The Glendale Unified School District has committed to continuing distance teaching through at least March 12, with the current surge in coronavirus cases essentially pulling the plug on any potential plans to add more in-person programming at the start of 2021.
Superintendent Vivian Ekchian and the district’s board of education emphatically made that pledge at last week’s meeting, the last of 2020. As for wider in-person instruction, officials also acknowledged the very real possibility that they could move the goalposts further away as they approach March, depending on how Los Angeles County fares through the pandemic.
“We will continue to engage in distance learning,” Ekchian said. “We are not interested in bringing more personnel back to our campuses — teachers, counselors, nurses, itinerant personnel, teacher specialists — during a surge. We will have to hope for the best. March 12 is the end of the third quarter; it seems to be the best next step in terms of our making safe decisions for all employees, students and the community. We are not making decisions beyond that, because much can change between now and then.”
In the immediate future, the district will resume meal distribution when the term picks up after the winter holiday break on Jan. 7. Although distance instruction resumes that day, in-person services — the learning pods, learning centers, athletic conditioning and on-site assessments — will resume on Jan. 11. This includes the limited reopening of Horace Mann Elementary School; the school was granted a TK-2nd grade waiver, but will start only with TK and kindergarten. The district plans to slowly add reopening of the 1st and 2nd grades after that, although that schedule has not yet been cemented.
GUSD may individually apply to reopen other elementary schools in 2021, but has no plans to do so yet.
“If we do apply for additional waivers, it will be with collaboration and buy-in from teachers and staff at each individual school site,” said Kristine Nam, a GUSD public information officer, in an email.
Meanwhile, the district and Glendale Teachers Association have been regularly meeting on extending their memorandum of understanding that addresses distance learning. The current agreement is scheduled to expire at the end of the month, and the union held a car parade in support of an extended agreement around the district building on Jackson Street last week.
The district has a number of other reopening applications prepared, but will not submit them until the surge fades, Ekchian said.
“We want to be safely beyond the surge,” she said. “We want to have additional information about what can be available to our families and our employees and we are working toward a third quarter that is safe — primarily in distance learning and maintaining the programs we have launched at our campuses, not expanding them at this time until we are post-surge, in consultation, of course, with public health [officials] and our local health-care partners.”
The decision is likely to further stress Glendale families keen on having their children return to the normalcy of in-person school. Parent surveys published by the district indicate that 51% of the 9,934 respondents districtwide want to send their kids back to school, with the remaining 49% opting for full distance instruction.
More specifically, 53% of elementary parents would send kids back to school, while an even half of middle school parents would and 48% of high school parents would.
Learning pods set up at elementary schools provide child-care services to some families — chiefly those of essential workers, teachers and people receiving assistance because of low income — but those kids are still utilizing distance learning while at the schools.
Shant Sahakian, the board’s vice president, said he hopes the situation by March will allow the district to relax more restrictions for students, but acknowledged that officials will have to remain adaptive to whatever happens. Sahakian recovered from COVID-19 earlier this month after catching it in November.
“It’s important for all of our stakeholders to know that we are sensitive to the environment,” he said last week. “This is a rapidly changing situation, and as much as we want to deliver clarity, it’s difficult to provide clarity at a time when everything is quickly changing. Ultimately, we are mindful of the safety of our employees, our students, our families and our community.
“We know many of our students are struggling in the present restrictions that they have, but we really need our community to help us get to the place where we can actually provide more services to our students,” Sahakian added. “That’s a collective responsibility; it goes far beyond just the superintendent and the five of us on the dais.”
County health officials have conducted on-site visits at 16 GUSD schools and said each met criteria for COVID-19 policies that would permit reopening. (Waivers are limited in number each week, which means some schools could wait for weeks even after qualifying.) The county plans to inspect Glendale High School in January.
“We are incredibly proud to say all of our schools meet all criteria,” said Kelly King, assistant superintendent of educational services. “There were some suggestions — and visitors even said that they had to search for suggestions — but those suggestions that they did make, we have applied across all of our school sites.”
These criteria include, among many others, the installation of handwashing stations, wider separation of classroom desks and utilizing outdoor space for instruction.
The district also has added $21.3 million in one-time revenues related to COVID-19 relief and expenses, mostly courtesy of the federal CARES Act. This money almost entirely offsets the $21.6 million in related expenditures since the start of the school year.
Ekchian emphasized that the district will not feel compelled to emulate neighboring districts as they reopen and will not necessarily proceed full steam ahead even with permission from the county.
“Every setting is different and we have to address the concerns of our community within our own relevance,” the superintendent said. “We’re not trying to accelerate launching more programs or closing of programs based on other school districts’ decisions. We’re looking at the data here and what our community needs are.”
Board President Armina Gharpetian, seemingly in acknowledgement of some data showing there was limited risk in reopening schools, again reminded parents that flexibility is key moving forward.
“Personally, as a parent, as a GUSD board member, I really don’t think it is the wise decision to completely shut down schools until June,” she said. “I think things might change and we need to have flexibility. This is the time we can switch the knob to the right or the left if we need to adjust things. I believe March 12 is a very reasonable date for us to continue the work we’ve been doing and continue with the programs in place.”