Many parents and students were taken by surprise on Tuesday, December 8, when the district decided to halt all in-person learning at CUSD campuses until after winter recess. Parents received emails from Superintendent Karl Mueller blaming an “increase of positive cases impacting those within our shared CUSD community,” and that the new cases approached a level that would jeopardize the district’s ability to adhere to protocols and supports designed to keep students safe. A follow up email was sent the next day, which detailed that three class cohorts were currently in quarantine, and five members of staff—three of which serve multiple sites in the district—had tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend, one of whom is in the intensive care unit.
Still, with no confirmed outbreaks or known transmissions on campus, some parents argued that schools could—and should–remain open. So, what exactly fueled this decision to close classrooms, considering CUSD has technically been successful (so far) at keeping virus outbreaks at bay? I caught up with Mueller outside of the now-closed Village Elementary campus to find out.
CT: First of all, CUSD has a staff member who is in the I.C.U, being treated for COVID-19. Any updates on that person’s condition?
Mueller: Our district nurse, Joellen Semo, is in close contact with the family, and she’s going to be visiting the hospital and delivering a care package from our district. Thoughts and prayers from the whole community would go a long way. I really think it’s kind of a wake-up call…as the pandemic has evolved…you’re not just reading about it, it’s affecting individuals that we know. This one struck pretty close to home.
CT: Although CUSD has been fortunate enough not to have a COVID-19 outbreak in Coronado schools, we have had students, staff members, and family members of staff members test positive, right?
Mueller: Correct. I’ve been sharing with the community throughout the pandemic that our best efforts are dependent on what’s happening outside of our school walls. And so, when a family member of a student tests positive, or a staff member, or one of our students, we still have the responsibility of contact tracing. If a parent tests positive, and their child was in class the day before, until we know the child has tested negative, we have a responsibility to anyone he or she was within six feet of, with or without a mask, to reach out those people.
What happened at the beginning of this week…is we found out about some positive cases over the weekend, and that triggers our system to contact trace. Monday we begin contact tracing, Monday evening we learn of more positive cases of staff. And it just became a point of….when the stakes are high, as they are in this situation, we are doing everything in our power to prevent an outbreak from taking place on one of our campuses.
CT: Did something specifically break down when it came to contract tracing at the schools? Or why weren’t we able to continue with the tracing and hopefully isolate the cases?
Mueller: There are a few different factors at play. One is staffing. When we’re missing “X” percentage of our team, and we can’t backfill those positions because there is a shortage of substitute teachers, for example—and we can’t provide the training that those individuals need to support our students in time for the next school day. Also, contact tracing is a very involved process. We are in partnership with the County of Public Health, and if we have three or four cases that are ongoing, it just becomes a resource allocation issue. We couldn’t keep up with a situation like, ‘Ok, this classroom is quarantined, that entire building needs to be quarantined.’ With seven days of instruction between now and winter break, we always are going to operate in an abundance of caution and make decisions to support our staff and our students.
CT: So the district decided the safest choice was to close in-person learning and transition to full BRIDGE until after winter break?
Mueller: We really have held out hope that we were going to get through. But we felt our ability to move 100% forward with confidence with those seven days of in-person instruction was compromised, so we erred on the side of caution. That’s one thing we can control now, is caution. We have so many variables out there right now; things are evolving so rapidly. What do we have control over? Our ability to be cautious. And we always default to the safety of our students and staff.
CT: There have been complaints that CUSD has not been transparent, or communicated well during this pandemic. What are your thoughts on this?
Mueller: I can see where my messaging between Tuesday and Wednesday was a little bit cloudy. My priority on Tuesday was to let our community know that we needed to temporarily suspend any on-campus activities. Getting to the “why” was not my priority on Tuesday. It was informing our parents as quickly as possible that we couldn’t serve. But also reassuring staff that we were attending to all of our responsibilities and all of the protocols that we committed to, when submitted our safe school reopening plan. And then Wednesday, I had time to explain the “why” and provide some rational. I made the judgement call to share that communication, because I felt that the community needed to understand.
CT: Will this closure affect CUSD’s ability to go back to in-person learning January 5th?
Mueller: No. I want us back. And I think everyone should know that before we closed—before we made this decision on Tuesday afternoon—we got assurances from the San Diego Office of Education and Public Health, that it would *not* jeopardize our ability to come right back. So just because we closed now, this doesn’t put us in a different tier.
CT: Do you think we will truly be opening again on January 5 as planned? As a parent of two girls in CUSD, would it be prudent for me, and others, to think we might *not* open as scheduled and come up with other plans if distance learning wasn’t working out?
Mueller: When we return from winter break, we believe we will be ready with staffing, facilities, and with any current cases that we have pending. Unless conditions change rapidly over the winter break, we’re going to be prepared from a resource standpoint and from a staffing standpoint. Of course, we can’t predict. My commitment to the community is to have information out by middle of next week, of where we feel we will be. Again, with the understanding that things happen so rapidly and everything can change.
CT: So, basically, nothing will prevent us from going back aside a crazy influx of new cases, or, a mandate from the state. How will you be better prepared to handle this situation in January, assuming you have to continue to do rigorous contact tracing? Will you have more staff, or how will this work?
Mueller: I can’t say with assurances that something like this won’t happen again. It’s just too unpredictable. But what I can say is, we have learned valuable lessons from the day we returned from Thanksgiving break to through Tuesday. We have learned how we can better allocate resources when we are contact tracing, where can we leverage our relationship with the County of Public Health, and where can we train substitutes to come in and understand the cleaning protocols, and how to use our facilities in creative ways.
CT: Some parents have said that CUSD does not take our children’s mental health into consideration when making the decision to shut down in-person learning. How do you feel about this statement?
Mueller: As a parent and as an educator, that’s slightly offensive to me. One of the three pillars of our district is connections. We understand the value of students being on campus and interacting with peers, and we purposefully hire individuals that we know will champion our kids. Connections and wellness of our students is of more importance than their academic development. To suggest that we don’t consider the well-being of our students is offensive.
CT: What resources are available to CUSD students or parents who are struggling right now with mental health issues? For example, I know that we have Coronado SAFE here in town as a great resource. What else should we be doing from a school standpoint?
Mueller: For students, the first stop would be your school counselor. We have systems designed at our schools…our counselors and our administrators are reaching out to students and parents of students who have not shown that they are “connected” right now. Students who have received services prior to school closure, will still receive services from their school counselor. The middle school and the high school team are looking on a weekly basis for kids with whom they have concerns. There is outreach happening now to those families.
But, for those parents who feel like this is a new development, please reach out to us. We do have resources in our community like Coronado SAFE, we are very fortunate, but at CUSD we want to be informed and be there to help facilitate support. As a parent, the last thing I need to worry about, in my case, is my son’s academic performance. If I’m concerned about social emotional health, I want to know that the school is aware of it. Then they can make good decisions, and build communications on a foundation of what’s best for my son.
CT: What if my child, who has previously done well, is now struggling academically? Gone from As to Ds? What resources are available for this?
Mueller: I would encourage families to go directly to our educators, our teachers. The way we are assessing learning, now, because it’s not in-person, it’s different. But our teachers are the front line. They know our students.
CT: For many kids with I.E.P.s, in-person learning isn’t really about the academics. It’s more about socio-emotional development. Now that there is no in-person learning, how will that student grow?
Mueller: For kids with I.E.P.s, I would start with the case carrier. If I had a concern about my son, I would go directly to my case carrier, and he or she would help facilitate resources through the school.
Again, for all kids, I would ask parents and students to really bring us into the conversation, whether it’s an academic concern, socio-emotional concern, attendance, feelings of apathy or disconnect…just bring us in so we can be part of that team and problem-solve. Our teachers care deeply for our students. We’re partners. We’ve always considered ourselves partners…so allow us to be partners.
CT: Is this school closure, or CUSD’s inability to keep up with contact tracing, the result of financial or budget issues?
Mueller: I’ve been asked this question before, and it really isn’t due to financial issues. For example—Escondido, which is a very large district—has closed down as a result of staffing. Again, we need to know that if we have students on our campus, that they have certificated staff members teaching them, that they have classified support staff to meet their needs, and that we have the appropriate staff to clean and maintain the facilities in an ongoing basis. Right now, there is a shortage of individuals who want to come in and work for school districts on a part-time basis, or a substitute basis. I think that what we have experienced this week, and what we will see as a trend over the next week, is where other districts do the same thing… in North County in particular, where schools have been doing elementary in-person experiences. It’s due to, not just staffing, but the level of detail that goes into contact tracing. To really do it the way the County of Public Health has asked us to do, it’s incredibly involved, it’s just a lot of moving parts. I think that staffing to meet the criteria and the protocols set by the County of Public Health, it’s not always a funding issue, it’s also logistics and timing.
CT: Some parents have expressed concern that there is childcare for district employees, provided by Champions, on the school grounds. Why are they allowed to be here, and our kids can’t learn in the classroom?
Mueller: Champions is a third-party group, and the short answer is they abide by a different set of rules. We had Artisans’ Alley here, and some groups are able to facilitate sports camps. If it’s a third party, and it’s not a district sponsor…we play by the rules from the California Department of Education and the County of Public Health. Third party outside entities have different criteria that they follow.
CT: This has been asked before, but, being in Southern California, why can’t we take advantage of good weather, and use more outdoor spaces for instruction, and utilize tents?
Mueller: We can take advantage of, and we have taken advantage of, outdoor spaces for instruction. But to say this is part of our reopening plan, to have an outdoor tent as a classroom, that’s too unpredictable. Our teachers need resources, our students need workspaces, we’ve designed in public education kind of a dependence on a lot of different instructional resources because we differentiate instruction so much.
To say, I’m just going to pack a chalkboard and a piece of chalk and take this outside for the next month…it’s not tied to money. It’s not tied to anything other than, is this a conducive learning environment for our students that is sustainable?
It’s something that, as a one-off we can do, but to say that this is the learning environment for an extended period of time, that would really limit the ability of the teachers to use all of the resources they need to teach our kids.
CT: How do you see communications happening from the district as things move forward?
Mueller: I think that my job is about communication and relationships. Those are two things that in life that nobody can get perfect. I understand that everyone is adhering to their role as a parent when they voice concerns about this.
I’ve gotten feedback that my newsletters are too long. I’ve received feedback that they come out too regularly. I’ve received feedback that there’s not enough information and that we don’t communicate regularly enough. So—communication and relationships—if anyone can figure out how to get either of those things perfect, I will buy the book.
But I will share that the lack of transparency certainly isn’t the district trying to “manipulate” anything, or “hide a message.” We are trying to operate a school district in the middle of a pandemic, supporting the needs of our students, of our staff and our parents, and everyone is working for the same objective. We want our kids back in school.
We love our kids. We want them happy and healthy, we want their socio-emotional needs met. I can share that was the most difficult part about the decision on Tuesday, is that our kids need to be here. We need to grow experiences and opportunities on these campuses. And yes, it’s about the academics, but more importantly right now, it’s the socio-emotional connections.
CT: You have two children. How are your boys doing? How are they handling the pandemic and distance learning?
Mueller: I’ve got a 7th grader and a 10th grader. They haven’t stepped foot on a campus since March, as they are in San Diego City schools [which have been closed to in-person learning.] My tenth grader is thriving, he’s figured out distance learning, but my seventh grader is struggling… academically, and he’s struggling with some of the isolation from his peers. It’s really, really tough to see.
I think it’s important to celebrate that, in our district, we’ve actually had students in school. Out of our region, out of the entire South Bay, we are the only district that has had in-person instruction. And that is the result of our staff and the trust that our parents have in our ability to keep our students safe.
I don’t want to take a step backwards, I want to continue making decisions with hope, but in a responsible fashion. I want to do this in a way that when we say, “Come on back in,” we mean it. And we know we’ll be safe.
Parents are urged to continue checking emails for district updates and further notices on in-person instruction.