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San Dieguito Union High School District forms new reopening committee

The SDUHSD board met at Earl Warren on Sept. 24.
(Karen Billing)

The district announced it will reconvene an expanded reopening committee that will include parents, students, staff, board members and medical professionals.

On Sept. 24, San Dieguito Union High School District parents and students took to the street, protesting the continuation of distance learning through the second quarter of the school year. At the end of the rally, they stacked their signs on the district office’s doorsteps leaving the collective message that they wanted schools reopened and that they wanted to be heard.

The following week, the district announced it will reconvene an expanded reopening committee that will include parents, students, staff, board members and medical professionals. In listening to the community, Superintendent Robert Haley said the purpose of the committee will be to review the current distance learning model, review other models being implemented across the state, explore opportunities for on-campus activities, and explore options for the safe increase in student access to campuses. Another survey of district families is also planned.

“We understand the need and urgency to have a forum for our community to come together, learn together and provide guidance together,” Haley said in his letter to district families on Oct. 1. “We are actively working to make this meaningful and productive.”

The first meeting is scheduled for Oct. 8. According to Haley, the committee will continue to meet as the district monitors the San Diego County public health orders and guidance from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH).

At board’s Sept. 24 board meeting held at Earl Warren Middle School the evening after the protest, the board received 97 written comments, many echoing the themes of the protest by asking the district to provide a plan that would bring all students back to school. Several comments also addressed the district’s lack of communication.

The board’s decision to remain in distance learning in the second quarter was made on Thursday, Sept. 17, however, it was not communicated to parents until Sept. 23. Many parents said they only found out when teachers told their students that Friday. Wrote one anonymous commenter: “Any decision you make you will have supporters and detractors, but hearing important news via any means other than direct communication from the district will only sow discord and distrust.”

At the meeting, board members questioned whether the district was communicating clearly enough to families.

Trustee Kristin Gibson said that their decision was not to “keep children out of school until January” as many emails they received said—the board said no one wants to keep kids out of the classroom and no one is saying distance learning is ideal. Gibson wanted to clarify that the board’s decision to remain in distance learning for the second quarter does not preclude them from bringing kids back at any point of time if and when the CDPH guidelines change. The decision was made while the district is under the existing restrictions and guidelines around cohorts and physical distancing. If and when the public health order changes, Gibson said the district is prepared to reopen.

“We definitely have the common goal of doing the best for our students. We definitely have the common goal of keeping our staff and our students safe. We definitely have the common goal of getting everyone back,” said Clerk Melisse Mossy. “We need to bring our community together and we need to let our students know that we’re working hard and we care.”

“A lot of people are angry and confused. And I understand. They’re frustrated, we all are. This is a really hard time for everybody,”

As the trustees said, the district does have a plan and currently small groups of students are on campus every day with the goal of bringing more kids on campus for extracurriculars. Students who are on campuses now include students on individualized education plans and special education students, English learners, those who need academic support and those who have inadequate learning environments. There is a focus on students who are struggling and in danger of failing courses needed for graduation. They are planning for small groups to meet on campus for extracurricular activities. Athletic conditioning is governed by CIF but schools are working to bring back teams that are part of a school club or clinics run through the foundation, outside only in small groups.

At the meeting, principals shared how they are getting kids back on campus incrementally, collaborating with each other to come up with ideas to provide student connectedness and address those who are in need and at-risk. Sunset High School Principal Rick Ayala said all principals are planning through a lens of “What’s the most we can do?” The principals said they know that the biggest piece lost in distance learning is connection and that without it, there is a huge impact on students’ emotional wellbeing. They know that students do better when they are at school with their teachers and peers. They understand that students are dealing with isolation and depression. They recognize that, sadly, seventh and ninth grade students haven’t even had a chance to see their campuses.

“Nobody’s trying to shortchange anything, everybody’s working hard to give our communities the best possible experience,” Ayala said. “This isn’t easy for anybody. Nobody chose this, there is no script…this is my first pandemic.”

COAST (Community Opportunities for Adult Students in Transition) students represented the first wave of students to return to campus at the new Requeza Educational Center campus. Some of the students have opted to remain in distance learning but those who are back are at COAST twice a week, cohorts in three different classrooms with 10 students per room.

Earl Warren Middle School Principal Justin Conn said he has spoken to more parents than he would have in a traditional year and their input has informed a lot of what they have done on their campus as a result. Conn said recognizing the threat of achievement gaps, Earl Warren, as well as all middle schools, are providing in-person intervention support for students who are struggling academically. For those who need social and emotional support, students are meeting in-person with school counselors and school psychologists.

Earl Warren is also planning virtual and on-campus activities for Red Ribbon Week this month and Spirit Week in November. They hope to soon get school clubs up and running, some remotely and some on campus. The Boys & Girls Club is already running middle school football, cross country and volleyball practices.

“The transition to seventh grade has been overwhelming for our students. We have heard that from kids, we have heard that from parents. We’ve heard it loud and clear and we know we need to do more to support our seventh graders as a result,” Conn said.

During a Sept. 24 principal coffee, Canyon Crest Academy Principal Brett Killeen said he knows there are a lot of divergent feelings in the community and the school is doing its best to meet student needs. He approaches the situation from multiple perspectives: His daughter is a senior in the district, his wife is a teacher at a private school and his oldest 21-year-old son has contracted COVID-19—he is doing fine but months later still does not have his sense of taste or smell.

“When I leave every day to go to work I do see (my daughter) in front of a computer, in her pajamas, starting school. And when I come home from work I get to hear about how she feels about all this,” Killeen said. “I want you to know as parents, I’m in this with you.”


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