The Glendale Unified School District plans to transition into its hybrid education program for elementary schools in March, which has long been designated as the next major decision point for the district with regard to pandemic protocol.
The decision comes this week following the announcement from county officials that elementary schools could reopen their doors for limited in-person instruction, with or without the waivers they may have applied for. Those officials had anticipated this week that adjusted daily new coronavirus cases in Los Angeles County would fall below 25 new cases per 100,000 residents each day — the threshold for reopening elementary schools while in the purple tier.
“The expectation is that past spring break, our students who wish to be learning on-campus will be on campus. At the same time, we cannot do this work without our educators. I’m hoping that those who want to volunteer come forward soon,” Superintendent Vivian Ekchian said at Tuesday’s school board meeting. “I’m really excited about it. My commitment is to make sure that our students can return to campus if they wish to, and students who would like to work from home continue to do that for the remainder of the school year.”
Part of the planning will take guidance from families who submit their return-to-school commitment forms, which are due Sunday. These forms will help officials determine which students should be brought into the hybrid instruction program, which will use a block schedule to alternate two cohorts between on-site instruction and remote instruction each week.
Meanwhile, the district also must hammer out agreements with the Glendale Teachers Association on scheduling and workplace conditions.
GUSD will have a decent starting point in terms of planning. Horace Mann Elementary School brought back some kindergarten and transitional kindergarten students in January under a reopening waiver the district previously secured. Athletic conditioning resumed months ago for middle and high school students. And of course, the district has run its child-care technology pods all school year.
“We have been taking baby steps,” Armina Gharpetian, president of the GUSD school board, said at Tuesday’s meeting. “If there are opportunities for us to bring our students back, we need to work on it. But I really ask our parents to be patient, because we want to be mindful of [figuring out] what are the best safety measures for our students and staff members to come back to school grounds.”
Classrooms will look a bit different, of course. Desks will be spaced out to ensure 6 feet of distance between all students, and they will additionally make use of barriers to curtail the spread of any particulates; obviously this will mean reduced class sizes. Face masks will be the norm, except for when eating or drinking.
“At the very beginning of the pandemic, several of our staff members visited every classroom and determined the capacity of every room,” Ekchian said Tuesday. “We are quite aware of how many students could possibly safely learn in a setting.”
Schools also will make use of dedicated one-way pathing to minimize the chances of cohorts mixing even for small amounts of time. And of course, cleaning and disinfecting protocols will be heightened, and many sites have made upgrades to their air filtration systems.
“We have invested a significant amount of resources into making changes to our classrooms,” Ekchian said.
In a document compiling its agreed-upon principles for return-to-school hybrid instruction, the GTA asserted that concurrent in-person and live-streaming teaching is not feasible, and that their preference is to have a second instructor in the classroom handle the distance teaching portion.
The union also said it didn’t see “full hybrid instruction” as viable until the start of the 2021-22 school year, a statement that pushed for a gradual phased approach for the return of elementary grade levels. In terms of schedules, the union also advocated for breaking on Wednesday and against a morning-afternoon system.
Shant Sahakian, vice president of the school board, seemingly addressed another concern of the GTA on Tuesday, which was that training improve upon the “teach in the morning, train in the afternoon” schedule from the onset of remote teaching last spring.
“Teachers were on the fly reinventing the way we deliver education with no chance to prep and no time to plan,” Sahakian said. “In a similar way, as we return back, they’re going to be in the same position again with a big challenge ahead of them.”
TK and kindergarten students will be brought back first, Ekchian explained, followed by the phasing in of 1st- and 2nd-graders, 3rd- and 4th-graders, and finally 5th- and 6th-graders. In an update to parents, she said the hybrid schedule would alternate groups on Monday/Tuesday and Thursday/Friday, with full remote teaching on Wednesday to facilitate cleaning on campuses.
“It was very clear that both parents and educators preferred a block schedule, where the groups would be coming in on different days in a stable cohort,” Ekchian said.
Families whose students will return to the classroom after being in the technology pods will retain the ability to use the child-care option on their days of remote instruction, the district said. The pods, which have around 1,000 students enrolled, will continue for at least the remainder of the school year after being launched to provide care options for essential workers and low-income families.
“From August, this board, with the leadership of Dr. Ekchian, had the courage to set up child-care technology pods when every other district wasn’t doing that,” Sahakian said. “We know that there are vulnerable students in our community who — yes, even in the face of COVID — there are worse outcomes that are possible. We didn’t want those students to be left alone with no other options.”
It remains unclear when in-person instruction could resume for middle and high school students. Per state guidelines, counties must be in the red tier of coronavirus spread and must have an adjusted daily new case rate of no more than seven cases per 100,000 residents.
In any case, the GTA stressed that hybrid teaching models for older students will likely have to be different from the mold of elementary education.