Yesterday’s announcement spread like wildfire throughout Carmel Valley and Del Mar – that LA and San Diego school districts would be online-only starting in the Fall. Local DMUSD elementary school parents have been on edge for months, wondering if DMUSD would waver on in-person school, and the LA/San Diego announcement stoked the flames. Parents are split on the wisdom of in-person school, with many taking their kids out of the district altogether to avoid the risk or opting for a distance learning option.
While everyone wants in-person school – which is better for education, socialization, and for getting parents back to work – everyone also wants kids, teachers, and ultimately families and communities to stay healthy and safe. There’s no clear answer.
What is clear – across the district, nation, and world – is that the safest place for kids to be and to interact is outside rather than inside. There’s widespread recognition that outdoor, open classrooms and tents and other facilities will go a long way to achieving the dual objectives of keeping kids in school, yet safe at the same time. This goes for teachers, administrators, and parents as well. As but one example, Rice University in Houston yesterday announced the construction of outdoor tented classrooms for its students. According to the New York Times, Rice VP Kevin Kirby said their action was: “[A] statement to the community: We’re creative. We’re resilient. And what we do matters.” Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle noted: “Move everything outdoors – as much as possible and much more than has been done already. We’re long past searching for ideal solutions. We’re now hunting for adequate.”
Covid-2019 couldn’t have come at a worse time for DMUSD’s Facilities Master Plan. The Plan, which has Del Mar Heights being demolished and under construction this year, will not merely take all Heights acreage and facilities offline, but will compress its student body into two existing schools (Del Mar Hills and Ocean Air) with many students traveling there in large groups by bus. This will result in higher density – more bodies in less square feet. When you add to this the construction of a new $850,000 baseball field project at Torrey Hills (to replace one of the current diamonds being eliminated at Del Mar Heights), that will remove even more open space during construction, it adds up to more kids in less space at exactly the wrong time.
There’s another path. Put the Facilities Master Plan on hold – for at most a year or two. Use the fields at every DMUSD school – including the Heights and possibly even the newly-graded site at Pacific Highlands Ranch – for outdoor classroom space. (The Heights’ rebuild already appears to be stalled due to missing permits or litigation or both.)
Give the kids and teachers space and fresh air. Recognize the moment for what it is – a slice of time where our kids need us to focus on their well being, education, and mental health now more than ever. This means getting them back to school safely, in the hands of their teachers and with their friends. They’ll do great outside.
Getting the kids outside will allow parents to get back to work and will be the closest thing to normal that we can deliver. It will also allow DMUSD to focus all their energy and resources on the educational experience and helping kids recover from the last few months, rather than continuing to build two new schools in the midst of this crisis – a first-time experience for both the current administration and the school board.
A pause would give the district the additional opportunity to assess whether its two new school designs – the Heights and Pacific Highlands Ranch – will withstand the test of time. Those designs use vastly more interior non-classroom space to move kids around while staying inside at all times, a strategy now questioned by leading architects and health experts.
I’m not saying I know the answer as to whether kids should go back to school in the Fall or not, but if they do go back, this path will be far safer for everyone, both on campus and at home.