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‘Blended learning’ is the next step for opening CUSD schools

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Claremont Unified School District Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday 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.

In approving the recommendation from the district’s reopening task force it mandated the following:

• Elementary schools will have half of their students attend morning classes and the other half an afternoon session on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, with all students working online on Wednesdays.

• El Roble Intermediate and Claremont and San Antonio high schools will split their students into two groups based on last names, with “cohort A” students attending Mondays and Thursdays and “cohort B” attending Tuesdays and Fridays, and all attending online school on Wednesdays.

Families and students who aren’t comfortable returning to campus can opt out by checking either the "CORE" (online learning) or "CHAMP" (homeschooling) option when registering for classes. The guidelines state these options are for "medically fragile, at risk or self-quaranting" students, but CUSD Superintendent Jim Elsasser said "We will not ask any questions. They do not need a doctor's note. We just need them to check one of those boxes on the form." 

The reopening task force and others will flesh out the remainder of the plan prior to a virtual public announcement and explanation of the details sometime before August 1. Among the areas still needing clarification are instruction, athletics/sports/physical education, safety protocols, parent volunteers/guest speakers, activities/assemblies, performances and childcare. Look for details of the upcoming public announcement in the COURIER or at www.cusd.claremont.edu. 

Wednesday’s vote came after numerous comments from parents, caregivers and students. Many praised the task force for its work in bringing the recommendations to the board. Others though, expressed displeasure at the prospect of having two different schedules for their elementary and middle/high school students, citing problems with childcare, transportation and added stress on families.

“It does create some problems, some massive inconveniences,” said board president Dave Nemer. “But in the end, the rationale, though every point made are all compelling arguments, is that the am/pm option is much better educationally. We have over 3,000 students and we’re trying to figure out the best possible program on balance for all of those students.”

The very idea of reopening schools has become a politically charged topic on several fronts. Some parents and students who commented during the Zoom meeting Wednesday clearly held anti-face protection beliefs.

Though certain medical or cognitive exceptions will be made, “They have to wear a mask if they’re on campus,” said Mr. Elsasser on Thursday. “That’s just ... They’re required. They can’t be on campus without a mask.”

CUSD has been and will continue to follow guidelines set forth by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. It’s that body that has said schools can reopen for limited onsite instruction.

Under current conditions schools will reopen under phase two guidelines. But what happens if COVID numbers spike?

“That’s a very realistic possibility,” Mr. Elsasser said. “If [LACDPH] were to move us to phase one, it doesn’t mean the [current phase two] plan goes away because remember we have a four phase plan, and that’s there so we know what do to. If we slide into phase one we go full-time distance learning.”

Though he wouldn’t speculate as to whether he thought it was likely a student or staff member would contract the virus, Mr. Elsasser did respond to the practical question of what would happen in that event.

“We’re prepared if they do,” Mr. Elsasser said, adding the protocol is to first isolate the person, contact the district nurse, who will then contact LACDPH. “And they will advise us on everything that has to be done. They will assign someone to us immediately and guide us through the process.”

Will a school immediately be closed if someone tests positive for COVID?

“Not necessarily,” Mr. Elsasser said. “It just depends on each individual case. It could mean, depending on the circumstances, that a classroom of students and a teacher would be sent home to self-quarantine for at least 14 days.”

Mr. Elsasser said the task force has not yet discussed the possibility of moving instruction outdoors, where scientists believe the virus transmits much less successfully than indoors.

A CUSD parent survey administered June 4-10 received 2,907 responses, (a 42 percent return rate), and 1,536 comments. Fifty percent (1,444) said they wanted their kids in school full-time with or without restrictions such as optional masks, mandatory masks, social distancing, etc.

Thirty-six percent (1,041) opted for a combination of in-school and online instruction with schools reopening and students attending in person with required social distancing and alternating between coming to school and participating in online instruction.

Eleven percent (318) wanted full-time online instruction only, with students working completely from home in classes that would deliver online curriculum. Finally, three percent (99) chose a CUSD independent study program, with a parent or guardian delivering the instructional program implementing CUSD curriculum (homeschool).

A staff survey administered June 15-22 got 450 responses (56 percent) and 223 comments. Forty-three percent of responding teachers and administrators said they preferred full time in-school instruction, with 40 percent choosing a combination of in-school and online, 12 percent online instruction only, and five percent answered “n/a.”

The task force came up with plans for each of the four phases identified by Governor Gavin Newsom to guide the state’s response to COVID-19:

Phase one: Schools closed with online instruction only.

Phase two: Schools and childcare open 50 percent of the time, with 50 percent online.

Phase three: Schools reopen at full capacity with precautions in place.

Phase four: Schools open with no restrictions.

In each scenario students’ work is graded and grades are issued.

Another place the mind goes is whether or not CUSD is exposed legally if a student or staff member contracts the virus while at work. Could the district be sued?

“They’re [the California legislature] working trying to pass legislation right now to protect school districts from COVID-related lawsuits as long as we can prove we were following the guidelines of the county health department,” Mr. Elsasser said. “It’s not yet passed. It’s being discussed. We’re always exposed to litigation.”

Asked if the task force had discussed the possible legal entanglements of reopening amid an active pandemic, he said, “Only the importance of following the guidelines from the county health department to help us when facing liability.”

So with Claremont schools set to open the doors to students for the first time since the virus forced them closed in March, the powers that be are moving forward with caution and parents are at best, conflicted.

“To the public and teachers who are listening and district folks, there are so many unknowns and that’s a little scary for sure,” said board member Hilary LaConte. “But I think the recommendation from the task force makes sense at this time and I know as a district we will do our best to serve our students.”

Board clerk Steven Llanusa may have said it best: “It’s not a new normal, it’s a new abnormal, and it’s changing.”

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