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Some Oceanside Unified parents are demanding that the district create a plan for safely reopening schools despite an order from the governor requiring San Diego County schools to begin the school year in an online-only format.
Last week, I surveyed North County school districts on their varying reopening plans, which were mostly divided into three options: distance learning, in-person traditional learning or some in-between hybrid model. But when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Friday that schools in counties on the state’s coronavirus monitoring list – including San Diego – must continue with distance learning until those respective counties are off the list for at least 14 days, those plans went out the window. School officials and teachers are now scrambling to adjust, while parents continue to stress about the uncertainty of the upcoming school year.
One district where frustration about the inequities brought on by mandated distance learning is evident is Oceanside Unified. At a board meeting on Tuesday, district parents of kids with special needs and foster and military parents shouted and disparaged school board members for not coming up with some plan to get kids back in the classroom safely. Some of those parents attended a gathering on Saturday in Oceanside to protest the district’s failure to create a plan for full reopening of schools when it’s safe to do so, and pressed them on what metrics the district would consider to determine returning “safe.”
The Oceanside Unified School board voted Tuesday to move to a distance learning model for when the new school year begins on Aug. 17. Richard Lawrence, a director of secondary curriculum and instruction, said virtual learning this fall will have daily live teacher-student interaction, a daily learning schedule, rigorous standards-based content, support for English language learners, report cards and grades, daily attendance and a virtual learning community. Last year, the distance learning program focused on engagement and outreach, had limited instruction and was credit-no credit. The district’s objective is to be as close as possible to a one-to-one student to device ratio for the fall, said Greg Moon, the district’s chief technology officer.
“We operated from a place of holding students harmless for the abrupt pivot, which led us to credit-no credit grading, which in turn created voluntary learning experiences, leading us to focus on engagement and outreach in the fall,” Lawrence said.
Todd Maddison, a parent in Oceanside Unified who is running for a school board seat, attended Saturday’s gathering and told me he’s pushing for the district to have an outlined plan for how to resume traditional in-person learning when it’s safe to do so. He said he’s not upset that the district is staying closed due to the governor’s order, but that school officials didn’t listen to the 53 percent of parents surveyed by the district who called for an in-person learning plan. He and others started an online petition calling for the district to create such a plan that’s garnered more than 600 signatures.
“The very idea the districts get to completely ignore 53 percent of parents is fundamentally wrong and to not even have a plan; we can’t let them get away with it,” Maddison told VOSD. “As far as actual parents who want to push for traditional, in-person learning; I think their issue is largely based on the feeling a plan can be put together for a safe method for teachers and kids; a plan that’s safe for everybody.” He said the district did a tremendous job talking to parents and gathering data through parent forums in recent weeks, but feels those sentiments were ignored.
Other parents noted that some neighboring North County school districts had plans to resume in-person learning before the governor’s order, and wished Oceanside did too.
Rhonda Oliver, a parent who has five foster and adopted children enrolled in Oceanside Unified, said it’s going to be nearly impossible for her family to continue distance learning in the fall. She said her children are in individualized education programs that make online distance learning difficult and she has questions about whether she and other families can opt out of the school year entirely.
“I just don’t see how it’s going to be fruitful for anybody in my household. It changes my dynamic of being a mom already carrying many hats with special education, applied behavioral therapy in the house and when dealing with behavior and behavior intervention,” she said. “It’s not fun or doable. This unique situation is a reality for me.”
Other parents with children in the district’s school on Camp Pendleton’s military base said there’s no way for them to be at home to monitor their kids and make sure they’re tuning into class. Others expressed concerns about paying for childcare, and that the plan could exacerbate inequities because some families will utilize costly solutions like tutors.
Before Tuesday’s meeting and Newsom’s direction, school staff recommended on June 23 various options to the Oceanside school board: a hybrid learning model with safety precautions including class size limits and furniture adjustments, or a full distance learning model for elementary school students. For middle and high schools, staff recommended a hybrid learning model with students divided into two cohorts who alternate between two on-campus days and three distance learning days each week. For preschools, staff recommended a traditional in-person learning model with morning and afternoon on-campus sessions in small student groups, with safety considerations such as monitoring toys and materials provided to each group, Jennings said. The district also planned to offer an option for parents interested in full distance learning, and Jennings told the Union-Tribune the board would present an option for a 100-percent return in the fall along with digital and hybrid instruction models at Tuesday’s meeting. But the board didn’t present that option Tuesday night, and parents remain upset they still don’t know what a full reopening would look like in Oceanside.
Jennings said those options were made with input from staff, stakeholders and parent and guardian input through a districtwide survey and parent forum meetings and with guidance from the California Department of Public Health, California Department of Education and San Diego County Health and Human Services.
“Our priority remains to ensure that our students and staff members can confidently return to a safe and healthy environment that is conducive to learning and work,” Jennings wrote in an email to VOSD on July 14.
Monique Combs, a teacher in the adult transition program at Oceanside Unified, said she appreciates that Newsom gave district guidance because she was worried about the inconsistency across districts. She said it’s not ideal for her or other teachers that schools have to continue with distance learning – especially in her case because her course require hands-on instruction – but she thinks it’s disheartening to see camps forming on different ends of the spectrum.
“Teachers are kind of getting the same thing; it’s what’s wrong with us not being comfortable about going back and we don’t care about students,” she said. “There’s a divide being created I hope we can sweep under the rug when it’s time to go back. Schools should be at the heart of the community, so I hope that everything is a little bit more cohesive and positive and people can put this behind them.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, officials said they will continue listening to parent input as they develop further plans.
Stacy Begin, an Oceanside Unified school board member, said she knows some parents are hoping for an urgent return to traditional learning, but the district has developed a robust distance learning plan for now.
“The plan was put together by our 180-plus employees. I think I have faith that our teachers and classified and our leadership in our district puts together a well thought-out, robust digital learning plan and it’ll continue to improve,” Begin said. “I just know everybody has shell shock from the crisis learning that we did when we closed schools, and everybody had to start online. This is well thought out and intentional. At this point, the governor has made a mandate, and we are doing it.” The board ultimately agreed to move forward with virtual learning for the fall, but there is still potential for the learning plans to be amended.
Meanwhile, parents in other districts like Escondido are also fighting back against hybrid and distance learning models and demanding schools fully open next school year. A group calling itself Escondido Parents Against Hybrid Learning is pushing for an in-person learning plan from that district, too. For now, uncertainty about when schools will reopen at Oceanside Unified and other districts looms until San Diego County comes off the state’s monitoring list.