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San Dieguito delays reopening, settling union lawsuit

A classroom at La Costa Canyon High School.
(Courtesy)

San Dieguito Union High School District students will not return to in-person learning in January as the school board has settled with the teachers’ union in its lawsuit against a return to campus during a pandemic surge.

On Dec. 18 the California Teachers Association and the San Dieguito Faculty Association filed a lawsuit in Superior Court to prevent the district from moving forward with expanded reopening efforts. The union said that 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 purple tier. At a Dec. 28 special meeting, the board ratified a settlement agreement with the union, which required the board to rescind its reopening resolution from last month, meaning that there will be no movement toward bringing more students back to campus for in-person instruction likely until the county is out of the purple tier.

Students were expected to begin one-day a week instruction on Jan. 4, aiming for a return to five days a week on Jan. 27, the beginning of the third quarter.

In addition to the lawsuit, last week the district also received a letter from San Diego County Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten with a caution about their plans to return students at this time.

Trustee Katrina Young said she was aware that their decision would be disappointing to many parents and students but she believes that it is “one small step back to take many steps forward”.

“We owe it to our kids to continue to bring back as many as we can as safely as we can,” SDUHSD Vice President Melisse Mossy said. “We’re not settling for the status quo, we are still working to bring all kids back to campus safely.”

SDUHSD Clerk Kristin Gibson said that since the Dec. 15 resolution, which she voted against, there have been changes including Wooten’s letter, an increase in cases and decreased ICU capacity. She said that there is a valid argument that the district should have always considered the Jan. 27 return date rather than Jan. 4 due to the amount of people traveling over the winter break and gathering with other households.

In her support of the settlement, Gibson said she did not want to damage relationships with teachers over three weeks of instruction: “I think in the long run more harm will come from pushing forward than from rescinding the resolution and looking into what we can do in the future.”

The vote to ratify the settlement agreement was 4-1 with Michael Allman opposed. He believes that the lawsuit was based on a legal technicality over the definition of schools being “open”. Since the fall, students have been 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.

Allman said what the expanded reopening resolution did was provide a choice—any students and teachers who did not feel safe returning could stay in distance learning from home and the district would provide accommodations for the teachers that needed it.

“(Teachers) are essential, no doubt, to the education of our kids,” Allman said. “But we offer all this accommodation so these essential workers— that are guaranteed the highest pay in the county—to teach our kids and they say thank you by filing a lawsuit. And then they offer to settle as they hold the kids for bargaining chips. I just don’t want to reward that behavior.”

The board received hundreds of public comments on the issue, many thanked them for listening to the teachers as well as the students who used their voices to protest and oppose a reopening plan they felt was rushed and unsafe. Some said it was sad that it took a lawsuit to get the board to listen to the teachers.

“We protested because the board put our teachers in an impossible situation, one where they had to choose between a dangerous work environment and unpaid leave,” said Andie Gately, a Canyon Crest Academy student who helped organize student protests. “Thank you for listening to our teachers and to science. Thank you for choosing common sense and decency.”

While several commenters thanked the board for resolving the litigation issue quickly and not wasting taxpayer dollars, others did not want to see the board cave to the threat of litigation.

“The CTA and SDFA should be ashamed of themselves,” said parent Laurel Schechter. “The risk of kids being out of school is a national emergency and rather than wielding their clout like a loaded weapon, they should be collaborating with the district to implement solutions that have already been identified to open schools safely.”

Many students and families have said are frustrated with the “yo yo back and forth” of the district’s reopening plans. They described going from “elation to utterly gutted”, crying when finding out on Christmas Eve that the board would be reversing its decision on reopening Jan. 4. Several students said the board’s ASB reps and the protesters did not speak for them—they want to go back to school.

“I never thought I would say I miss school but I do,” said La Costa Canyon senior Jake Woltman. “If you had asked me two years ago I would have told you this would be a dream come true and the fact is it is so far from it. All my friends feel the same way. I don’t see how anyone could say their teenager is thriving in distance leaning. I don’t know anyone who isn’t bummed out by this.”

Parent Allison Stratton said thousands of district families were saddened by more delays as their children are suffering social, emotional and academic distress after almost a full year of isolation and remote learning. A group of parents is so determined to reopen schools that they created a website to help address a potential substitute teacher shortage. The website, sandieguitosubstitutes.com, guides people through the process of getting a 30-day substitute teaching credential so that more teachers can teach from home if there is a proctor in their classroom.

“There’s a path, difficult as it may be, which will provide a choice to students and teachers,” said Stratton, asking the board to come up with a new resolution to re-open schools safely after Jan. 27.

In the settlement, the union agreed to not “prevent, limit, or otherwise preclude” the district from expanding any cohorting efforts currently taking place. Students who qualify will continue to be able to access campus in small cohorts. Mossy encouraged all families with students who are struggling in distance learning to reach out to their teacher, counselor or even herself if they have exhausted all resources and need to be on campus: “Your student should not be struggling, that is not ok with any of us,” she said.


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