By Haley Sawyer
The South Pasadena Unified School District board of education solidified its plan to partially reopen campuses by unanimously voting this week to resume in-person instruction for transitional kindergarten through 2nd grade.
The campus reopening is set to happen on Thursday, Feb. 18.
“We’ve been listening to experts and we’ve been listening to the science, which I think is very clear that we can have kids in the classrooms and do it in a safe way,” said board member Michele Kipke, who is a pediatrics professor at Keck School of Medicine and a researcher at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “We had the Department of Public Health come out, and they’ve agreed that we have a safe plan and everything we need to have in place to ensure it’s safe for both our kids and our teachers.”
SPUSD has been using distance learning since the beginning of the school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and had transitioned to it shortly after the pandemic began last year. The school board began discussing when it might be appropriate to reopen schools in December, after receiving waivers to stage a limited return of some elementary students.
The board considered opening in January, but delayed it after a spike in post-holiday COVID-19 cases. Now, after myriad presentations from health experts, the board feels confident in a mid-February reopening.
“From my side, it seems hard to see this as a preemptive push or something that is a rush to a decision-making,” said board member Zahir Robb. “We have been very prudent about this process. We are following the guidelines; we’re looking at a time where the data shows us that this will be the time to open.”
Additionally, a presentation earlier at Tuesday’s meeting on the social-emotional impact of distance learning further encouraged the reopening of schools.
Nancy Goldstein, a program specialist at SPUSD, noted that limited connectedness, social isolation and difficulty accessing curriculum have caused an increase in students’ social-emotional distress. Teachers can’t help students as much as they once did, as they have difficulty reading body language and facial expressions during Zoom classes.
Goldstein also presented CDC studies that indicate school shutdowns are linked to higher risks of obesity and rates of depression and anxiety during and after isolation ends. She added that school routines are important coping mechanisms, particularly to young people with mental illness.
“The longer the student is away from their regular routine and from the school environment, the harder it’s going to be to return,” Goldstein said.
California Department of Health guidelines dictate that schools can reopen for elementary instruction without waivers if the average adjusted daily new case rate in that county is below 25 cases per 100,000 residents for five consecutive days.
As of the school board’s Feb. 9 meeting, the adjusted case rate was 31.7 and is expected to drop below 25 by Feb. 16. Adjusted case rate data is released every Tuesday.
The district has been preparing campuses for the return of students, and was given glowing reviews by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health during a site visit in early January.
COVID-19 workplace policies and practices are posted at each school along with signage that indicates the requirement of personal protective equipment. Compliance teams are equipped with exposure plans in case a student begins to feel symptoms during the school day.
Each room has a posted maximum occupancy and desks are placed 6 feet apart or have barriers in between them. To further prevent overcrowding, there are separate entrances for each grade and each school has outdoor classroom areas.
SPUSD has also been operating extended day care for roughly 80 students and has had no outbreaks of COVID-19.
“Since the start of the school year, we had 80 kids who have been in our day care,” Kipke said. “They’ve been in our classes throughout the surge and we’ve had no transmissions. I think it speaks to the fact that you can have kids together, you can have them at our schools and you can do it safely.”