San Dieguito teachers go to court to prevent district from reopening during worst of pandemic

Mila Bowman, left, and Ema Nastic, both 17, at protest last week.
Mila Bowman, left, and Ema Nastic, both 17, last Thursday protested San Dieguito Union High School District’s plans to reopen for instruction next month.
(Bill Wechter)

Lawsuit says San Dieguito district is violating state rules over reopening during while county remains in purple tier


The San Dieguito Union High School District has been sued by its teachers’ union in an effort to block the district’s plans to reopen next month while cases of COVID-19 continue to escalate across the county.

In the court petition filed Friday, Dec. 18, the union says the district’s plan violates state rules because the state forbids schools from reopening if they did not reopen before the county fell into the most restrictive preventive stage, dubbed the purple tier. San Diego County has been in the purple tier since Nov. 10.

SDUHSD Superintendent Robert Haley did not immediately respond to a request for comment. School board President Maureen “Mo” Muir said the district is evaluating the court petition’s claims and will respond in court.

“The health and safety of our students and staff is the district’s highest priority,” she said in an email Monday, Dec. 21.

Last week, the San Dieguito Union High School District Board voted 3-2 to approve a plan to offer one day a week of in-person instruction to all students beginning Jan. 4, and five days a week of in-person instruction starting Jan. 27. The plan was approved despite warnings from district administrators that a full reopening will be logistically difficult.

Many students, parents and teachers have urged the board not to proceed with reopening during the worst COVID-19 surge the county and state have yet seen, with dwindling intensive care unit capacity at Southern California hospitals and rising case and death counts.

Administrators have also said that San Dieguito won’t have enough substitutes to fill in for at least 60 teachers who have requested leave and can’t work in-person due to health or child care reasons. COVID-19 staffing shortages have forced many other districts in the county to pause or delay in-person instruction.

Muir and Trustee Michael Allman have pushed heavily for reopening next month, saying that closures are harming students’ social and mental health and many parents want their children to return to school. Pediatricians with children attending San Dieguito schools told the board last week that it is safer to be in class than out in public because schools enforce safety measures such as masks and distancing.

The district says it is reopening with permission from San Diego County’s chief resilience officer. The county has been advising schools that they can reopen for instruction even though that guidance appears to contradict state rules.

The county says in its COVID-19 schools FAQ that schools are considered to have “reopened” before the county fell to the purple tier — and can thus expand reopening to more students during the purple tier. San Dieguito justified its reopening next month by noting it has been serving some students in-person in small groups led by a teacher, which the state allows during the purple tier.

But state guidelines say these small groups, which are only meant to be held for a certain few students, do not constitute reopening and do not mean that schools can reopen for in-person instruction in general.

York Chang, the California Teachers Association attorney leading the teachers union’s lawsuit, demanded in a letter dated Sunday, Dec. 20, that the county’s chief resilience officer, Gary Johnston, correct the county’s FAQ guidance to be in line with state rules.

Johnston has not responded to requests for comment.

The San Dieguito board will discuss the union’s lawsuit during a special closed-session meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 21, at 3 p.m. The meeting will be held in-person at Earl Warren Middle School but will be broadcast online.

— Kristen Taketa is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune