A student at Lafayette Elementary School digs through her backpack during the first day of San Diego Unified begins phase one of its reopening plan at elementary schools. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

This post has been updated.

After more than a year out of the classroom, San Diego Unified students now have just 18 days before they return. Principals and district administrators are scrambling to tally survey results from parents and figure out exactly how much schooling they will be able to provide to how many students and for how many days per week.

One of the biggest questions yet to be answered: Which schools will offer in-person learning four days per week and which schools will only offer two? It’s an insanely difficult question for families and principals to plan around with less than three weeks before in-person learning resumes.

District officials reached an agreement with the local teachers union for students to receive a minimum of two days of in-person instruction per week. Many schools, however, are going to attempt to offer four days.

The two biggest variables in that equation are physical space and the number of children.

Returning to physical school is optional for families. And so district officials sent out a survey that would help them understand how many children will return to campus on April 12. Those survey results were due back to the district on Wednesday, but the results weren’t immediately available.

Each principal has to know how much space she has and how many students are coming back. If there are too many students and not enough space, that will dictate that schools likely stick to a two-days-per-week schedule.

I spoke to parents and workers at four different elementary schools in the district, and all said their school plans to offer four days of in-person instruction per week. But plans were firm at only one of those schools. At the others, parents don’t yet know what time school will start and end. And they don’t know for certain how many days of instruction their children will get.

It surely makes for fun planning in households strapped for time and knowledge.

There’s another complicating factor. And even though it is literally smaller than an average-sized adult, its towering influence in the great logistical scramble cannot be overstated.

When school resumes, students will be required to be at least five feet apart from one another at all times, according to the agreement reached by teachers and the district. But just days after that deal came together, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance that students could maintain just three feet of distance and still safely attend school.

San Diego Unified, though, is sticking with the larger number, said Kisha Borden, president of the local teacher’s union. “The changing guidelines from the CDC will not impact that portion of our agreement,” she said.

Here’s the thing: When it comes to square footage, the difference between five-feet spacing and three-feet spacing is huge. Let’s say you had a 900 square foot room. Under the three-foot rule, you’d be able to fit somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 kids, said David Meyer, a math professor at UC San Diego.

In that same room, under the five-foot rule, you’d only be able to fit roughly 36 students, Meyer said.

And that means far more schools would be able to more easily accommodate four days per week of in-person learning for all students if San Diego Unified went with the three-foot rule.

Another question that could be answered differently from school to school: What spaces other than traditional classrooms will be used to hold class? Some teachers may choose to go outside. In other cases, cafeterias or gyms might be utilized for academic lessons. I heard about one teacher who is moving their classroom into a science lab to accommodate more students.

Modifications like that could mean more days of learning for more students.

We know students are heading back to school on April 12. But the distance between that knowledge and a detailed picture of how it will work is enough to fill an entire school semester.

What We’re Writing

Correction and update: This post has been updated to correct the math regarding how many students fit into a classroom under the three-foot rule verses the five-foot rule, and adds perspective from a UCSD professor explaining the difference. An earlier version of this post also misinterpreted a quote from Kisha Borden. Five feet of separation is allowed in classrooms, as long as certain mitigation measures are in place.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at will@vosd.org or 619-693-6249.

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