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Riverside County schools weigh options to bring students back on campus

Riverside County schools weigh options to bring students back on campus

Riverside County school districts and boards are grappling with how and when to bring students back for in-person classes.

The first youths to again set foot on campus could do so Tuesday, Oct. 27, in the Corona-Norco Unified School District.

On Sept. 22, the county advanced to the red tier of California’s color-coded Blueprint for a Safer Economy and remained there for two consecutive weeks, opening the doors for students to return to campuses with modifications. Districts hopped back into action, negotiating with labor groups and updating re-opening plans for approval by their school boards.

A handful of Riverside County school districts intend to wait until 2021 to resume in-person education, and others are still updating plans. Three, however — the Corona-Norco, Murrieta Valley and Temecula Valley unified school districts — are looking to bring back some students in hybrid models by the end of November. This approach blends in-person classes with distance learning.

Those plans will depend on the county staying in the red tier. But Riverside County’s coronavirus case and positivity rates have risen and the county could slide back into the more-restrictive purple tier. County officials asked for and received an additional week in the red tier to see if numbers improve. The next update will be Tuesday, Oct. 20.

In neighboring San Bernardino County, in-person instruction isn’t yet possible as the county remains in the purple tier. Coronavirus numbers released this past week show it slipping further away from advancing to the next tier.

  • Face mask reminders and social distancing signs are posted throughout Ronald Reagan Elementary School in Eastvale on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Plastic dividers in classrooms at Ronald Reagan Elementary School in Eastvale are seen Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

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  • Social-distancing signs are posted throughout the Ronald Reagan Elementary School campus in Eastvale on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, as the school prepares for the return of students. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Social-distancing signs are seen Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, at Ronald Reagan Elementary School in Eastvale. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Ronald Reagan Elementary School, seen Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, is prepared for the return of students on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Classrooms at Ronald Reagan Elementary School in Eastvale have been prepared Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, for the return of students later this month. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

  • Plastic dividers, seen Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, are set up on tables to prepare for the return of students to Ronald Reagan Elementary School in Eastvale. Year-round schools such as Reagan are expected to be the first in the Corona-Norco Unified School District to return to campus. That date is Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

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If Riverside County returns to the purple tier, transitional kindergarten, kindergarten and elementary schools can do in-person instruction if they apply for a waiver and get that plan approved by the county and state health departments. As of Friday, Oct. 16, 29 Riverside County schools — all private or charter schools — have been granted waivers.

Corona-Norco schools have the most advanced plan for in-person education. That plan, approved by the school board Oct. 6, has all grades using a hybrid model within the next month.

The district’s six year-round elementary schools would be the first to go back — on Tuesday, Oct. 27. The plan calls for schools to operate at 50% capacity to allow for social distancing. Students whose families chose this model would be divided into “cohort” groups, with one group on campus in the morning and online in the afternoon and the other group doing the opposite. This would take place Monday through Thursday, with all students learning remotely on Friday. The district’s traditional elementary schools would begin using this plan starting Nov. 10.

Corona-Norco middle and high schools are set to return in a hybrid format beginning Nov. 2. Schools would run at 25% capacity each day because of larger enrollments. Students would be divided into four groups, with each attending half of their classes on campus one day a week and the other half of classes the following week. The remaining days would be distance learning.

Schools must have safety measures in place, including daily temperature checks when students arrive, the wearing of face coverings and routine cleaning of classrooms and high-touch surfaces throughout the day.

Corona-Norco Deputy Superintendent Sam Buenrostro said the district’s plan was updated and the dates chosen after a survey of parents and students. Buenrostro said 74% favored a hybrid model, while 26% wanted to continue with online learning from home. Families who chose distance learning will be allowed to continue.

“We have a community that really wants our students back in the classroom as much as possible,” Buenrostro said. “We are listening to our parents and students, but we are also listening to the health experts and will follow those guidelines, too. We feel confident in being the first ones out in Riverside County because we have all of the safety components in place.”

Corona-Norco school board members were encouraged after visiting high schools where athletes have been allowed to begin modified workouts, Buenrostro said.

“They saw how happy they were to be back with their coaches and friends, and I think that really helped seal the deal for them,” Buenrostro said. “We are concerned with the social and emotional development of our students, and bringing them together, no matter how short a period of time each, will help with those who might be struggling at this time.”

The district applied for a waiver with the county health department, Buenrostro said. If approved, elementary schools would still be allowed to resume in-person education, even if the county were to fall back into the purple tier.

In Murrieta Valley schools, officials hope to have elementary schools back in session Nov. 16. The neighboring Temecula Valley school district has submitted a plan for its elementary schools, with the earliest date for a return to in-person classes being Nov. 30, the beginning of a new grading cycle. Both districts would use an a.m./p.m. hybrid model that’s similar to Corona-Norco’s, with Monday being online only. Families could choose hybrid or distance-learning lessons.

Both districts plan to keep secondary-school students learning remotely through winter break, because those schools run on semester schedules.

The Lake Elsinore Unified School District has proposed different plans for its schools to begin hybrid instruction, but no dates have been picked for a return. The school board meets Oct. 22, when models and dates are expected to be voted on.

Most districts have surveyed families, students and teachers, and the results vary by community.

Corona-Norco’s survey showed a 3-to-1 ratio favoring a hybrid model. A Menifee Union School District parents survey showed a 4-to-1 ratio in favor of a hybrid lessons. The Hemet Unified School District, on the other hand, found that 55% of its parents favored distance learning until a complete return to campus is possible. Also, 45% preferred a hybrid approach. Secondary students also were split, with 51% selecting the hybrid option.

At least five Riverside County school districts will wait until 2021 to bring all students back for any form of in-person lessons. They are the Alvord, Hemet, Moreno Valley and Val Verde unified school districts and the Perris Elementary School District.

There are a handful of reasons these districts are holding off on bringing back students. The most common are schedules and the ever-changing nature of COVID-19 case rates.

Many schools are on semester schedules and educators believe a hybrid format could disrupt students’ daily routines, especially if the county bounces back and forth between the purple and red tiers and schools are forced back into 100% distance learning. With holiday breaks scheduled in November and December, the number of days students are on campus for the rest of the semester could be extremely limited.

The Riverside Unified School District has not set dates for in-person instruction, but will address the issue during Superintendent David Hansen’s State of the District presentation Oct. 22.

“There are many moving parts, and we would like to make any kind of transition as seamless as possible for our families,” Riverside’s Deputy Superintendent Tim Walker said earlier this month.


Press Enterprise