Story by Charlie Betts
Photo by Ella Jayasekera
The South Pasadena School Board discussed the health protocols necessary to safely reopen schools in August at its meeting on Thursday, Jul. 9. Dr. Michael Smit, an infectious disease expert, recommended safety guidelines to the Board in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
The district is following the L.A. County Department of Public Health regulations that allow schools to reopen campuses if the countywide test positivity rate is below eight percent. However, positivity rates in L.A. County currently hover around eight to nine percent, jeopardizing a return to on-site learning.
SPUSD is currently considering different hybrid schedules for next school year, in addition to the possibility of total distance learning.
Superintendent Geoff Yantz outlined the safety precautions the schools will take in the event of on-site learning, such as enforcing social distancing by keeping desks six feet apart, requiring face coverings, implementing hospital grade air filtration, regularly disinfecting school facilities and equipment, and mandating a campus occupancy of no more than 50 percent of students at a time.
Under the proposed Board policy of returning to campus, if a teacher or student tests positive or shows symptoms for the coronavirus, the school and public health authorities will request that the infected person and their family to go into self-quarantine for 14 days, along with any other potentially exposed students, teachers and family members.
The district’s safety measures were expanded upon by Dr. Smit who recommended classroom doors stay open to maximize air flow and that hallways be restricted to only one direction. He also emphasized that students and faculty must follow the health guidelines outside of school to minimize the risk of bringing the virus to campus. Still, Dr. Smit reiterated that there is no way to ensure complete protection.
“Please don’t let the perfect get in way of the good. There is going to be no more return to normal,” Dr. Smit said. “There is no such thing as zero risk anymore and, again, I’ll re-emphasize that we’re going to be challenged to make important decisions with imperfect information. But re-entry affects us all and we’re all in this together.”
SPUSD has offered multiple surveys to gather community input and is planning to ease the eligibility requirements of the free and reduced lunch program. If on-site learning returns, students can pick up and eat lunch at school or during distance learning, can participate in a drive through lunch pick up service. The district will also provide daycare and utilize all five campuses to ensure sufficient availability.
Starting in the fall, the Edgenuity online learning program will only be used for credit recovery and not for the standard distance learning as was previously planned. The community provided strong pushback against the platform after it was used for summer school courses.
“The instruction is delivered in a manner that lacks all engagement and creativity,” a concerned parent stated in an email. “The videos are flat and drone on without any dynamic quality that could interest a teen.”
State legislators dictated that if public schools do not reopen campuses, they need to prioritize live learning such as Zoom over asynchronous — recorded video — methods. Still, local residents pointed out the difference in engagement of virtual learning versus in-person instruction that may force an uncomfortable decision.
“Choosing between the two options offered, hybrid versus virtual academy, amounts to choosing between safety and quality of education,” community member Mike Shimpock said. “This is not a choice we wish to make and a choice that we don’t believe we should have to make.”
School board members restated their focus on supplying a quality education regardless of whether school is on campus or not. The teachers’ union is currently negotiating with the district regarding the instructional methods and expectations for teachers in the case of returning to school. Ultimately, the school board’s highest priority is providing a safe learning environment, which also includes mental wellbeing.
“Staff will pay careful attention to students’ increased mental health concerns,” school board president Dr. Michele Kipke said. “I am very worried about the mental health of our country, the mental health of our community, and the health of our kids.”
The district will be using an online organization called Care Solace to connect families, students, and staff to the appropriate mental health resources.
School board members will discuss the result of the district’s negotiations with the teachers’ union and analyze and possibly adopt instructional methods for the next school year at their upcoming meeting on Thursday, Jul. 16.