Nearly eight months after shuttering its campuses to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the La Cañada Unified School District is ready to reopen its doors to young learners after getting the green light from Los Angeles County.
Superintendent Wendy Sinnette notified parents late last week that county officials granted the district waivers that allow students in transitional kindergarten through 2nd grade to return to campus for limited in-person instruction. La Cañada, Palm Crest and Paradise Canyon elementary schools are set to reopen on Tuesday, Nov. 17.
“We’ve very, very excited,” Sinnette said by phone on Tuesday. “It’s a testament to the entire community pulling together. I think our TK-2 students are among our learners who need to be back in the classroom the most, and we’re really excited to welcome them back.”
Though restrictions from local and state health departments do not allow campuses to open for in-person learning, L.A. County has granted no more than 30 waivers each week for the past month and given priority to schools that have higher percentages of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches.
Even so, of the 74 schools that have been granted waivers, nearly 75% are private or charter schools. According to the county, the only public school districts with elementary waivers are LCUSD, Las Virgenes Unified, Manhattan Beach Unified and El Segundo Unified. Schools’ qualifications regarding safety protocols are among the factors that contribute to the complexity of the waiver-granting process.
“I did not anticipate us getting the waivers as quickly as we did,” Sinnette admitted. “I didn’t expect that we’d get all three.”
LCUSD’s application included endorsements from La Cañada Flintridge Mayor Mike Davitt, teachers and employees associations, LCF Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Pat Anderson and Brooke Niemiec, the La Cañada Elementary PTA president.
“I’m very grateful to everyone because were able to submit [applications] early, and I think because we did that, we were fortunate enough to be able to be granted waivers at all three schools,” Sinnette said.
For months, the district has been preparing for in-person instruction amid the pandemic by stocking up on personal protective equipment — such as masks, sanitizer and face shields — and negotiating with labor unions.
Parents — who will not be permitted to walk on campus — have been advised that children who are not feeling well must stay home. Each site will have a drop-off and pickup procedure in place and students will be separated into small groups of no more than 12 and be screened at one of multiple check-in stations where they will be asked questions about their health and have their temperature checked.
Signs reminding students to wash their hands and maintain 6 feet of social distancing have been placed throughout campuses. Face coverings are required for all people on campus, and students will be assigned to a zone during recess. Paraprofessionals will be on site to supervise the children.
“Obviously, we wouldn’t reopen if we didn’t feel extremely confident in our ability to keep everyone safe and to do the best job possible,” Sinnette said.
The district designed a schedule for elementary schools that divided students into morning and afternoon cohorts and would give classified employees time to clean and sanitize classrooms throughout the day. It also allows the district to “transition [into a hybrid in-person learning model] as seamlessly as possible.”
The sudden pivot to on-campus learning can be difficult for children and teachers, and Sinnette said the three schools are ready to help anyone “dealing with the social-emotional adjustment, as well as the transition to an on-campus learning environment.”
“It’s a big step for many of them because there are concerns about the trends and numbers, and that’s why everyone has my fullest commitment that we’re doing things right,” Sinnette said. “We’re following all of the protocols and [doing] everything that’s in our power to ensure health and safety on the campuses.”
With a recent surge in coronavirus cases throughout the nation and L.A. County, Sinnette said there will be flexibility for families not yet ready to return to campus. Those students will be placed with others whose families opted for distance learning back in July, when the district asked elementary parents to decide whether to commit to remote instruction for the entire school year or being open to returning to campus when permitted by public health officials.
According to Sinnette, about 40% of families with children in transitional kindergarten through 2nd grade chose to remain in LCUSD’s Virtual Learning Academy.
“We have been working hard over the last week to place those students in a virtual learning cohort,” Sinnette said. “We have set up a couple of new virtual classrooms. Some kids will have a little bit of a shift but we’re trying to keep — whenever we can — the same teachers and same [morning] and [afternoon] schedules. To make these accommodations, we’ve had to be creative to meet the needs of the parents.”
Sinnette assured that students who aren’t committed to distance learning can return at a later date with the teacher assigned to them when school began in August.
LCHS TO WELCOME LIMITED NUMBER
The approval of waivers from the county wasn’t the only good news to come from the district. Sinnette announced that La Cañada High School will open to host pods for students with special needs or at-risk learners in grades 7-12 starting Monday, Nov. 16.
Five non-mixing cohorts of 12 students will be allowed on campus for online instruction via Zoom under the supervision of substitute teachers.
“It’s not the same type of experience that you’re going to see at TK-2,” Sinnette said. “The students will still be Zooming, but it is very exciting to see some of our learners at 7-12 also come back to campus.
“We really wanted to provide them with structural support to access their virtual learning and being back on campus with schedules and routines. They’ll be in a pod and won’t be changing classes and they’ll still be accessing their virtual instruction. But I think it’s the best step we can take to try to bring those learners in and support them with an on-campus environment.”
Sinnette said LCHS may add an additional three pods on Monday, Nov. 30, to accommodate more students.