Public Concern About Reopening Schools Clogs Board Docket

By Haley Sawyer
The Review

The increasingly murky prospect of reopening schools early next year proved to be a lightning rod for the South Pasadena Unified School District, with 95 public comments forcing the school board to recess its regular meeting to a second night last week to wrap up business.
School officials emphasized last week that plans were not set in stone and that schools won’t open if the current conditions fail to improve significantly. The district pledged to host its parents and stakeholders at meetings next month as it resumes navigating the minefield of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing surge of which is pulling the plug on much of the nation’s dreams of inching closer to normalcy by the start of 2021.

“I really appreciate all the input from the community,” said school board member Suzie Abajian, who last month was reelected resoundingly for a second term. “I think that I can speak for the board that we are committed to the safe reopening of schools and we want to do what’s best for students. These are not conflicting things.”Most of the 95 comments submitted for the Dec. 15 meeting concerned planning for a safe return to in-person instruction. The district got through a handful of those comments before realizing it had little hope of finishing them, much less handling the rest of the agenda, before its 10 p.m. cutoff time.
The board deferred the remainder of those comments and recessed the meeting for Dec. 17, in the interest of having every comment read aloud for the board’s consideration.
“We do appreciate each and every public comment,” said board President Ruby Kalra at the resumed meeting, “and we typically do not respond to the individual public comments, but they are definitely heard.”
According to SPUSD, the district’s tentative return date for preschool special education students, transitional kindergarten and kindergarten students is Jan. 27. K-2 Special Day Class, 1st and 2nd grades have a planned return date of Feb. 1.
Upon students’ return to school, the SPUSD Daycare Program will not be available due to protocols in place by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and space constraints.
Multiple teachers weighed in last week, describing the uncertainty they felt toward returning to campus in February and expressed a desire to be more included in discussions as to when it is best to reopen schools for in-person instruction.
Comments from parents were a mixture of support and opposition for the 2021 return. Some parents felt it will be unsafe to return at that time, while others mentioned that their children are suffering emotionally, socially and academically since the departure from campus.
SPUSD, like virtually all public districts, has been functioning via remote teaching since the pandemic was declared in March.
During her board report, board member Michele Kipke presented findings from a Dec. 16 meeting that included herself, Kalra, Superintendent Geoff Yantz and principals from SPUSD’s three elementary schools.
Kipke, Kalra and Yantz assured concerned teachers that the return dates are tentative and in place for planning purposes, and that a return to campus will not happen in the midst of a surge in COVID-19 cases.
“The safety of our educators, our faculty, our students and our families is front and foremost in our thinking,” Kalra said.
“I think we all agree that remote learning is not the ideal,” she continued. “I think our educators have done a terrific job this year, pivoting and really educating our students under the worst of circumstances and have done a beautiful job, but this is not what we want for our students.”
A SPUSD COVID-19 task force has already been preparing schools for students’ return. Desks are placed 6 feet apart, Plexiglas has been installed to keep people separate and arrows drawn on hallway floors indicate what direction students and faculty should walk in.
Yantz also addressed the CIF Southern Section’s recent announcement that competitive sports have a tentative start date of Jan. 25. Each team and individual sport corresponds to a color-coded tier, similar to the system that Department of Health has in place.
For example, in the purple tier that indicates widespread risk of COVID-19, sports like golf and tennis can be played. In the yellow tier, the least restrictive, sports like basketball and cheerleading can begin.
Yantz emphasized that although sports may begin in late January, it does not necessarily mean that secondary level schools will open in correlation.
Parent town hall meetings hosted by elementary school principals will take place in January, according to the SPUSD press release, to share details on school reopening.