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By Collin Breaux

After being closed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD) campuses could gradually reopen for in-person instruction in the coming weeks as part of a phased-in return to campus plan.

The CUSD Board of Trustees approved the plan recommended by staff during a special meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 2. Under the plan, special education programs and services are scheduled to return starting on Sept. 28, preschool through fifth grade starting on Sept. 29 through Oct. 5, middle school starting on Oct. 6 and high school starting on Oct. 13.

An amendment to the plan, introduced by Trustee Gila Jones, seeking a waiver for elementary campuses to reopen earlier, was also approved.

Trustees Jones, Jim Reardon, Judy Bullockus, Martha McNicholas and Student Advisor Anchal Bhaskar voted yes. Trustee Krista Castellanos voted no. Trustees Amy Hanacek and Patricia Holloway were not at the meeting.

The projected dates are in accordance with the state’s new color-coded and tiered coronavirus monitoring system. As of this posting, Orange County was in the purple tier—considered the widespread tier and highest-risk level—but is expected to move into the red tier, considered the substantial tier and comparatively lesser-risk level, on Sept. 8.

The returns to campus are expected as coronavirus cases have been declining in Orange County, and they are expected to continue trending downward.

The return-to-campus plan includes guidelines for what school days on campus will be like. Classrooms will be arranged to provide physical distancing, with at least six feet of distance between the teacher’s desk or station and students.

Facial coverings will be required of students and staff. Classrooms will be limited to approximately 16 students. Outdoor space will be prioritized. Instruction on Mondays will be 100% online, with all students virtually attending classes, though special education programs will still attend on campus five days per week in their self-contained classrooms.

“Students want to come back, because they miss their friends. They want social interaction,” Jones said. “Well, I’m here to tell you there won’t be normal social interaction. The fact is, it is not going to be like it was.”

The return-to-campus plan is in accordance with a flexible reopening plan the Board of Trustees had approved in July that gave families the options to enroll students in an on-campus curriculum or remain in 100% online learning.

A student discipline plan will also be in place for not wearing facial coverings. Students at the elementary school level will receive three warnings and then be reassigned to 100% online learning after the fourth violation. Students at the secondary level will receive two warnings and then be reassigned to 100% online learning after the third violation.

“This is not a plan to punish students. That is not what this is,” said Gregory Merwin, chief academic officer for education and support services. “This is a plan to protect students and staff.”

Students’ temperatures will be taken by a teacher or staff member prior to a first session, first class or when boarding the bus. The district will also distribute information to families on proper facial covering use, physical distancing, hand washing and symptom screening.

The 2020-21 school year began on Aug. 18 with students using online learning, as they did the previous school year after campuses were closed.

A day after the Board of Trustees meeting, Rep. Mike Levin (D-CA) held a virtual discussion with educational and child health representatives from North County San Diego and South Orange County.

“I’m listening to public health experts to guide these decisions,” Levin said on school reopenings.

Securing funding through the HEROES Act legislation—which as of this posting had been passed by the House of Representatives but not the Senate—was also talked about.   

Constituents participating in the discussion further mentioned job losses from the pandemic, the necessity of staying in contact with people caring for children at home and trying to provide for their families, and recent coronavirus statistics in Orange County.

Jessica Geyer and Michele Ploessel-Campbell, legislative co-chairs for CUSD PTA, brought up aging infrastructure and technological gaps in the district, as well as the importance of funding for special education and providing full special education services.

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