OPUSD updates plans to reopen entire district

Previous plan expands to include secondary schools

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Social distancing sign propped outside of an Oak Hills classroom. (Photo courtesy of Daisy Calderon/Talon)

Eight months ago, school was in session. Students went about their normal lives. They attended classes, hung out with friends and everything was normal. Fast forward through 2020, and life itself is completely different. Going back to school would not be what it once was. No more hugging friends, no more chit-chatting with teachers during seventh period.

Up until Friday, Oct. 23, students, staff and parents were only given the general knowledge that Oak Park Unified School District elementary schools would be reopening for kindergarten and first grade students. In a ParentSquare Blast, Superintendent Dr. Tony Knight — along with  Oak Park Board of Education President Barbara Laifman and Oak Park Teachers Association President Russ Peters — announced that the secondary school students would also be given the opportunity to return to school in a hybrid format in January 2021.

According to Superintendent Dr. Tony Knight, “this is conditional.” The COVID-19 situation in the Ventura County Area, which is divided into tiers of severity, will determine whether schools can reopen. If Ventura County remains in the red tier or lower for 14 consecutive days or more, school districts have the ability to open. If the county lands in the purple tier or higher, schools will be forced to remain in the current distance format.

The current plan is to send elementary school students back to school the first week of January, receding the return of secondary school students during the second week of January. Parents were given the decision to choose between a virtual or hybrid format between Nov. 5-12.

“The reason the secondary schools are reopening a week later is that teachers are to have three days in the current Friday model to prepare for hybrid learning transition. Elementary schools will hold three preparation days in December before winter break. The high school has finals that week so their three days will be held the first week of January,” Dr. Knight said.

The entrance of Oak Hills Elementary School with clouds looming in the background. (Photo courtesy of Daisy Calderon/Talon)

Oak Hills Elementary School principal Erik Warren has made it clear that OPUSD has been preparing for hybrid learning for months and has come up with an effective protocol to keep students safe. 

“A lot of the work in terms of the physical safety of students and what we need to do to prepare the campus was done over summer,” Warren said.

There will be precautions set in order to assure that students remain the appropriate distance apart from one another and to ensure that each child is fit to attend school each morning before entering campus. 

“Every morning every child will have to get screened by a trained staff member to determine if they are safe to enter the campus,” Warren said.

In addition to social distancing and temperature regulations, students will be placed into separate cohorts decided through A and B groups, which lowers the number of students in a classroom at one time. Cohort A will be attending school on Monday and Tuesday, while Cohort B will be on campus on Wednesday and Thursday.

Although this has been a very difficult situation for staff members and parents, both the district and teachers’ union were able to come to an agreement about how the school year will proceed. 

“The board voted unanimously to support the plan, and it was strongly supported by the teacher’s union,” Knight said.

Although an unanimous vote was made in favor of the new hybrid learning format, Knight clarified that “not all the teachers support this plan … and there were some parents who were upset that we were not starting earlier.” 

Parents and teachers alike voiced issues about the new format; many in support, however some were against the idea.

While the option to go back is available as of the beginning of November, a factor to keep in mind safety-wise is the amount of people actually returning back to school. According to a survey conducted by SafetyCulture in September, 43% of parents across the nation felt comfortable sending their children back to school. It is important to keep in mind that as COVID-19 case numbers rise and fall, this statistic is subject to change.

Meetu Kaur, parent of elementary school student Devjot Singh, shares similar views to many parents of young children right now. Her younger son, who just started first grade at Red Oak Elementary school, has been one of many young children struggling to adjust to a virtual classroom environment. According to Kaur, the system has been “a little challenging for [her] younger one.”

Side angle of the entrance of Oak Hills Elementary School. (Photo courtesy of Daisy Calderon/Talon)

“I would prefer all of them to not be in the class at the same time on the same day. A hybrid model with alternate days would work best,” Kaur said. 

She voiced this as her biggest concern for sending her young kids back to school, but was not quick to forget how helpful it will be, too.

“It’s important for their social development, that’s how kids are supposed to be. They have to go and interact with other kids, [and] they have to interact with their teacher. Online, they can’t do that,” Kaur said.

Equally as important to the concerns of parents are the opinions of OPUSD students. Oak Park High School junior Izzy Ravden will not be returning in January because she has personal concerns about the hybrid model.

“The risk is really high because you are being exposed to a lot of people and all of the people that those people are seeing,” Ravden said.

The efforts of the Oak Park team of administrators working together to get students back on campus in a safe and effective way. They have met, planned and accounted for all of the new safety measures to create the safest school environment possible.

“It isn’t perfect. But we have time. It’s a nice compromise in some ways … there is going to be some level of risk and everybody knows that,” Knight said.