San Dieguito resolves to open when county moves to red tier

A teacher workstation at La Costa Canyon High School.

The San Dieguito Union High School District believes they are prepared to safely bring students back when the county is out of the purple tier. For San Dieguito schools to reopen for in-person learning, the county must be in the state’s red tier for five consecutive days. Currently the county is “deep into purple” due to COVID-19 case numbers and the percentage of positive tests.

“The district strongly desires for all students who wish to return for in-person instruction be given the opportunity to do so and is prepared to immediately bring all of those students back to campus as soon as the district is legally able to do so,” stated a resolution passed by the board on Jan. 21.

“We’re ready to go,” said SDUHSD President Mo Muir, expressing her confidence in the school’s reopening plan.

In December, the California Teachers Association and the San Dieguito Faculty Association had sued the district over its plan to return to in-person learning on Jan. 4. The union had said that the district’s plan violated state rules as the state forbids schools from reopening if they did not reopen before the county fell into the purple tier. The district settled with the union and rescinded its plan to reopen to one-day-a-week school, aiming for five days a week by the third quarter.

On Jan. 14, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) released new reopening guidance, providing some clarity on what it means for a school district to be open. Under the guidance from the county and with small groups of students on campus since November, SDUHSD Superintendent Robert Haley believed that the district’s schools were open, however, the state has now weighed in to clarify that a school must have given all students in at least one grade the option to return for in-person instruction for at least part of the school week to be considered to “open.”

Under that definition, only Sunset High School and COAST Academy meet that requirement.

While the guidance does not allow the district to expand general in-person instruction at this time, board member Michael Allman wanted to ensure that the district is maximizing the groups of students that are allowed back to campus—an intention that is stated in the resolution.

During public comment, San Diego Faculty Association (SDFA) President Duncan Brown asked for the district’s continued collaboration as they develop a reopening plan: “Value us as a true partner and students will reap the rewards,” he said. “This has always been our commitment.”

In her remarks, SDUHSD Vice President Melisse Mossy said the board hopes to move forward in spirit of collaboration and following the state mandates:“Not one of us is asking staff to go outside the guidelines.”

Safe reopening, teacher accomodations
The district’s reopening plan includes the CDPH’s “layers of safety”—per the guidelines, each infection mitigation strategy decreases the risk of in-school transmission but no one strategy is 100% effective on its own. The top four strategies are face coverings, stable groups, physical distancing, adequate ventilation and hand hygiene.

“Our plan is very robust,” Haley said. “We are not looking at minimum standards we are looking at exceeding standards.”

Last week the district had a meeting and site tour with the San Diego County Public Health Department to review their reopening plan—two board members and the presidents of both employee associations were involved. Haley said to the extent that the review can be disclosed publicly, it will be. The district also brought in Siemens to inspect their heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

Ventilation and air filtration has been a top concern expressed by parents.

Haley said they have analyzed every classroom space in the district with respect to air filtration. He said they have more HEPA air purifiers than any district of their size and have purchased MERV-12 + filters (which are considered better than cardboard-based MERV-13 filters) that will be installed in the next two months.

“When it comes to air filtration analysis, we have met everything requested of us and exceeded it,” Haley said, noting they originally only looked at square footage but upped the analysis to consider air volume, internal air flow and how much outside air they are able to bring in.

The CDPH update also offered further guidance on cohorting: middle or high schools can create stable groups (defined as 14 youth and no more than two supervising adults) by placing students into groups that remain together all day. Per the reopening plan posted on the district’s web page, 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.

With expanded reopening efforts, board members have expressed their desire that the district provide accommodations for teachers who have healthcare concerns or childcare issues to be able work remotely. Multiple parents and teachers requested that the commitment to allow teachers to telework be made “in writing.”

Many teachers have said they have received no information about their options to teach remotely after Jan. 27 and may be forced to either return to the classroom or take unpaid leave.

“It’s time for the board as a body to formalize what teacher choice means,” said Matthew Davis during public comment. “Show us that you can go beyond the easy talk of accommodations and teach-from-home options and walk the walk that make it happen. The board should not force the exceptional educators that make our schools the envy of the state, if not the nation, to make what literally may be life or death decisions that don’t need to be made.”

Cindy Frazee, associate superintendent of human resources, said requested accommodations have only been provided through the second quarter. While there is not a uniform agreement, when a teacher asks for accommodations through their site principal and human resources with a doctor’s note or childcare concern, approvals are given in writing. Teachers whose request can not be accommodated are told in writing or personal phone calls. Frazee said the accommodations are subject to privacy laws and employees are dealt with on a confidential, individualized basis.

Public comments given at the Jan. 14 and Jan. 21 meetings continued to reflect a divided and difficult time in the district. Many parents expressed distrust and were critical of a message sent out to families from site principals last week about the safety mitigation steps that have been taken. Parents questioned the claims about ventilation improvements, staff vaccinations and staff testing given that the county has closed all school employee-only COVID-19 testing sites until all area school districts get closer to reopening to wider in-person instruction.(School employees can still be tested at the county’s public testing sites.)

There were also questions about Oak Crest Middle School having to close for 14 days due to five COVID cases among the 85 on-site staff and students. Per the COVID dashboard on the district’s website, as of press time there were 15 cases districtwide, including four at Earl Warren Middle and three at Pacific Trails Middle School.

The district’s communication was described by parents as “inconsistent”, “vague” and “misleading”: “I ask for transparency and communication, not generic statements about being ‘safe’ or ‘ready to open’,” said parent Michele Macosky.

“Our community is divided and struggling,” wrote parent Jennifer Daniel-Duckering in her public comment. “This board has the ability to bring us together and provide transparency and stability before irreparable harm has been done.”

Muir said she believes that the board has been as transparent as possible on everything they are doing. Listening to all of the student and parent voices, board member Katrina Young said the board would love nothing more than to see kids on campus and they want to find a way to make it work.

“We are committed to making this right for your kids because that’s our job,” Young said. “We all share the same frustrations and love for our children… I want parents to know we are working very hard to get kids back on campus but we can only do what we’re mandated to do by the state and the county.”

Chromebook update
The San Dieguito Union High School District has not yet received any of the 13,000 Chromebooks that were ordered in August 2020. Associate Superintendent Tina Douglas said the delay is due to an industry-wide shortage of the technology components due to the pandemic. A portion is expected to be delivered in February with the balance arriving in March.

Every San Dieguito student that has requested a Chromebook for distance learning since March has received one. The district currently has 9,000 Chromebooks and 4,376 of them are at the end of their useful lives and need to be replaced. SDUHSD Associate Superintendent Bryan Marcus said that the new devices will pair better with the district’s learning management system and are touchscreen—3,743 of the district’s currently owned Chromebooks are touchscreen. The new devices promote consistent communication between students and teachers and they reduce the impact of limited internet access as Google Drive allows students to work on files offline.

The $5.2 million Chromebook purchase was funded from the $6.3 million the district received in state and federal learning loss mitigation funds, the majority of those funds expired in December 2020.

“That purchase I was not for that, that was a big mistake,” SDUHSD President Mo Muir said at the Jan. 21 meeting. She and Melisse Mossy had opposed the purchase in the board’s 3-2 vote.