By Haley Sawyer
The South Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education unanimously voted last week to return 3rd-, 4th- and 5th-grade students to campus for in-person instruction, tentatively throughout March.
A provisional date of March 11 was set for 3rd-graders, followed by March 15 for 4th- and 5th-graders. Combined with the transitional kindergarten through 2nd-graders who returned to classes last week, the decision to bring back these students would open SPUSD elementary schools at all grade levels.
“Some of the (public) comments talked about kids in the same family where a younger sibling was going to be able to go to school and the older sibling was not,” school board President Ruby Kalra said. “Having three boys who are all pretty close in age, I can really feel for those families and I don’t see a difference in my mind from the TK to 2nd and the 3-to-5. I would advocate for returning all our elementary students to school.”
Los Angeles County is now below the 25 per 100,000 residents daily new case rate, which enables school districts to open their elementary schools for in-person instruction, with or without a waiver.
As the majority of the school year has been held in a distance-learning format due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of the social-emotional well-being of students was at the root of the decision to bring them back to campus.
“We are much more than a school about education and learning loss,” board clerk Zahir Robb said. “It is about that social-emotional connection, that there are adults looking out for them, that we have that deep and meaningful experience that students are looking for at all ages.”
Although state guidelines also allow for 6th-graders to return as well, the board felt it was best for South Pasadena to wait, since it is a middle school grade and therefore has a separate education model.
The state guidelines are intended for self-contained classrooms. In middle school in South Pasadena, conversely, students move through different classes in different rooms throughout the six periods of a school day.
Once a model for 6th-grade students is determined, it could be used throughout the secondary schools.
Just as with grades TK through 2nd — which have already returned to campus — grades 3-5 will be on an a.m./p.m. schedule. Roughly 35% of the student population will be on campus at a time, meaning that social distancing is achievable.
When not in the classroom, students will have recess separated by grade level in separate play zones, which are disinfected throughout the day. Lunch will be drive-thru at South Pasadena High School.
In the 45 minutes between the a.m. and p.m. sessions, classrooms are disinfected. Classrooms also each have hands-free hand sanitizer stations, and teachers have bottles of hand sanitizers for personal use.
Teachers cannot eat together and staff lounges have maximum capacities. Additionally, SPUSD is accommodating teachers who are at risk for COVID-19 by offering the choice to teach in a distance-learning format.
“Our teachers have been through a lot and they’ve accomplished the impossible by doing everything they’ve done,” board member Suzie Abajian said, “and I really believe that they deeply care about our students and they also care deeply about their health and their families.”
Now that elementary schools have resumed, the school board will examine distance as well as hybrid learning options and decide if additional staff will be needed for reopening 6th grade when it is safe to do so.
“It sounds almost like we’re waving a wand and there you go, schools are open, but that is so far from the truth,” Kalra said.
The SPUSD school board is next scheduled to meet on March 9.