San Dieguito faces challenges in bringing students back to campus

Admin building
(File photo)

As local elementary schools ready to open their doors to in-person instruction, San Dieguito Union High School District is hearing questions from parents about when they might expect to have 7-12 grade students back on campuses.

The district’s position has not changed since July: In order to provide stability for teaching and learning, San Dieguito will remain in the distance learning model for all students through the first quarter of the new school year. When the district is allowed to safely bring students on campus in small groups, they will prioritize special education students, English language learners, high-risk students and students with inadequate learning environments and those who are credit deficient.

At the Aug. 27 SDUHSD board meeting, Superintendent Robert Haley said the media has misled the public by reporting what they were told by county officials that TK-12 schools could reopen on Sept. 1. Board members were also critical of local media’s role in informing San Dieguito families of their plans: “The media has not done a great service to our public in making these things clear,” trustee Kristin Gibson said.

While schools were cleared to open Sept. 1, many did not open on that date. Private schools and San Dieguito’s local feeder districts will open in the coming weeks in full or hybrid in-person models. San Diego Unified, the second-largest school district in the state with 181 schools, plans to remain in distance learning. In his conversations with the Poway, Vista, Oceanside and Carlsbad school districts, Haley said no high school district is able to return to campus at this time.

“We do not have a clear pathway to reopen,” Haley said, noting he is not aware of a single high school district that has even rolled out a plan that is ready to implement. Vista Unified has a plan but is not due to be implemented until October. San Marcos Unified will discuss in-person instructional models for their high schools this week with a decision set for later in the month.

In the last few months, this newspaper has reported the uncertainties and difficulties of San Dieguito’s ability to follow The California Department of Public Health guidelines for reopening which includes criteria around testing, screening, cleaning and ventilation and distancing.

“There’s no plan right now that we can give you that would allow us to fully reopen at any one of our schools. We don’t have the local control to fully reopen. It is being completely misled by our local media,” Haley said. “Under the framework and guidance that we have, we are not going to be able to bring large numbers of students onto our school campus at any given time. It’s just not feasible.”

Haley said the high school district is in a very different situation than elementary school districts who can keep students in stable cohorts. In most campus’ 960-square-foot classrooms, keeping the required six feet of distance between students and between students and the teacher greatly limits how many students can be on campus.

“That’s the one for large schools that puts us in a more challenging situation than smaller elementary schools,” Haley said. “I’m really appreciative of our elementary feeder districts who have gone the extra mile to get their elementary-age kids on campus. I support it, I want them doing it safely and I hope they’re successful but that is very, very different than 2,600 students in Canyon Crest Academy.”

Even in a hybrid model, it could be that students would only be on campus one day a week which, Haley said, is not the best learning environment for students in comparison to a fully robust distance learning model.

The district also wants to avoid opening too soon and having to close back up again due to positive cases. Per the guidance, an entire school would close if 5% of its students and teachers test positive. A school district would have to close if a quarter of its schools close within a 14-day period.

At the board’s Sept. 17 meeting they will be looking at the criteria for decision-making for the second quarter, reviewing if they are still in a position of a lack of local control and strictly adhering to state mandates. A special board meeting has also been set aside for Sept. 24.

At the Aug. 27 meeting the board received 30 written public comments, 17 asking to reopen for in-person learning as soon as possible. An anonymous speaker said she was very concerned that there’s been no intention to open schools before the second quarter starts on Nov. 1: “This is just unconscionable, other schools in the country are reopening… There is no scientific justification for keeping schools closed.”

“I think I speak for the majority of parents, given the district’s own polling numbers over the summer, that we want to allow our kids to go back to school,” said parent Matt Miller. “I don’t want our kids to be at a disadvantage to private schools or other districts that choose to open if we choose not to.”

Others asked the district to adhere to their “prudent” decision for distance learning through the end of the quarter, not to reopen too quickly and to consider additional safety precautions before reopening such as facilities improvements and more outdoor learning opportunities: “We want our students, staff and teachers back but we want them safe.”

“While I understand there is political pressure and an emotional appeal to get our students back to school, I strongly believe it would be a dangerous and reckless decision that would, at best, lead to disruptions in learning and, at worst, result in more COVID fatalities,” wrote parent Cynthia Edgerly. “We must not gamble with our students’ and teachers’ lives.”

Haley said he appreciates all of the public comments —he said he has received thousands of phone calls and emails and he said he has listened to every point of view, including those of students at a recent student focus group. While he would love for students to be back at school, he said his responsibility as a superintendent is making student-centered decisions while adhering to the frameworks, guidelines and public health orders.

“There is so much we are being asked to follow, design and plan for in terms of complexity,” Haley said. “This is not an easy task for us. This is my passion, I love our students I truly do. And I want to give our school community the best that I can...Everybody is focused on doing the best we can for our students.”