By Haley Sawyer
Months into an academic year that has relied on a virtual learning format due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the South Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education decided this week on provisional dates for the first phase of campus reopening.
Transitional kindergarten, kindergarten and special education students in preschool to second grade would begin in-person instruction on Feb. 8, while first and second grade would begin on Feb. 16. The board approved the motion 4-1 but emphasized the conditional nature of the decision.
“With the right precautions, we can move safely forward,” board President Ruby Kalra said at the special meeting on Monday. “Certainly, we have to know that what’s happening in the background matters, but once we move onto campus, we really have what we need to stop transmission.”
The majority of the board favored the deadlines to establish a sense of urgency as well as maintain a timeline to receive government funding. An application for a grant to receive funding and open transitional kindergarten through second grade must be submitted by the end of January. The funding will be received as part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s $2 billion “Safe Schools for All” plan.
Board member Suzie Abajian opposed the motion with hesitation toward setting a reopening date.
“I think we can still meet the deadline for Feb. 15 if we reassess at the end of January,” she said. “There’s nothing stopping us from doing the work, having everything set and reassess at the end of this month. I hear what all of you are saying; I still am hesitant to set that date in the middle of a surge.”
The board made its decision after listening to presentations from Dr. Annabelle de St. Maurice and Dr. Nava Yeganeh, pediatric disease experts from UCLA.
Both experts stressed that a safe return to campus can be achieved if people follow protocols, which include wearing a mask, staying 6 feet from others, staying home if experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, washing hands and routinely disinfecting surfaces.
“I think you can have no transmission if you follow the guidelines,” Yeganeh, who works on COVID response with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. “You’re going to have more cases in school, though, because if you think that before there would be one or two people at school that would have coronavirus, now you’re going to have 10 times that amount.
“That doesn’t mean that transmission will happen more commonly. It just means that you are going to have to be super careful. I think that’s the question. If you can follow all the infection prevention protocols, then you can make schools safe.”
Adequate ventilation will also be necessary to slow the transmission of COVID-19, the doctors said. Buildings in the district have ventilation systems with the ability to pull in outside air to mix with filtered air, and portable HEPA filters are available for small rooms.
De St. Maurice and Yeganeh recommended that, if there is adequate spacing and filtration, 12 students can safely learn in a classroom for any amount of time. Both experts also noted that there is low community spread in schools, according to data from other states and countries, as long as guidelines are properly followed.
An SPUSD task force on COVID-19 has been preparing for the return to in-person instruction, placing desks 6 feet apart, installing Plexiglas and placing arrows on floors to indicate the direction of hallway traffic.
There was also a Department of Public Health visit scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 7.
“Lack of planning cannot be the reason we don’t open,” said district Superintendent Geoff Yantz. “We have to be prepared completely and thoroughly to the best of our ability, and that way the decision that you make is based on the conditions at that time and with the most information you have.”
Yeganeh and De St. Maurice also gave some insight into when educators could receive vaccination. California is currently in Phase 1A of vaccine distribution, which includes health-care workers as well as workers and residents at skilled nursing facilities. Education workers are in Phase 1B, Tier One.
When educators are vaccinated is contingent on the supply of the vaccine and if school districts are willing to provide vaccine points of distribution at various schools.
The school board emphasized that the return dates are provisional and subject to change based on possible new information on COVID-19.
“It does give us the ability to plan for the best and I think that’s important,” said board member Zahir Robb. “We have to continue to plan and look at what it would look like to open our schools, have those plans in place and if we end up with more time, it just gives us more time to continue to find those plans.”