LCUSD Prepares Wider Campus Return Amid Cautious Rollout

‘They’re So Tall!’ 3rd Grade Welcomed Back

Outlook Valley Sun Photo
Energized students are dismissed from La Cañada Elementary School on Wednesday, the first day of an optional return to in-person instruction for 3rd graders. LCUSD is one of the few districts in Southern California to offer on-campus instruction.

The sight of 3rd-graders having their temperature checked before entering campus might not be a normal one for La Cañada Elementary Principal Emily Blaney, but it certainly is a welcome one. Her school, along with Paradise Canyon and Palm Crest, provided in-person instruction to children in 3rd grade for the first time in 11 months on Tuesday.
“We haven’t seen them in a whole year,” Blaney said of the 3rd-graders. “They’re so tall. We just noticed how much they grew.”
It is yet another milestone for the La Cañada Unified School District, which was one of the first districts in Los Angeles County to open its doors to transitional kindergartners through 2nd-graders back in November.
Superintendent Wendy Sinnette said the transition for students and teachers went smoothly and “everyone did an excellent job.”
“These kids are developmentally in a similar group [to those in TK-2],” she added. “It was just sort of a culminating step in getting our primary grades back. It was very seamless, and it was just great to have them back.”
Sinnette was encouraged by what she saw from the children at Paradise Canyon Elementary on Tuesday.
“The kids were just so excited,” she said. “The little ones, the 1st-graders and kindergartners, were showing [the 3rd-graders] where to stand so everyone was socially distanced.
“One little guy told me, ‘It’s like the first day of school in February.’”
The district opened the school year with virtual instruction and aggressively pursued all the necessary personal protective equipment required to provide a safe, healthy environment for employees and students. LCUSD and the reopening committee — which consisted of governing board members, administrators and community members — developed a hybrid schedule that would allow limited in-person instruction.
There were three small cohorts of students who attended class in the morning and three more that came to campus in the afternoon.
“We have a modified schedule that has half of the number of students in classrooms,” said PCY Principal Carrie Hetzel. “We have three classes in the morning and three in the afternoon. It’s very doable.”
Before returning to campus, students participated in a tour to learn the safety protocols.
“Their recess is different, they have to line up differently and there are different procedures in place,” Hetzel said. “We want to make sure kids know what to do right away when they arrive to campus.”
Sinnette and administrators received good feedback from teachers. Blaney even shared a laugh with them as they saw the 3rd-graders trekking to campus.
“The kids came back with ALL of their stuff,” she said. “We were laughing because they had all of their books and supplies and came with heavy backpacks. We were helping them lug them up the stairs.”
Watching and helping students make their way to class served as a reminder to Blaney and her colleagues as to why they chose to work in education.
“It feels wonderful. The kids are why we’re all in this in the first place, and it brings me great joy to see kids here on a daily basis,” she said. “It’s not the same; it’s a semblance of normal, but it’s what I think is needed. That human interaction is really important.”

County Green Lights In-Person Learning

Public health officials gave Los Angeles County elementary schools the green light to reopen for students in transitional kindergarten through 6th grade due to a decline in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
County Supervisor Janice Hahn tweeted the news on Monday evening and said that Los Angeles reached the state’s threshold for reopening schools of 25 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people. The L.A. County Department of Public Health made an official announcement the following day, stating that the current case rate is actually 20 new cases per 100,000.
Though L.A. County remains in the restrictive purple tier — which indicates widespread infection — in accordance to the state’s blueprint for a safer economy, county officials were encouraged by the significant drop in cases and hospitalizations since the winter surge.
“Certainly, we benefited from everybody getting back on track to slowing the spread,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said on Tuesday. “These cases would not drop like this if we were continuing to see, for example, the actions that people were taking over the winter holiday.”
Ferrer added that the winter surge served as a “wake-up call” for some people “about the importance of really taking seriously the need for us to protect each other and abide by the public health practices.”
Each school must submit an application to the county that includes its COVID-19 safety protocols. Students must be in small cohorts and everyone must be wearing a mask and socially distanced. Schools will also be required to incorporate coronavirus testing into their regular operations and they must report any cluster cases — three or more new cases within 14 days — to the public health department. School sites must have sufficient ventilation and families must be given the option of keeping children in 100% distance learning.
“We obviously feel confident that if the protocols in place are adhered to all of the time, it creates a lot of safety in the school environment or we wouldn’t be recommending that schools can be reopened,” Ferrer said.
For public schools, the decision to officially reopen ultimately falls on their respective districts, but many teachers throughout the state remain hesitant on returning to campus for in-person instruction without the COVID-19 vaccine.
“There’s no way to open schools without teachers and staff feeling comfortable in buildings and without parents feeling comfortable sending their children,” Ferrer said.
Supplies of the vaccine remain very low, but the county expects to go into its next distribution phase on March 1. The next eligible group includes educators, child care, law enforcement, emergency response, agricultural workers and frontline essential workers.
Due to the scarcity of the vaccine, Ferrer wouldn’t commit to a timeline of when all educators would be vaccinated and said “it will take us awhile.”
The La Cañada Unified School District is already negotiating working conditions with employees and teachers to bring more of its students back on campus, according to Superintendent Wendy Sinnette. The district’s three elementary schools — Palm Crest, Paradise Canyon and La Cañada Elementary — received a waiver that permitted in-person instruction for transitional kindergartners through 2nd-graders back in November. In accordance to public health protocols, LCUSD welcomed back 3rd-graders on Tuesday.
Sinnette met with the elementary school principals late last week to discuss the “items on a pretty hefty to-do list” in regard to the return of students in grades 4-6.
“It won’t be like flipping a switch,” Sinnette told the Outlook Valley Sun on Wednesday. “We know how ready the community is for them to be back. We are working to accelerate it as much as possible.”
To accommodate more students, the district will have to purchase more air filtration units, hire additional staff to clean classrooms between morning and afternoon cohorts as well as paraprofessionals to monitor drop-off and pick-up sites at each school.
“We need to spread things out a little bit,” Sinnette said.
LCUSD will have a staggered reopening for 4th-6th grade to ensure health and safety protocols are “met with fidelity,” Sinnette said.
“I think the smarter, more efficient approach is to have it be a phased approach,” she added. “It will be accelerated. I don’t think there will be much time in between each grade level.”
Students in grades 7-12 will have to wait longer to be considered for a return to campus. Public health officials said the number of new cases would have to fall below seven per 100,000 residents for schools to bring back older pupils for in-person instruction.