Surge in COVID-19 cases causes superintendents to rethink reopening plans

Just when it looked like a hybrid learning model would best position their districts to strike a balance between educational needs and safety, several Inland Empire superintendents say a continued surge in COVID-19 cases in their communities has them leaning back toward a full distance learning approach.

The insights came as 10 county office of education and district superintendents discussed the challenges of reopening schools for the 2020–21 school year at a panel during the July 14 University of Redlands 16th annual Summer Institute on Leadership for Educational Justice. The forum came the same day California shattered its one-day high by recording 11,142 COVID-19 cases. It also fell just one day after the state’s largest two school districts, Los Angeles Unified School District and San Diego USD, announced they would start the new year solely in distance learning mode — moves which spurred a domino effect across urban and suburban districts.

“Just two weeks ago, about all of our districts were looking at a hybrid model,” said San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools Ted Alejandre, whose office oversees 33 districts. “If the cases continue to move like they are, we anticipate more districts going distance learning only.”

Superintendents on the panel said the shift seems most prudent considering the unknowns about the virus and what the fall may bring, however, they also recognize that a return to distance learning delivers likely negatives of its own, particularly for students who lack proper digital access or need extra academic support. “When you have so many learning gaps out there, I think it’s something that weighs heavily on superintendents,” said Fontana USD Superintendent Randal Bassett.

Even more foundational and worrisome than educational needs, longtime Jurupa USD Superintendent Elliott Duchon said, is the concern about basic human services and student well-being if campuses remain closed. “What’s happening at home to the students that we can’t reach?” he asked. “That’s the stuff that keeps me up at night.”

Newly arrived San Jacinto USD Superintendent David Pyle, while open to full distance learning if necessary for the health and safety of the community, reinforced those concerns about the conditions of children. Pyle said a majority of the district’s 10,000 students come from high-needs areas, with 132 students already enrolled as homeless for the coming year. “One of the biggest challenges of not returning to the classroom is how are we going to meet those needs?” he said.

While San Jacinto is still weighing its options, Jurupa USD’s board approved a distance-only start to the school year at its July 10 meeting, with the hope of returning to in-person instruction as soon as conditions allow. Even with a model in place and 1:1 devices available to students thanks to a bond passed five years ago, Duchon said the path ahead will offer a stringent test for leaders and staff. “The real hard work is in front of us. I’d like to say we’re there, but we’ve got a long way to go,” he said.

And for those districts still in the throes of finalizing a plan, or reconsidering an earlier plan, a huge weight lays on their shoulders.

“This is, I can unequivocally say, the most difficult time of my career,” said Oceanside USD Superintendent Julie Vitale, whose board will consider reopening plans at its July 21 meeting. “I haven’t talked to one superintendent who says that they have this handled.”

The pressure has only intensified as the reopening of schools conversation “seems to have spiraled into political warfare” on a national stage, Rialto USD Superintendent Cuauhtémoc Avila lamented. He noted that district leaders will continue to lean on apolitical public health officials and data in informing their decisions, despite the scrutiny they may draw from some people in their communities.

“We know we can’t please anybody,” Jurupa’s Duchon said. “With an abundance of caution, we’re entering into a time when we can’t see below the water.”

The panelists also shared concerns about how schools have been left by the wayside or singled out in certain circumstances. In addressing Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent closures of indoor operations at restaurants, hair salons, places of worship and other venues, Riverside County Deputy Superintendent Edwin Gomez called out “the incongruent expectation that schools should be open.”

“I would submit that the best way to get kids back into school for learning is up to all of us.” Gomez concluded, imploring everyone to follow public health orders and advice.