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Alex Jackson is an English teacher at Indio High School. He is using virtual learning as an opportunity to connect with his students.

Palm Springs Desert Sun

Desert schools have been in session for more than a month now, so the early technical issues have mostly been ironed out and a sort of rhythm has been established to the distance-learning model they are required to use. 

As Scott Bailey, the superintendent of Desert Sands Unified School District said, the number of calls they are getting to the technical support hotline they established “have reduced to a simmer after being heavy the first week, week and a half.”

As all three school districts continue with their distance-learning approach, a possible change in the landscape happened Sept. 22 as Riverside County moved from the restrictive “purple tier” into the less-restrictive “red tier.” What that means for schools is that if the county can remain “red” for 14 days, they would have the option of beginning some limited in-class learning with certain safety protocols in place without having to ask for a waiver.

The hybrid model — allowing in-person schooling for a limited number of students each day while the rest join virtually — would be an option at that point, but don’t expect school districts to be in position to flip the switch quickly on a return to even partial in-class learning. 

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David Hopkins, seventh grader at Cielo Vista Charter, looks for the Zoom link to his second-period class as his mom, Candiss Ashley, tries to help from inside their home in Cathedral City, Calif. on Wednesday, August 5, 2020. “I’m excited about school, ” said Hopkins. (Photo: Taya Gray/The Desert Sun)

Discussions with school boards, various pertinent associations and certain technological considerations will be part of any school district’s re-opening plan. 

We checked in with each school district to see how distance-learning has been going so far, what the future may hold as far as a hybrid model and what timetable might be in place for a transition.

Desert Sands Unified

DSUSD has had about 27 days of instruction since opening Aug. 19, and Bailey said he feels like they’ve settled into a solid groove after some first-week hurdles, mostly of the technological variety. He said they expected some bumps at the start, but they didn’t know where those bumps would come from until they popped up. 

“This whole pandemic has shaken the landscape of educators to where we all feel like it’s our first year in a way, and we’re all learning new things,” Bailey said. “Long-distance relationships are hard and that applies to this situation as well. You’re blazing a trail, and it takes extra effort from everyone involved, especially not knowing what’s in front of you as you blaze that trail. I appreciate the way that teachers, students and parents have been flexible along with us so far.”

As the public comments at school board meetings show, there is a desire from many parents to return to some sort of in-person learning. Now that the county has moved into the red tier, the interest in putting into place a hybrid model has heightened.

Bailey said that DSUSD has its hybrid model pretty well mapped out, but that doesn’t mean that if the county stays “red” for 14 days they’ll be able to implement it right away. The analogy he used was a unique, but appropriate one.

“It’s like trying to make a U-turn on Las Vegas Boulevard in a stretch limo, you’re not going to be able to turn on a dime, it will take time and patience,” he said. “And you want to make sure your passengers are safe and comfortable in the process.”

Bailey didn’t want to speculate on an actual timeline, because there is so much to consider and so many entities that need to be involved. 

“It’s a complex problem, one that we’ve never been confronted with prior, so given that, we will be engaging the board in the coming weeks to determine our next steps,” he said. “We have the plan built and we are continuing to collaborate with our employee associations on what the transition looks like.”

The school district has sent out a survey to parents and will rely heavily on the feedback. Bailey said they’ve received roughly 11,000 responses so far, which is just under half of the total they sent out. So far what he’s found is approximately a 60-40 split with 60 percent of the respondents favoring moving to a hybrid model and 40 percent on the side of continuing with the current distance-learning model until it’s safe for a full return. 

He said the district’s hybrid model will accommodate both options. 

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