Lucia Mar is reopening its schools for in-person learning, but some parents say the split-day model presents serious logistical issues



When local schools closed their campuses due to COVID-19, Sue Goss' kids loved it. She has two daughters, a junior at Nipomo High School and an eighth grader at Mesa Middle School, and neither struggled with the transition to distance learning. They liked not having to get up so early. They liked doing schoolwork in their pajamas.

But as days, weeks, and eventually months passed, Goss said the fun of distance learning wore off, and now her kids desperately miss their friends and teachers.

It's the same story with Goss' sister's kids, a sophomore and fourth grader also attending schools in the Lucia Mar Unified School District. Goss, who worked from home long before the pandemic, watches those two during the week while her sister is at work. They loved learning from home at first, but now they're sick of being glued to a screen all day. They're sick of struggling with rural Nipomo's lacking Wi-Fi.

"They all hate it," Goss said.

When Goss heard that San Luis Obispo County schools would be eligible to reopen for in-person instruction, she thought her kids would want to go back. But Lucia Mar's reopening plan—a hybrid model that includes both in-person and distance learning at all levels—isn't what Goss and her kids had hoped it would be.

In an attempt to reduce person-to-person contact, Lucia Mar students are split in two groups: Those with last names that start with letters A through L attend in-person classes in the morning and finish out the day online, and those with last names that start with M to Z start the day online and attend in-person classes in the afternoon.

Shortly after SLO County met the state requirements necessary to reopen schools on Oct. 6, Lucia Mar started work on its reopening plan. The district welcomed back some students with special needs for in-person instruction in October and early November. And using a split-day hybrid learning model initially drafted and approved by Lucia Mar's board of education in July, all elementary students will be able return to school campuses for a few hours a day, four days a week on Nov. 30, and middle and high school students will have the same opportunity starting Jan. 11, 2021.

For Goss—who cares for several kids with multiple last names, in different age groups, and who attend different schools—the logistics of Lucia Mar's hybrid model would be "near impossible" to coordinate. Goss said that even with a flexible work schedule, she can't spend that much time driving her kids to and from school.

"It's just more of an inconvenience," Goss said.

Still, she was willing to give it a try. She talked to the kids individually, and even though they all want to go back to school, they didn't feel it was worth the effort.

"So they just felt this isn't socialization," Goss said. "What's the point?"

Parents, according to the draft plan, can either send their kids back to school, continue distance learning, or transfer their kids to Pacific View Academy, a Lucia Mar charter school with an independent study program.

District transportation will only be provided to students with individualized education plans or who are identified as being homeless. While roughly 2,300 Lucia Mar students use the district's school busing system in normal times, Amy Jacobs, a district spokesperson, said only about 320 students could be bused under current COVID-19 restrictions intended to maintain physical distancing.

All students, faculty, and staff will be required to wear masks and maintain 6 feet of physical distance from others at all times while on school grounds, according to the draft plan, and the same goes for school buses.

That's a big factor for people like Kim Knapp, whose daughter is a freshman in high school in the Lucia Mar district.

Knapp said her daughter has been a star student ever since she was a little girl, but as a hands-on learner, the past few months of online schooling have been tough for her. When she received a C in biology this year—her worst grade ever—Knapp said she cried her eyes out.

Knapp wants her daughter back in school for the sake of her education and mental health, but when she saw Lucia Mar's hybrid schedule, she almost immediately knew it wouldn't be workable. Knapp also has preschool-aged child who attends day care, and to make the hybrid model work, Knapp would have to drop off her younger child at day care early, drop off her freshman at school before 8 a.m., get to work early, and then her husband would have to pick the kids up sometime around noon only to take the high schooler back to campus for cheerleading practice later in the afternoon, which she would then need a ride home from.

Normally her high schooler would take the bus home from school, but that's not an option this year.

"It's just too much time away from our jobs to taxi around our kids," Knapp said.

And for less than three hours of in-person instruction a day, Knapp said her daughter agreed it wouldn't be worth it.

"She's like, 'What's the point?'" Knapp said.

For other parents, the threat of contracting COVID-19 is the biggest concern. Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Jennifer Handy said the district is doing what it can to find the balance between safety and a worthwhile return to school.

According to Lucia Mar's draft plan, 25 percent of employees will be tested every two weeks and 100 percent will be tested every two months. Parents are required to screen their children for symptoms of COVID-19 every day before dropping them off on campus and symptomatic students will be required to stay home. Documentation of negative test results "may be required" to return to school.

Individual school closures will be triggered if 5 percent of students or staff at a school are absent due to COVID-19 in a 14-day period, according to the draft, and the entire district will close if 25 percent of schools in the district are closed within 14 days.

So far, that's working for some of Lucia Mar's special needs students who have already returned to school. In a Nipomo-based Facebook group, several Lucia Mar parents wrote in an Oct. 28 thread that although they were wary of sending their kids back, their kids have been happier since going back.

District officials hope that will be the case for all students who choose to return.

"It's our every intent to keep things as stable as possible," Handy said.

But Amanda Ramos Krepp foresees a lot of instability in the coming months. Krepp is the parent of an elementary school student in the Lucia Mar district, and she said that while she'd love to see kids back in school, she worries that when some kids and staff inevitably test positive for COVID-19, everyone will be forced back into the distance learning model for short stints over and over again, putting kids in a constant limbo between online and in-person learning.

And, she said, returning to school right after Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, when students and staff will likely be traveling and gathering in large numbers, seems like a bad idea.

"I don't understand why they don't take more time, work out some obstacles, and be much more prepared with less potential disruptions for the start of second semester," Krepp wrote in a message to New Times. Δ

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at [email protected].

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