually and not from campus,” Osborne said. “At this point, I’m very concerned that we don’t have the supervision to cover the gap in our staffing needs.”

When one of the Board members asked how this fourth recommendation would be enforced on staff with doctor’s notes, Superintendent Phelps said they would need to evaluate on a “case by case” basis. 

Ultimately, every recommendation was unanimously approved, although the first recommendation saw a small addition. 

After the input provided by Student Representative Todd, Board member Patel motioned to add a section concerning reinforcement of the virtual learning system. This was meant to be a clause that would push the district to continue investing and revising their virtual learning model even as students begin moving back to school. 

Vice President Ginger Couvrette | Photo Courtesy of PUSD

Additionally, Vice President Couvrette tried to adapt the first recommendation by using more pointed language such as “encourage” or “greatly increase” when talking about bringing groups of students back to school before January 19th. Superintendent Phelps responded to this saying that kids, who may not be considered at risk, could come back to school before the 19th if they wanted to; this assuming they contacted their administration beforehand and the school had adequate supervising power to watch over them. However, this part was not finalized and it appears that Ms. Osborne will be communicating with administrators on these grounds.

Despite the prolonged discussion period, these recommendations were ultimately accepted, confirming that school reopening under the concurrent model will occur  no sooner than January 19th. The Board will hold another meeting on December 17th to reevaluate the situation and discuss any other actions. 

Students are encouraged to contact the Board of Education if they have any thoughts or feelings on these or any other reopening decisions.

Those interested in following COVID-19 cases in the district may follow this link for weekly updates.

Written by Colin O'Malley

Colin O'Malley is a senior at Mt. Carmel and in charge of the Entertainment section of The Sun.

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