By Collin Breaux

Going against both recommendations by the Orange County Board of Education (OCBE) for no masks or social distancing for the new school year and other regional school districts that decided to go all in on virtual learning, the Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD) Board of Trustees tentatively approved a recommended plan for reopening schools for the upcoming school year during a meeting on Wednesday, July 15.

The vote was 5-2. Trustees Judy Bullockus, Patricia Holloway, Gila Jones, Martha McNicholas, and Jim Reardon voted yes. Trustees Amy Hanacek and Krista Castellanos voted no. OCBE’s recommendations were not binding mandates, and individual school districts make their own decisions on local school policy.

The recommended options from staff for what CUSD education will look like for the 2020-21 school year is a hybrid model for grades K-5. Students will have the option of spending the day on campus, half of it being academic instruction with teachers and the other half in activities such as art or music with another teacher or staff member. K-5 students can also spend half the day at home with a parent or another adult.

The option for students in grades 6-12 is to do half of their instruction on campus and the other half online. Students in all grades have the option of 100% online learning if families so choose. Class sizes will be limited to 16 students per teacher.

In contrast, Los Angeles Unified School District, San Diego Unified School District, and Santa Ana Unified School District are among those that will have an all-online learning model for the fall.

“Throughout this summer, we have worked to ensure options for our families, continued excellence in our curriculum and instruction, and a focus on the mental health of our young people as we open the new school year,” CUSD Chief Communications Officer Ryan Burris said in comments to San Clemente Times before the meeting.

The registration deadline for families is July 31. School teams will contact families who have not responded by then. If a family does not indicate a preference, the student will be placed in the 100% on-campus program if in grades K-5, and in the 50% on-campus program if in grades 6-12.

Early registration data from July 1-10 indicates that 63.34% of elementary families have already completed registration. Of those, 63.91% chose the 100% on-campus program, 21.32% chose the 50% on-campus program, and 14.77% chose online learning. For families with students in grades 6-12, 65.13% completed early registration. Of those, 85.19% chose the 50% on-campus option, and 14.81% chose online learning.

CUSD campuses closed in March as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. Students took part in distance learning after campus closures, which CUSD officials acknowledged had shortcomings. Jones said the online education for this coming school year would be different from the past school year’s distance learning.

Reardon, the board president, said the plan allows for flexibility as circumstances rapidly change during the pandemic. Actual decisions on school choices will likely have to be made in August, probably in the first 10 days of the month based on recommendations by then, Reardon said.

“We don’t actually know whether we open school on August 18,” Reardon said. “This choice of online versus part-time versus in classroom is a false choice. That choice has yet to be made, and it will be made on the conditions that exist right as we get to the date that we anticipate opening.”

Jones, Hanacek, and Holloway said they supported online education. Hanacek said their decisions have a lot of weight, and they are responsible for what happens when people return to classrooms.

“There could be scenarios where young people inadvertently hurt someone, and they’d have to live with that, and we put them in that scenario,” Hanacek said. “Have we given thought to the inevitable, if we are deeming in-person education as essential?”

CUSD will follow an existing process for communicating about and handling the death of a student, staff member, or parent if that occurs. CUSD also has protocols for if someone tests positive for COVID-19: that person will be in isolation for at least 14 days, and people who had close contact with someone who tests positive will quarantine for 14 days from the date of initial possible exposure.

Face coverings such as masks or face shields will be required of faculty, staff, and students—the latter except for exemptions defined by the California Department of Health. Temperature screenings will be taken when students get on the bus or arrive at campus. Hand washing will be encouraged, and there will be social distancing dots inside and outside of classrooms. Gatherings will be limited, and signage will be displayed around campus reminding everyone of safety guidelines.

As part of enforcing the face covering policy, CUSD will educate families on the importance of wearing them. People who don’t want to wear masks will be encouraged to enroll in online learning.

Fifty people registered to speak for the public commentary portion of the meeting, though some were not on the line to talk. Trustees limited their time to one minute instead of the usual three minutes, so there would be time for board discussion. Speakers were teachers, parents, and medical professionals and had a variety of perspectives; some supported returning to campus, some favored online education, some were for masks, some didn’t support masks.

Mental health will also be an important part of the new school year. Administrators, managers, and teachers will get training in mental health, and there will be monthly webinars for parents conducted by counselors.

Trustees also unanimously approved a resolution for a temporary high school graduation policy change that, in part, takes away health education requirements for the classes of 2021 through 2024. Health education advocates have previously spoken against the resolution.

“We will be making many temporary policy decisions in order to best prioritize our resources to meet the needs of our students as we build a hybrid model for the opening of school,” Burris said.

Members of the student-led group CUSD Against Racism also called in to again advocate for an anti-racist curriculum and for more diverse narratives in education. Members of CUSD Against Racism have met with CUSD officials, and CUSD officials have reportedly been receptive to concerns and suggestions. CUSD Against Racism members said this was still a start.

Visit capousd.org for more information on the reopening plan and meeting. The Board of Trustees is expected to meet again on Aug. 5.

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