Pasadena Unified School District Superintendent Brian McDonald said he plans to recommend that schools do not open their doors to students next month, instead starting off the year with a curriculum solely based on distance learning, as the novel coronavirus continues spreading through Los Angeles County.
The Board previously announced the school year would begin Aug. 17 with a combination of in-person and distance learning, along with a program of only distance learning for those uncomfortable sending their children back to school yet.
As COVID-19 cases surged in Southern California, the PUSD said it was considering an online-only curriculum for all students.
“All of us would like to see students back in school when it’s safe to do so. But Los Angeles County has recorded a surge in new cases in the last week, with a 9% rate of positive cases,” McDonald said in a letter.
“We cannot and will not take chances with the health and safety of our students and staff. I plan to bring a recommendation to the Board of Education at a special meeting on July 16 that Pasadena Unified open in a 100% distance learning model on August 17.”
He added that the district would continue monitoring the situation, along with guidelines for school reopenings provided by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health on Monday, and keep parents updated on what it will be possible to safely reopen campuses.
“Our school reopening plan is designed to allow us to move seamlessly from a hybrid model to a full distance learning environment and back again as conditions change,” McDonald said.
While distance learning is ongoing, the district will emphasize engagement between students and teachers, progress monitoring and keeping students connected with their schools, he said.
“We will provide specific details in the weeks ahead,” McDonald said.
The district planned to continue making arrangements for in-person instruction “as soon as public health conditions allow and adequate resources are allocated by both the state and federal governments for the safe return to schools,” he said.
While the county released school reopening guidelines on Monday, the county does not have authority to close independent school districts, such as the PUSD, except through a Public Health Order, which has not been issued, according to representatives of L.A. County SUpervisor Kathryn Barger’s office.
“It is up to each local school district to determine when they can implement these guidelines to safely reopen schools and resume in-person learning,” Barger said.
“The classroom setting is immeasurably valuable for our students, especially those who are most vulnerable, such as those with special needs and English learners. Extended school closures will have an immense impact on families throughout L.A. County, but we maintain that the safety of students is our priority.,” Barger said.
The superintendent had been keeping in close contact with both city and county health officials in recent weeks, PUSD Board Member Patrick Cahalan said.
“In addition, I have been following the data in the last two weeks,” he said. “The numbers nationwide, statewide, and locally have all been going in the wrong direction.”
The pandemic leaves the district with no choice, PUSD Board Member Michelle Richardson Bailey said.
In addition to students’ health, “you think about our employees who have families and small children who would have to go to the classroom and then return home,” she said. “So in the name of safety and just applying an ounce of prevention, I think it is better that we do it this way for now until they’re able to get a handle on preventing this disease from spreading the way that it does.”
“I think it’s best for all involved. It’s best for the students, the teachers, the district as a whole and for the community,” she added. “As a board member, I’m going to put safety first. Safety has to come first.”
PUSD Board Member Scott Phelps said the increasing likelihood that the pandemic would prevent students from going to classes next month was disappointing but necessary.
“Socio-emotionally, it’s a big loss for students not to have the in-person connection with their teachers and their peers. So it’s going to be very challenging for the young people more than older people,” he said.
“But hopefully, it isn’t too long,” he added.
Phelps pointed to a recent cautionary tale in the news out of Israel, where officials decided to open schools fully in May.
“And now Israel is shutting down again because, what they think happened, is adults that came into the school gave the virus to the kids and then the kids went home and gave it to everybody,” he said.
Former PUSD teacher and current PUSD parent Laura Hackett said she would have much preferred to see the schools open physically, but understands the district’s reasoning.
“I was looking forward to a hybrid model. My son is having a difficult time with distance learning,” she said. “However, I don’t want to put my family or my elderly parents at risk. This also means that I won’t be returning to substitute teaching. But I will put my efforts into distance learning with my son. I am also currently teaching remotely to provide income for my family.”
“I have real concerns about students starting in a 100% online model, however, I believe it is the safest decision right now,” Hacket said. “I am worried about widening the achievement gap. The more affluent parents will be able to afford tutors, while our most vulnerable students will fall further behind.”
A PUSD teacher, who asked not to be identified, said the district does not appear prepared to shift to entirely online instruction.
“The PUSD is scrambling to find enough curriculum that will work online. Teachers are creating PowerPoint presentations and digital worksheets from scratch. It’s one big mess.”
Denise and Greg Moore, who have a grandchild in the PUSD, said they were also concerned about the proposal. Denise, herself, is a retired teacher.
“We are worried about parents who have to work,” the couple said in a statement. “They feel that child care will fall on grandparents like us, who have a hard time with the technological aspect. And some of us have underlying health conditions.”
Managing Editor Andre Coleman contributed to the story.