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By Collin Breaux and Shawn Raymundo

Lining up with other aspects of daily life in California gradually reopening, and with the support from parents, the Capistrano Unified School District is eyeing a full-time, five-day return to campus for students during the 2021-22 school year, starting in August.

District staff previewed aspects of what’s called the “reopening 2.0 plan” during a Board of Trustees meeting on April 21. The plan that was presented was a draft, and trustees did not vote on any details. Approval for a final plan is expected during next month’s BOT meeting on May 19.

Teachers union members were consulted when coming up with the reopening plan, which would bring all students back to CUSD campuses full-time for the following school year, slated to begin Aug. 17.

The reopening plan, if approved, would follow all guidelines from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), including requiring masks for students. The district would work to reduce class sizes at schools.

In-person instruction would reportedly follow a traditional bell schedule. The reopening plan would also bring back physical education and elective courses that were cut from the curriculum during the current 2020-21 school year.

The district’s discussions on next school year’s reopening come as middle and high school campuses this week welcomed back more of their students for in-person instruction. On-campus capacity expanded to four days a week for the remainder of the current school year.

At San Clemente High School on Tuesday, April 27, faculty and staff were excited to have more students back on campus, Principal Chris Carter told San Clemente Times during a brief tour of the school.

Students at San Clemente High School mingle about the campus quad before the school day on Tuesday, April 27—when students were allowed to return to campus for four days a week of in-person instruction. Photo: Shawn Raymundo

“It’s just incredible to have the energy back on campus. When we first brought kids back in October, that was exciting, we finally had kids back on campus, but it was still relatively quiet,” Carter said. “And then now just walking through that quad and just listening to the cacophony of voices, the hustle and bustle, and just kids moving about, it really feels like they’re back.”

According to Carter, half the student population, about 1,500 teens, are signed up for the in-person instruction four days a week, while the other half are students whose families opted to continue with online learning. For the rest of the semester, Mondays will remain an online-only day for all students.

“We’re just excited to have kids back on campus. I think that’s the main thing—the energy level,” Carter said, adding that the school wants to finish off the year “on a high note. We want kids back here, to engage with their peers as we work through this.”

CUSD students gradually began returning to campuses on a limited capacity back in September. Campuses initially closed in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Online instruction was instituted afterward, with parents and trustees criticizing the initial level of quality of the distance learning curriculum.

Ahead of the first week of four-day, in-person instruction, Carter said, teachers and administrative staff came up with a reopening plan to ensure that classrooms were set up appropriately and can accommodate students spaced 3 feet apart.

One worry Carter had on Tuesday morning was whether the influx of some parents unaccustomed to dropping off their students, coupled with the addition of students parking on campus, would create any traffic delays.

“The only concern I kind of had was to make sure that parents allowed enough time to get here in the morning, and then kids coming here to the parking lot, we have new drivers that never had to navigate our parking lot—they may have been sophomores last year and didn’t park here,” Carter explained.

Students head to their first class of the school day on Tuesday, April 27. Photo: Shawn Raymundo

“It seems like it flowed pretty well, because here we are, the bell rang about three minutes ago, and the parking lot is clear,” Carter said. “So that worked in our favor. But that was one of the main concerns, just making sure people weren’t shocked seeing the double amount of cars.”

While on campus, students are to continue wearing face masks in and out of the classrooms, with the exception of their lunch hour. Carter said there haven’t been any issues related to the mask-wearing rule, noting that all the students have been complying.

A discussion on the very topic of mask requirements came up during the CUSD board meeting this month. Gregory Merwin, chief academic officer for education and support services, said the district anticipates masks will likely continue to be required.

“We expect to hear more from the governor,” Merwin said. “He mentioned June 15 as a date where additional information will be shared.”

Merwin also cited information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding the effectiveness of masks, in terms of limiting the spread of COVID-19. Some parents who commented during the meeting spoke out against the effectiveness of masks.

“We will be watching very closely on CDPH guidance, because as a public entity, CDPH sets that standard of care for us as a public school district,” Merwin said. “We must follow CDPH’s guidance. We do not have an option as a public school district.”

Trustee Gila Jones said everything they do in a public school is regulated by the state.

“You can say, well, just violate the rules,” Jones said. “But they’re the ones who send us the money. If we don’t follow their rules, they can actually defund us.”

Capo Unified intends to still provide a separate online learning program if families choose to not send a student back to campus. The online model will also follow a traditional bell schedule.

District staff plans to educate and reach out to families about the reopening, and it will launch a reopening 2.0 website for families before the August start date.

SR_1Shawn Raymundo
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.

Collin Breaux

Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at                         

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