LBUSD responds to delay in school reopenings


Diego Lapayese-Calderón

The high school quad lacks its usual vibrancy from student activity. Students were last on campus in regular attendance on March 12 this year.

From the initial move to distance learning last March to the implementation of the trimester plan, LBUSD and our entire community have faced uncertainty and demonstrated ongoing adaptability. At the beginning of this school year, Laguna Beach High School students were provided the choice of taking six year-long classes through the Virtual Academy or taking two courses each trimester with LBHS teachers. Included in the trimester model was the option to return to school as long as the state and district permitted. After establishing a thorough return-to-school plan to restrict the potential spread of COVID-19, the district moves on after receiving final determination from the Orange County Health Care Agency (OCHCA) that school campuses will remain closed.

“While I understand that the rules are intended to keep students, staff and the community safe, we have the strongest plan around, and we should be allowed to reopen,” said Superintendent Dr. Jason Viloria on Nov. 18. “I am continuing to advocate at the local and state level.”

In adherence to Governor Newsom’s guidelines at the beginning of the pandemic, the LBUSD School Board and administration responded promptly to establish the most suitable platforms for student learning. 

“When our schools closed in March, our teachers, staff and students were given 48-hours notice to start teaching online. We know it was overwhelming for everyone. For our fall 2020 opening, we invested in professional development, clear accountability and a new model for our teachers and students,” said School Board President Peggy Wolff.

In compliance with the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) guidelines, LBUSD has radically transformed its campuses in preparation for the students’ return. According to LBHS Assistant Principal Nikol King, the many changes include accessibility to masks for students and staff in the event that they need it, the painting of dots on the ground and on benches to remind of appropriate distancing across campus, the installation of air filtration systems, the enhancement of campus entry points with signs to remind of protocols and the use of thermal scanners prior to gaining access to the campus. 

Students would be required to enter campus from one of three entrances, depending on where their class is. Masks would be mandated, and most classes would be limited to 15 students. 

The spacing of classroom desks complies with social distancing. Temporary partitions are also available to help delineate spaces and provide an additional layer of separation, as needed.

While the elementary schools had already opened to students earlier in the year, Laguna Beach High School and Thurston Middle School had intended to see students back on campus as of Nov. 23 for students taking the hybrid option. As a result of a growing number of COVID-19 cases, this date has since been delayed as Orange County is now subject to a ‘Purple’ status. 

“Unfortunately, the CDPH made these changes unbeknownst to us. We were on track to reopen under the old framework even if we did go into purple. The state changed the entire framework and timelines,” said Dr. Viloria, who confirmed that the district will have to wait until January, at minimum, to reopen the physical school sites. 

According to Dr. Viloria, as the School Board has already approved a return to campus for the second trimester, a new vote will not be needed. LBUSD plans to reopen all school sites once permission is granted under the CDPH framework. 

According to the 2020-2021 Playbook for the district, “Any student, teacher or staff member with COVID-19 symptoms should get tested. If an individual suspects they have symptoms, they should contact their doctor or health care provider to arrange for evaluation and testing.”

On Nov. 18,  Dr. Viloria informed the community of 11 positive COVID-19 cases from a pool of 360 tests conducted on Monday, Nov. 16. The tested individuals had been set to return to school on Nov. 23. Another 30 individuals identified by the OCHCA through contact tracing are now in quarantine due to their close contact with those who tested positive. The OCHCA is still in the process of contact tracing.

“Of course I would like my kids to have a traditional high school experience, but when we do go back, there is going to be very little that’s traditional about it. I would much rather err on the side of caution and delay the return for all of our safety,” said English Department Chair David Brobeck, who is also the father of two Laguna Beach High School students. 

In addition to wanting to maximize educational opportunities, students and parents have expressed concern with regard to the senior class experiencing a proper final year. 

“I honestly think we could have gone back earlier, as we were off the watch list for two consecutive weeks at the start of October. However, we can’t turn back the clock, so if staying online is what’s safest for everyone, then I can’t complain. As a senior, I hope we can go back safely at some point; I really am looking forward to activities like prom and graduation. If we can all wear masks and stay healthy, then I believe we seniors could have a chance at this,” said 12th-grader Katelyn Kolberg.

As all anticipate an eventual return to campus, students, teachers, staff and administration allow past relationships and shared experiences to inspire the current work.

“It is a constant mix of emotions and expectations. Nothing beats the vibe and energy of a high school campus that is full of students. For me, the day to day with students and staff is what I miss most,” said LBHS Principal Dr. Jason Allemann.

With the high degree of uncertainty still looming, all in the school community must remain adaptable in the months to come.

“If this pandemic has done nothing else, it has continued to remind us to be ever flexible and amicable to change especially to change which we cannot control. We all enjoy the students and staff and the natural energy it provides to each of us and our campus, and we currently miss that the most. Working in isolation is something we are not historically accustomed to in education, and it presents different challenges for us all. I eagerly await the time when we are able to return safely,” said LBHS Assistant Principal Dale Miller.