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Cajon Valley Schools open, other school districts decide to wait

Every elementary and middle school is open in Cajon Valley.

EL CAJON, Calif. — As the San Diego Unified School District prepares to begin its school year remotely next month, other school districts in the region are taking a different tack or waiting to see what unfolds with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The Cajon Valley Union School District in East County reopened Monday for in-person teaching for the first time since schools were ordered to close by public health orders. Every elementary and middle school is open in Cajon Valley.

Using money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act allocated for safety supplies, distance learning tools and learning loss recovery, Cajon Valley principals and their teams prepared a free summer learning program for interested families. While finalizing the district reopening plan early last month, the Cajon Valley management team along with union leaders discussed the practicality of starting small with the most conservative safety measures in place during summer.

"It's such a blessing both to have our kids back on campus and also to start small and learn how to best implement the new safety guidelines ahead of all students coming back in August," said Mike Kuhfal, principal at Flying Hills K-8 School of the Arts.

The Cajon Valley Union District's Summer Enrichment Program began Monday. Of the 17,000 students within the district, 4500 are taking part. It’s giving students an idea of what to expect when school starts next month.

"We're keeping our kids in cohorts," said Principal Brian Handley. "They're only interacting with other students in their cohort."

Aside from smaller classrooms, there are daily temperature checks and health screenings. Students and staff are all wearing masks, desks have been moved further apart, distance markers line walkway, and good hand hygiene is a must.

"Every time we leave or enter we wash the hands when they go to the restroom or yard and then come back into the classroom," said Handley.

Even before the district's Summer Enrichment Program started, many students have been on campuses throughout the district daily as part of a free childcare program offered when the pandemic hit to children whose parents are essential workers.

When all San Diego school districts were forced to shut down on March 13, Cajon Valley staff and trustees immediately began weekly meetings via Zoom with employee groups and parents, which included virtual town hall meetings with every school community. These meetings led to the formation of its school reopening plan in the first week of June.

"If we follow all the protocols, if the kids are taught and the parents are taught...we can do this," said James Miller with the district's Board of Trustees.

"As a therapist, I know it's really important for their social and emotional well-being to be with each other," said fellow board member Karen Clark-Mejia.

Those plans include four options: home school, complete distance learning with no physical school, a hybrid model that combines some physical school with some distance learning and five-day-a-week regular school, space permitting.

Justin Goodrich, Cajon Valley Middle School principal, said "by simulating what school is going to look like in the fall our teachers are fine- tuning our safety protocols and instructional plans. Cajon Valley Middle School is so excited to have our staff and students back on campus. Everyone is adhering to the social distance guidelines and showing a great deal of appreciation and respect for one another."

District administrators claim that with proper protocols, spread of the illness can be prevented. They cite the district's Extended Day Program, which for the last four months has provided free distance learning support and care for parents working in essential jobs. According to the district, in serving more than 130 families, Cajon Valley hasn't had any staff or students test positive for COVID-19.

The San Diego Unified School District, the second-largest school district in the state, released a joint statement with the Los Angeles Unified School District on Monday stating the two districts would begin the school year remotely until going back to school is deemed a low-risk environment for students.

Chula Vista Elementary School District -- the largest elementary district in the state -- announced Tuesday it would follow SDUSD's lead and wait to open classrooms.

"We will continue to work towards transitioning to in-person instruction but will only do so when guidance from local health officials supports a safe transition back to learning on site in classrooms," Superintendent Francisco Escobedo wrote in a message to parents.

Poway Unified, Escondido Union and San Dieguito Union school districts are all waiting for additional information, but each have developed or are developing hybrid learning plans to split students between in-person home and remote learning. 

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