CUSD says ‘it’s doable’ for secondary schools to open this year

by Mick Rhodes |

With COVID-19 numbers continuing their welcome downward trend in Los Angeles County, and Claremont elementary schools tentatively set to reopen April 12, it appears inevitable middle and high schools will soon be eligible to bring students back as well.

And while virus numbers are cooperating, is it possible to get secondary school kids back in class before the end of the school year?

To borrow a favorite adage of Claremont Unified School District interim Superintendent Julie Olesniewicz: it’s doable.

“We have our board approved schedules, and our secondary schools all have their safety plans ready to go,” said Ms. Olesniewicz. “They are working on cohorting right now, because you can’t just say A through L comes back on Monday and Tuesday, and M through Z comes on Thursday and Friday, because we don’t place kids in courses based on their last name. So it’s much more complex.

“But it is doable.”

That complexity has to do primarily with the many moving parts associated with secondary schools, with students traveling to and from six or more classrooms per day. Elementary schools have the advantage of students being in one classroom for the entire, albeit abbreviated, school day.

Of course before any of that can happen, the L.A. County Department of Public Health says adjusted case rates —the weekly average number of daily new coronavirus cases per 100,000 county residents—must be at seven or below for 14 days running before middle and high schools can open their doors.

Los Angeles County fell just short of that with this week’s numbers, posting a 7.2.

The adjusted case rate was 12.3 last week, and 20, 33.1 and 38.7 in the weeks prior. That number had been as high as 75 during the peak of the coronavirus surge in January.

So clearly the numbers are moving in a direction that would indicate the county will one day soon move from the most restrictive purple tier of California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy, to the red tier, meaning adjusted case rates are between four and seven per 100,000 residents.

Though CUSD’s top official is optimistic secondary students may still see the inside of a classroom this school for the first time since March 2020, questions remain for the representatives of the district’s two unions.

“The holdup for secondary is really about logistics,” said Claremont Faculty Association  President Kara Evans. “Primarily it’s about case numbers, making sure they go down far enough that secondary can reopen, but beyond that it’s really about the logistics of doing that safely. It’s about, ‘Is there a way to do this logically and safely for students and teachers to return to the classroom at secondary?’”

At the elementary level, state guidelines say students must stay in cohorts. Since they don’t move between classes, this requirement is easily met.

“But as you move into secondary there’s so much intermingling just with kids moving from class to class and passing in the hallways. There’s all of that complication, not to mention there are facilities issues at the high school because teachers rove,” said Ms. Evans. “So teachers having a specific space is another thing. There’s just so many details to work out at the high school.”

“We don’t even know if secondary is opening,” said California School Employees Association President Amy Weiler. “The numbers are going down, which is great, but we haven’t heard anything yet.”

The district’s hopeful top administrator sees these concerns as well within conquering distance.

“These are things we’ve been talking about and working on for months,” said Ms. Olesniewicz. “It’s not like we wait to go into the red tier and begin our planning. Right next door [in Orange County] we have many high schools that are open, on hybrid block schedules, doing the exact same thing.

“It’s doable.”

If the stars align and secondary kids are asked back, those currently enrolled in CUSD’s blended program would be automatically eligible to return. If they would rather move to one of the district’s two remote-only programs, CHAMP or CORE, they would be able to do so, as long as there is room in those virtual classrooms.

Likewise, if a current CHAMP or CORE student decides he or she would like to return to campus, they would contact CUSD student services and make arrangements to do so, as long as there is classroom space available.

“You also have to think about how secondary

differs a little bit from elementary school,” Ms. Olesniewicz said. “If they choose to make a move, they’re going to get another teacher. They’ve been with one teacher for an entire semester, and now they’re going to walk into another classroom for eight weeks. So from a secondary standpoint, that’s not always ideal. It could get messy, but you know…“it’s always doable.”

A looming unknown remains: Even if numbers continue to fall and the county gives secondary schools the green light to reopen, the district’s unions come to an agreement on returning to classrooms, and the massive groundwork involved with outfitting El Roble Intermediate, and San Antonio and Claremont high schools is completed, what is the tipping point when it’s too late to reopen, when the amount of work required—and the costs—outstrip the benefits of kids getting back in class?

“I think at a certain point we’ll have to have those conversations,” Ms. Olesniewicz said. “We’re just not ready yet. It’s just too early. If we’re sitting in the middle of May, you know, I don’t know, those will definitely be conversations that we will have.”

A major emotional pull in the direction of reopening is the unpleasant prospect of another senior class of being denied the just desserts of their final year of high school. The class of 2020 missed out on nearly all of its rituals. This year’s seniors could miss out entirely.

Part of the push to reopen before the year is up is no doubt driven by this appropriately sentimental concern.

“Absolutely,” said Ms. Olesniewicz. “We have to plan graduation. So that is something that we’ve been talking a lot about. We have been told that the L.A. County Office of Education has put a graduation task force together, and pulled a lot of secondary folks together to really look at the guidance and see what we can do for our seniors. I’m optimistic. They deserve it.”

Apparently, it’s doable.


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