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In-Person Learning in El Segundo: An Update

El Segundo Unified School District’s motto, “Transforming education for a changing world,” has never been more true, says Dr. Melissa Moore, superintendent of schools.

By Melissa Moore, Ed.D.

*Editor's note: This story was written by Dr. Moore in February. Some COVID-19 data points and county-wide circumstances may have changed since then.

It is hard to believe that a year has passed since El Segundo Unified School District (ESUSD) and all other school districts in California were forced to close campuses and childcare and shift to a full-distance mode of learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been an unprecedented year for public education and undoubtedly significantly challenging circumstances in which our students, families, and staff have been operating. Personally speaking, I have never witnessed a more complicated or ever-evolving scenario in public education over the course of my career, and I can’t wait for us to move back into a more “normal” way of living and functioning in all respects. But until we get there, I am grateful to have a collaborative team of staff and board members who are truly living our district motto—Transforming Education for a Changing World—on a day-to-day basis, proactively planning next steps regarding how best to serve our students.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, ESUSD has quickly adjusted and readjusted countless times to evolving state and county health orders. When the 2020-2021 school year began, Los Angeles County was identified to be in the Purple Tier with widespread levels of COVID-19 and thus public schools were required to remain closed. But as national and international studies increasingly demonstrate the relatively low COVID-19 transmission rates in younger children, ESUSD has been pursuing the return to in-person services for these students as efficiently and safely as possible.

Return of Childcare

Knowing that our students and families are best served with live instruction and interaction with our amazing staff, the Board of Education and I have remained steadfast in our commitment to return students to school for in-person services as soon as possible. As early as August, and every month thereafter, the Board of Education has approved return of students for in-person services within the constraints outlined in the Department of Public Health Orders at each point in time. The first program deemed permissible and allowed to operate was the childcare program, as it was an essential service for frontline workers. ESUSD has successfully been operating The Learning Connection (TLC) and Eaglet childcare since August 2020 without a single case of COVID-19 reported. TLC personnel shared that even the youngest children have done an excellent job of wearing their masks, following explicit hand-washing instructions, and practicing proper use of hand sanitizer.

Return of In-Person Specialized Services

In October 2020, ESUSD started one-on-one special-education assessments and, shortly thereafter, began in-person services for the most vulnerable special-education students. Additional stable cohorts of special-education students, English learners, and at-risk students were established, and increased opportunities were provided over the last several months. Specialized in-person instruction is occurring at all four comprehensive school campuses.

Return to Athletic Conditioning

In November 2020, El Segundo High School reopened limited sports conditioning outdoors for stable cohorts of high school athletes. ESHS administration took the necessary time to thoughtfully plan, develop a timeline, survey parents and students, develop coaches’ training, and plot-out logistics that are aligned with the Public Health order regarding reopening youth sports. Spring sports athletic pods started up recently and now more than 300 students are participating weekly. Although Los Angeles County has yet to reach the Red Tier, which would allow high-school students to return to in-person hybrid learning, any opportunity for peer-to-peer interaction is a step in the right direction, as it allows students to connect with their teammates and coaches while participating in skill drills and getting exercise.

Teacher Alisa Lister stands in her classroom holding two picture books about the coronavirus pandemic.
Alisa Lister, RSS first-grade teacher, shares relevant stories for students.

Return of TK through Grade 2 Students to Hybrid School

On December 8, 2020, ESUSD was one of five school districts out of 80 public school districts in Los Angeles County that reopened elementary schools for transitional kindergarten through second-grade students. ESUSD had successfully applied for and was granted an elementary waiver, which allowed for our youngest students to return to school for in-person hybrid learning at both Center Street School and Richmond Street School, while most other districts in the county remained with distance learning only. ESUSD’s success in achieving this accomplishment was due to the tremendous support from and established partnerships with our labor partners, Parent Teacher Associations, City of El Segundo, El Segundo Chamber of Commerce, and El Segundo Education Foundation. I am pleased to share that the numerous health and safety protocols are working, as evidenced by the fact that we have had no community transmission of COVID-19 on campuses.

In hybrid school mode, students attend either a morning (AM) or afternoon (PM) session for two and a half hours. For the most part, electronic devices are primarily left at home and are used for asynchronous learning time at home for specialized lessons in music, physical education, and Project Lead the Way, which integrates science, technology, engineering, and math. In-person instruction allows the teacher to work with 12 to 14 students for the dedicated block of time, with primary learning objectives targeted on reading, writing, and mathematics. Teachers are actively engaging students and finding more time to give individualized feedback and attention to students in the smaller group.

Throughout the entire pandemic scenario, for both hybrid and distance learners, staff have dedicated special attention to the social and emotional well-being of all our students using the Yale RULER approach. Our teachers have taken time to thoughtfully address students’ well-being in the distance setting to the greatest extent possible. However, there is no substitute for in-person instruction and peer-to-peer interaction.

A primary classroom is cleaned, socially-distanced, and set up with Plexglas dividers during the covid-19 pandemic.
A primary-grade classroom set up in compliance with health-order requirements is ready for students.

Return of Grade 3 Students to Hybrid School

Most recently, the Board of Education approved the return of third-grade hybrid students on campuses. On Friday, February 19, third-grade students attended an orientation day to acclimate to an on-campus environment, get acquainted with classmates and their teacher in person, and learn the essential new protocols to ensure the health and safety of all. Just like our transitional kindergarten students, third-grade students attend on an AM/PM hybrid schedule four days a week (Tuesday through Friday). This schedule commenced on Tuesday, February 23. Monday remains an asynchronous learning day.

Anticipated Return of Grades 4 and 5 Students to Hybrid School

In addition, the Board of Education approved the return of fourth- and fifth-grade hybrid students on campuses when the COVID-19 adjusted case rate falls within permissible levels. In order to move forward, the adjusted COVID-19 case rate must be below 25 cases per 100,000 for five consecutive days as outlined in the California Department of Public Health COVID-19 and Reopening In-Person Instruction Framework & Public Health Guidance for K-12 Schools in California, 2020-2021 School Year. Based upon the current trend in the declining case rate, I anticipate the potential return of fourth and fifth grade will likely be sometime in March.

Reinstatement of Eagles’ Nest Preschool for the 2021-22 school year

For our youngest learners, the Board of Education approved reinstatement of the Eagles’ Nest Preschool program for the 2021-2022 school year. Classes will consist of a stable cohort of 14 students with a preschool teacher and instructional assistant. Full- and partial-day programs will be offered five days a week.

Ali Rabiei poses next to a scaled-down hand-washing station for kindergarten students.
Director of Operations Ali Rabiei shares a resized hand-washing station for kindergarten students installed at an elementary school.

Next Steps

This month, March 2021, I anticipate additional opportunities to return select secondary students to campus for specialized services and in-person hybrid instruction. El Segundo Middle School has developed a plan for sixth-grade students to receive in-person instruction in a hybrid setting. Plan implementation will require Los Angeles County reach the same adjusted COVID-19 case rate of fewer than 25 cases per 100,000. In addition, El Segundo High School administrators, teachers, and student leaders have developed an action plan to allow limited return of seniors to campus.

Final Thoughts

School closures and extended periods of distance learning caused by COVID-19 have disrupted every element of preschool through 12th-grade education and have led to setbacks in student well-being and learning around the world. It is important our community recognize that ESUSD has been a leader within Los Angeles County to reopen in-person services and programs for students. While monitoring progress and concerns in town, the Board President and I continue to advocate for our students and staff within our broader networks behind the scenes, actively working with county Office of Education representatives and school-board association representatives on a weekly basis regarding the challenges we face and obstacles that require regionally collaborative efforts. As a recent example, the South Bay school board presidents collaborated on a joint communication to county leaders to call for prioritization of vaccines and expedited distribution for school district employees.

As of this writing [late February], Los Angeles County remains in the Purple Tier, and there is encouraging news regarding significant declines in our regional COVID-19 case rates. In order to allow hybrid students in grades 7 through 12 to return to school campuses, the health directive requires Los Angeles County to enter the Red Tier, which is a case rate of seven cases per 100,000. Other counties within Southern California have been able to achieve this goal. Let’s collectively continue slowing the rate of COVID-19 infection in Los Angeles County to allow an even greater return of our students to campus safely—let’s all do our part by wearing a mask, limiting gatherings, keeping social distance, and washing our hands!

Dr. Melissa Moore is superintendent of schools for El Segundo Unified School District.

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