Parents questioning why one of the county's largest school districts abruptly shifted to distance learning this week were getting some answers on Tuesday.
In recent weeks, the campuses of the Escondido Union School District were a microcosm of the coronavirus pandemic, with cases among staff and students suddenly spiking, prompting quarantines and closures, and finally, a shutdown of an entire system.
Since Sept. 28, 655 students and 151 staff members have had to quarantine for 14 days due to exposure to people who tested positive for the coronavirus. In December alone, 193 students and 37 workers have had to quarantine, according to school officials. And then, just over the weekend, exposure to new positive cases prompted 120 people to quarantine.
Late on Monday afternoon, district officials said that, beginning the following day, all student classes in the K-8 district would be taking place virtually. Up until the start of this week, the district's approximately 15,000 students had been utilizing the hybrid model.
Understandably, some parents and students at the 6 middle and intermediate and 17 elementary schools were upset about the short notice for the return to distance learning. In fact, a crowd of 20-30 mostly masked people gathered outside the district headquarters on Midway Drive a little after noon on Tuesday, bearing signs that read, "You Work for Us. Act Like It #FedUp #KidsFirst," "Follow the Science" and "Schools Are Essential."
"We're here today because our district is not listening to us," Amanda McLean, the parent of a kindergartner, told NBC 7. "They are making unilateral decisions that are impacting all of the families that are here in Escondido. We are a very diverse community, and we have a lot of low-income families where the parents must work in order to provide shelter for their children, and [EUSD superintendent Luis Rankins-Ibarra], in addition to what's happening in the state of California itself, is pushing our families closer and closer to poverty."
Also on Tuesday, NBC 7 spoke with Rankins-Ibarra about his decision to send kids home until Jan. 12.
"Over the weekend … we experienced, of course, a shortage of substitute teachers, but in addition now we had … a return of having numerous campuses without a health technician, and then the custodial crew was suddenly placed under quarantine," Rankins-Ibarra said. "So now I had to figure out to clean schools, how to do the temperature checks. In reality, it got to a point where the system -- what we were doing -- we couldn't guarantee safety protocols were going to be in place. So I had to make that tough, tough decision, and I realize it impacts a lot of families."
Rankins-Ibarra and his team attempted some creative solutions at first, but the stop-gap measures weren't enough, he said
"When I don’t have nurses on campuses, when I don’t have front offices … our HR department was having to go to a site to take over. So, really … our operations were starting to get impacted," Rankins-Ibarra said, adding later, "It's Sunday evening and you're trying to figure out if you're going to … how do you piece together a cleaning crew to make sure their sanitizing helps? At the same time, you need to figure out, How do we have nurse coverage? How do we have all the instructional assistants that are out throughout our district for our most neediest students? It was clear and evident: It's time to hit the pause button."
The superintendent said it was not a decision he easily arrived at.
"This is by far the most challenging year of my whole career," Rankins-Ibarra said. "I realize I have a responsibility to a lot of people –- my parents, our students and our teachers -- and in the end, when you're sitting on a weekend, on Sunday, and realize you’re going to make a decision that’s going to impact. What am I gonna base it on? Safety and support…."
Escondido is just one of many San Diego County community to have students move back to distance learning full-time. Last week, the superintendent of the Lakeside Union School District closed the Winter Gardens Elementary School after a spate of positive COVID cases among students. They, too, will be distance learning until 2021.