“There’s a thousand boxes to check”: Laguna Beach USD to vote on reopening elementary schools

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El Morro Elementary School is one of Laguna Beach schools considered for reopening Oct. 5.

The Laguna Beach Unified School District Board of Education will vote Friday, Sept. 25, on whether to resume in-person instruction at Top of the World and El Morro elementary schools starting Oct. 5.

Board members’ decision to allow students back in classrooms would be a landmark during an unprecedented pandemic that has kept Laguna Beach campuses closed since March.

On Tuesday, all Orange County schools were permitted to reopen because the County has remained in the Red Tier of state’s color-coded system for two weeks. The decision to reopen schools is made by local school districts.

A majority of board members signaled at a Sept. 17 meeting that they’re willing to restart in-person elementary classes. Unfortunately, news of Orange County’s progress in managing the coronavirus arrived after the board agenda was posted, preventing an official vote at that meeting.

Supt. Jason Viloria said the district received a call from Orange County Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau on Sept. 16 informing them Laguna Beach Unified’s application for a state waiver was approved. That waiver is moot now that Orange County has remained in the less restrictive Red Tier.

“I just want to thank [Dr. Chau’s] team,” Viloria said. “It was actually a very good opportunity for us to have the Health Care Agency review our plan in its entirety. It provided some feedback on things that have changed since the initial guidance came out.”

The plan slated for review at Friday’s school board meeting would allow Transitional Kindergarten through second-grade students to return to campus on Oct. 5.

Students in grades three through five could return to campus on Oct. 7, in addition to Transitional Kindergarten through second grade.

The waiver impacts 915 students enrolled in 39 classes between the two campuses, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency’s website.

The school board previously agreed to give the administration a runway of at least five days before reopening a school to prepare buildings and staff, Viloria said. Both parents and staff members can expect site-specific instructions from their principals, Board President Peggy Wolff said.

“We would not want to reopen without going through that and having a really clear understanding,” Viloria said.

A majority of elementary school teachers support restarting in-person instruction as soon as possible, said Sarah Hopper, president of the Laguna Beach Unified Faculty Association. The Superintendent and school board have demonstrated that they’re very concerned about the safety of teachers and students during this plan, she added.

Teachers have received a manual titled “A Day in the Life of a Teacher” that walks them through protocols from the moment they step on campus. Dress rehearsals for the first day are ongoing, Hopper said.

“Logistically, there’s a thousand boxes to check,” she said.

Amid all of the district’s planning, teachers appear to understand the risk of in-person classes.

“Some teachers are very anxious about coming back,” Hopper said. “We have family concerns like everyone else does. Some teachers have elderly parents and are concerned in the younger grades K-2 where masks are highly recommended but not mandatory.”

Families who opted for the hybrid school model will see a staggered reopening that provides two days of core subject instruction in cohorts of 10 to 12 students, two days of rotating classes in World Language, Art, Computer Skills, Physical Education, Science lab or academic intervention; and distance learning on Fridays.

Even recess is modified to prevent students in different cohorts from interacting.

“It’s not going to be a free-for-all on the playground like it used to be,” Hopper said.

Those families who chose a virtual academy can continue with that format, according to the reopening plan.

For now, the school board majority appears to favor keeping students in sixth to 12 grades at home until the first trimester ends in November. Deputy Supt. Leisa Winston said a district-commissioned survey of secondary school students on possible return dates received feedback from 786 students, a response rate of 52%.

Nearly 60% of Thurston Middle School students who completed the survey said they want to reopen shortly after Orange County is permitted to do so. Meanwhile, 54% of Laguna Beach High School students said they want to wait until the end of first trimester.

In a separate survey conducted by the teacher’s union, 90% of secondary teachers want to wait until after first trimester ends.

“The teachers and students need this time to become well-prepped at distance learning so that in the event a cohort goes down and they need to return from in-person to distance learning that they can do so smoothly,” Hopper said.

Board member Jan Vickers said she supports listening to the teachers’ recommendation for a November restart for in-person instruction of middle and high schoolers.

The school board plans to revisit re-opening secondary school sites for in-person instruction on Oct. 22.

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