Claremont public schools will offer only fall online teaching

by Mick Rhodes |

The Claremont Unified School District Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday that all students will attend online school when classes begin September 2.

Each of the five board members cited public health as the overriding reason for supporting the move.

“The virus is a greater threat now than it has ever been from the start,” said CUSD School Board President Dave Nemer. “Kids don’t get it as often, but kids get it sometimes. Some kids have died. Some kids have had very serious consequences that might be with them for years. And the degree to which they can transmit it, it’s above zero. It’s too much risk right now.”

The move came just one week after the board voted unanimously to implement a “blended learning program” for 2020-2021, and to open up each of its 10 campuses for in-person learning beginning September 2.

CUSD Superintendent Jim Elsasser said Monday that “recent developments,” including the alarming spike in COVID cases, associated hospitalizations and community spread, caused the board to reconsider that decision.

Under the phase one plan CUSD kids will have two options: Claremont Online Remote Learning, or CORE; or Claremont Home Alternative Mastery Program, or CHAMP.

There are two sub-options within CORE: One utilizes CUSD teachers as overseers of a student’s studies, the other an outside contractor, “Edgenuity.”

CHAMP is essentially homeschooling, with parents or caregivers overseeing a CUSD curriculum. studies.

The special board meeting, conducted over Zoom, featured nearly two hours of public comment. Many of the parents, caregivers and students voiced support of the plan but had concerns about several aspects of “distance learning.”

Among them were the possible long- and short-term mental health side-effects of isolation from peers, teachers and lack of social interaction, and the improving the district’s ongoing and post-COVID responses; the district’s plan for improving communication between for parents and student with teachers and staff; a lack of training for parents and students for help navigating Canvas, the online learning portal CUSD is using; how the district might help alleviate families’ childcare issues; how the district will support special education students in phase one; the need for a uniform online curriculum at each grade level across the district; and the desire for a public forum or series of forums to address these and more concerns prior to September 2.

After hearing these concerns and others, the board voted 5-0.

Many commenters heaped praise on the district for the work it has done to prepare for the moving target that is the upcoming school year.

Nearly just as common was a plea that it offer technical training for parents and students having difficulty navigating their way through the distance learning model.

“We have been working over the last several weeks of developing training for parents and students,” Mr. Elsasser said. “With this shift” of moving back to phase one, “we are shifting our focus and will address those areas over the couple of weeks as we’re finalizing a plan.”

No board member, nor Mr. Elsasser, would hazard a guess as to when the district might consider moving back to phase two guidelines, in which kids would be back in classes.

“I’ve had so many sleepless nights lately,” said board member Nancy Treser Osgood. “And I just feel that we need to prioritize safety above all else. I’m so appreciative for the CUSD community for their patience and their support as we try to make the best decisions that we can based on the evidence we have available to us.”

Some parents, caregivers and students urged the board to remain in phase two so that kids could return to school. Some arguments veered into pseudoscience, but most were straightforward pleas for a return to some semblance of normal.

Mr. Nemer said the board’s vote last week to open in phase two wasn’t meant to send the message that it would not revisit the matter if public safety concerns were in play.

“It was never that certain,” Mr. Nemer said. “This virus does not hold still. It’s difficult to anticipate what it will be two months in advance. It was pretty clear that phases three and four would not be possible, but we really wanted to offer more choices, and we had to get a new instructional plan in place, and that’s what we did.”

Mr. Elsasser said as it stands now CUSD can decide on its own to move to a more conservative position with respect to which phase it is in, but it can’t exceed the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s recommendations.

He added that he and his peers are looking for additional help from the county in figuring out how school districts might get to the place where a phase two partial reopening is even possible.

“Looking at the guidelines that just came out from the county health department, [they] almost force us to be in phase one,” Mr. Elsasser said. “And so the superintendents of LA County have asked for a meeting with [LACDPH Director Barbara Ferrer] to discuss that, because we just can’t see how we could meet all the demands and requirements that are included in the county’s guidelines in phase two.”

The board’s decision will no doubt anger some and assuage others, just as last week’s did. It’s a tough spot to be in for any elected official, but as Mr. Nemer said, “Criticism is inevitable.”

“That’s part of the role of being a school board member,” Mr. Nemer said. “Public opinion matters to us, and with this issue today, the public input has been significant. But it isn’t all that matters. This is a representative form of government. We try to consider information and data from multiple sources, and then make decisions, as we were elected to do. That’s how it works. But sometimes our explanations could be better, and we’ll try to improve in that way.

“We should be able to do this successfully. We should be able to flatten the curve. Other countries have done it, other states have done it. It’s interesting, some of the comments said we should look at lessons learned from other countries: the lessons learned are to flatten the curve, get the virus down. It’s not going to go to zero. Someone said the virus is not going to go away. To anyone who did say that, that is absolutely true. But there’s a difference between it going away and having it at a low, manageable level, which it is not right now. This is a serious public health problem, and that’s what we’re responding to.”

District staff will work over the next two weeks to refine its plans for the upcoming year under phase one guidelines, with a goal of presenting them at a virtual community meeting by end of July.


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