San Dieguito prepares to welcome students back on Jan. 4

A La Costa Canyon classroom.

Students in the San Dieguito Union High School District will be returning to one-day-a-week instruction on Jan. 4 following the winter break. On Dec. 15, the board voted 3-2 in favor of a resolution that targets an expanded reopening to full-time, five-day-a-week school by the first day of the third quarter on Jan. 27.

At each school site, students have been asked to commit to coming to school one day a week or to remain in distance learning: 42% of students have opted in to return for one day a week at Torrey Pines High School and 56% of students will return at La Costa Canyon. At the academies, new classes start at the beginning of the third quarter so more students have opted to finish their current classes online. On Jan. 4, 31.28% of Canyon Crest Academy students have decided to come back one day a week and 39.3% of students will return at San Dieguito Academy.

SDUHSD President Mo Muir said what the district’s reopening plan does is give students a choice, particularly those students who are struggling and have been asking since August to return to school.

SDUHSD Vice President Melisse Mossy said the resolution remains very broad on how it might be executed on Jan. 27 but she hopes to find solutions for all, including allowing teachers who are at most risk to stay home and teach remotely and for students who are happy in distance learning or feel unsure about returning to remain at home and give them more opportunities to get out of their pajamas and be on campus in a safe space for extracurriculars and clubs.

“Starting with one day and adding more students several weeks later is good way to pilot, problem-solve and get critical feedback from students, stakeholders and staff. This plan is what I call the ‘freedom plan’. It’s freedom from fear, it’s freedom from isolation, it’s freedom of choice for students and staff,” Mossy said.

“I believe we can do this, I believe it’s possible but I only believe it will happen if we work together.”

In their opposition to the expanded reopening resolution, Clerk Kristin Gibson and trustee Katrina Young questioned the sustainability of a full, five-day-a-week model when they already at risk of losing 10% of district staff to leaves of absence with the one-day-a-week model. They were also wary of a resolution that was prepared by a board member, Michael Allman, with no staff recommendation.

Gibson also shared her concerns about the quality of the educational model and equity —she said there will be a learning curve involved with bringing more students back and asking teachers to manage at-home students and those in the classroom.

“To say that kids could still learn from home is true, although the experience will be changed,” Gibson said. “It will be a changed experience, it won’t be exactly what they’re getting now.”

The district and board members have expressed concerns about staff attrition and whether they will have the teachers available to reopen schools in January. The relationship between the teachers union and the district is “on the brink of irreversible damage.” On Dec. 9, the San Dieguito Faculty Association sent a letter to the San Diego County Office of Education demanding the district cease and desist from further reopening; and at the Dec. 15 meeting San Dieguito Faculty Association President Duncan Brown said the teachers took a vote of no confidence in Superintendent Haley, with 98% doubting his ability to lead.

Brown has questioned the safety of the reopening plan as it does not address the current stay-at-home order tied to hospital capacity, the county’s current purple tier status and the surges in positive cases.

“I find the lack of compassion for reasonable accommodations for employees who want to work but are unable to because of medical reasons appalling,” Brown said. “Since I cannot appeal to your sense of compassion, I hope that practicality may give you pause. Please consider the negative impact this will have on the district.”

A reimagined classroom space at La Costa Canyon.

Last month, SDUHSD Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Cindy Frazee said that 10% of the district’s teacher workforce plan to go on leave. Since the reopening vote on Dec. 15, Frazee said she has had 12 additional requests for leave based on health concerns, on top of the 40 who have already requested leaves and the 20 staff members asking for childcare: “I don’t know if that number will grow,” she told the board.

Mossy said when she hears that a teacher does not feel safe, she wants the district to problem solve to find a way to help them feel safe. Trustee Allman has also supported giving teachers who have a medical issue the choice to teach remotely.

Worries about leaves of absences have been exacerbated by a statewide substitute shortage. As the district has been losing substitutes to other districts who pay more, in November the board voted to increase the daily rate for substitutes from $120 to a temporary rate of $175 in order to be competitive. At the Dec. 16 meeting, they bumped that rate up to $250.

One-day-a-week reopening plan
Since the fall, the majority of the district’s students have been in distance learning. Small groups of students are attending classes up to five days a week on district campuses, including students with disabilities, English learners, intervention classes, students without a suitable learning environment at home and students who are significantly struggling in their classes. Prior to winter break, there were 16 positive cases among the small groups at six district campuses, including four active cases among the 88 staff and students at Torrey Pines High.

The district is keeping tabs on students’ academic progress and social emotional wellness. According to an October CoVitality survey, 75% of students were in the normal range of demonstrating healthy social and emotional competencies. Most students are passing their classes with 16% earning at least one D or F grade compared to 12% last year.

SDUHSD Assistant Superintendent Bryan Marcus said they have been planning for a gradual return of students in a safe and sustainable way that will help instill confidence in students and in staff. Groups of students will attend all of their classes in person on campus on their assigned day and will be online at home for the other four days. Masks will be required and in each classroom, students will be seated at least one meter apart (with six feet of distance as practicable being the standard) and the teacher workstation will be six feet from students.

The reopening plan includes daily symptom screening, utilizing outdoor spaces and larger areas and using filters that replace the volume of air in the classroom with fresh air every 23.7 minutes. Additionally some classroom areas have portable HEPA air filters.

Per the plan, staff will monitor lunch periods to maintain social distancing during meal times. Directional stickers will be used to help the flow of students in an effort to decrease the congregation of students during passing periods.

At the Dec. 15 meeting, a panel of four doctors that have been working with the district expressed their full confidence in the reopening plan, however, they have not seen a plan for the five-day-a-week model with more students on campus that was approved for Jan. 27.

“I’m extremely impressed with the reopening plan we’ve been discussing and highly encourage this to move forward because it is a safe, healthy choice for our kids in our community,” said Dr. Shakha Gillin, a pediatrician in Carmel Valley.

Several public comments doubted the adequacy of the reopening plan, particularly regarding distancing and the ventilation and filtration improvements.

Cassie Miller, student board representative from San Dieguito High School Academy, said she believes many of her peers are scared to walk into classrooms in January knowing that others may have just been coming back from vacations following winter break. She asked the board to consider pushing the reopening date out as other area school districts have opted to do.

A classroom at La Costa Canyon has every other desk marked off.

Poway Unified has opted to suspend in-person learning for two weeks in January, moving their reopening date from Jan. 4 to Jan. 19. Solana Beach School District will return to distance learning for one week after winter break to allow for staff re-entry testing and optional student testing and Rancho Santa Fe School District will also delay reopening in January to accommodate staff re-entry testing.

When asked for her opinion, Dr. Gillin said as the virus isn’t going anywhere, she didn’t think it mattered if they returned Jan. 4 or waited more weeks: “It’s safe with the measures any day you choose.”

The board received hundreds of public comments sharing a wide variety of perspectives —some parents asked the district to delay opening, others asked the board to reopen campuses without delay. Some students said they are thriving in distance learning, others said they are failing.

“I think my junior year is pretty messed up,” one student said. “I miss my friends and I know I am not learning as much as I would if we could go back to school.”

“Since distance learning started, I have struggled a lot and hated getting on my Google Meets at times,” said another. “Several times I have cried because of distance learning.”

Others shared why they were uncomfortable or scared to return.

“If I was in a classroom every day I would always be worried if I was too close to someone else or if a person sneezes or coughs. I think it would be hard to learn like that because I would always be worried,” said a student at Pacific Trails Middle School.

“The argument for reopening is that it will improve the mental health of students. As a student, it will absolutely not improve our mental states. We will sit in almost empty classes, attending our Google Meets with headphones on and we will not be allowed to socialize during breaks,” said CCA student Andie Gately. “The last thing we students want is to put our teachers in danger. The choice they face between unpaid leave and the risk of exposure is not a fair one.”