A student at Magnolia Elementary, part of the Cajon Valley Union School District, concentrates on a classroom assignment during a summer program in August 2020. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Families across the region looking to switch from in-person to virtual learning during the school year now are in a holding pattern.

Parents this school year have what they didn’t have last year: a choice in whether their kids learn in person or at home online, based on their own needs and circumstances. But as the Delta variant surge continues, anxiety is creeping in for some parents, including those who’ve been fighting for the choice to get their kids back in physical school, they told Voice of San Diego.

As the parents figure out how they want to proceed, school districts are scrambling to offer enough flexibility to accommodate families whose desires are changing along with the pandemic.

The Chula Vista Elementary School District, for instance, currently has 363 students in its virtual program, with about 65 students on a waitlist — where they’ll have to stay until a spot frees up, the district finds a teacher for them or an independent study option for elementary schoolers opens up at the County Office of Education, Matthew Tessier, an assistant superintendent at Chula Vista Elementary School, said.

Most kids are attending school in person, but districts are creating special virtual options for families worried that their kids who can’t be vaccinated – either because they’re too young or for health reasons – will contract the virus and bring it home and others who want that option.

For families who are rethinking their plans for in-person school, virtual options look different from last year. Last year, there were hybrid learning models where teachers taught students online and in person at the same time. Now, most students in those programs will fully learn from home, with educators dedicated to virtual teaching. School leaders are navigating staffing challenges for those programs. It’s raising a host of important questions about how instruction will look in the new school year for families, communities and educators.

Before the start of the school year, 375 kids applied for the Chula Vista Elementary virtual academy. Tessier said a lot of parents chose the option because their children perform better with online learning than in a traditional classroom, or because of COVID-19 concerns.

But another 65 students requested to join the academy in recent weeks. While those students are on a waitlist, school officials are encouraging their families to keep them in physical classrooms.

“It’s very challenging to just open a class with five kids,” he said. “We are trying to figure out what to do with kids on the waitlist. We don’t want them just staying home.”

Voice of San Diego asked the 10 largest school districts about their plans to accommodate families now opting for virtual learning options. The clearest success story came from Cajon Valley, where more than twice as many families requested switching to online learning from the initial numbers.

The district thinks it can handle the need. On Aug. 12, the district’s online enrollment was 130. The district has received an additional 171 requests for online learning since Aug. 13, Karen Minshew, an assistant superintendent of educational services at Cajon Valley Union School District, wrote in an email to VOSD. The total in-person enrollment at Cajon Valley is 14,690.

At the end of last school year, the district hired additional teachers to support students on-site, ahead of any changes in health and safety guidelines. Those teachers are now supporting virtual-learning students, Minshew said.

The need for virtual learning won’t be clear for many districts until the school year begins. Representatives from San Diego Unified and Oceanside Unified School said they’re prepared to handle the demand for their programs now.

San Diego Unified students have the option to enroll in a new online Virtual Academy for the upcoming school year. Classes at San Diego Unified resume on Aug. 30. San Diegans for Safe Schools, a local group of advocates, has pushed for the district to extend the deadline for the program so parents have more time to decide “as case rates continue to surge in our community.” 

“We understand that not everyone will be ready or comfortable with returning to in-person learning,” Maureen Magee, a spokeswoman for the district, wrote in an email.

In Oceanside, 240 students enrolled in the district’s independent study program, Surfside Educational Academy – the same number registered before the pandemic – as of Aug. 18, Donald Bendz, a spokesman for the district, wrote in an email to Voice of San Diego. The total enrollment at Oceanside Unified is 15,795.

“It’s a program we’ve had since before the pandemic,” Bendz wrote. “It allows students to make appointments both in person and virtually to meet with instructors at a time chosen by the student.”

Districts have another option: the County Office of Education. The office is “poised and prepared” to contract with districts to provide independent study to middle and high school students, and is exploring options to help districts provide independent study for elementary students, Music Watson, a spokeswoman for the County Office of Education, wrote in an email.

Tessier, the assistant superintendent from Chula Vista Elementary, is stressing to parents that most coronavirus cases aren’t coming from schools. Dr. Naomi Bardach, the state lead for the Safe Schools for All Team, has said that most of cases in teachers or students involved community spread, meaning a staff member or student was in close contact with someone at home who was sick.

The Chula Vista Elementary School District and others are following that guidance and guidance from the state and county on masking, quarantines, testing and social distancing protocols to keep kids in physical classrooms as safe as possible. But he and others recognize some families will feel more comfortable if their kids remain at home.

“We have a lot of parents who change their minds from one week to the next,” he said. “They feel comfortable one week and the next week they don’t.”

Kayla Jiminez was a staff writer for Voice of San Diego. She covered about communities, politics and regional issues in North County as well as school...

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