State denies San Diego County districts’ reopening applications, causing frustration

Protestors in front of the Carlsbad School district headquarters hold signs calling for schools to reopen.
Tracy Godzik, center, other protestors hold signs in front of the Carlsbad School district headquarters, calling for schools to open last September.
(Bill Wechter/for The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The state told San Dieguito and Poway Sunday they are not allowed to open their middle and high schools during the purple tier


The state Sunday night, March 7, denied at least three San Diego County school districts the chance to reopen their middle and high schools for regular in-person instruction, even though the districts said they had received the county’s blessing to reopen.

San Dieguito Union High, Poway Unified and Carlsbad Unified had submitted applications to open their middle and high schools, even though the county has not yet reached the less-restrictive red tier, which is the state requirement for opening secondary schools.

All three applied through a special state exemption process that allows districts to reopen schools if they believe they had qualified as already “reopened” before the state issued new reopening rules in mid-January.

A county spokesman said county Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten had approved those districts’ plans “after careful review.”

“Those plans each met or exceeded the safety review requirements,” spokesman Michael Workman said in an email.

But the state’s Safe Schools for All Team has the final say. The team lead, Dr. Naomi Bardach, denied all three districts’ applications.

“We are incredibly frustrated and angered by this arbitrary and uninformed decision, as the application had the full support of the San Diego County Public Health Officer, Dr. Wilma Wooten, and her team, after a thorough review,” said San Dieguito Superintendent Robert Haley in a message to families Sunday night, March 7.

Haley, Poway Superintendent Marian Kim Phelps and Carlsbad Superintendent Ben Churchill told school families that they tried to appeal the decision, but Bardach told them the decisions were final.

That means the three districts will have to wait until the county reaches the less-restrictive red tier in order to open their middle and high schools.

But for now, the region is virtually guaranteed to remain in the state’s most restrictive reopening tier for at least a couple more weeks.

On Monday, March 8, the county reported 307 new coronavirus infections and 19 hospitalizations, with no new deaths. That makes 25 days in a row that daily cases have been below the 1,000 mark, and the number of San Diegans in the hospital with COVID-19 continues to decline.

On Tuesday, the state’s public health department will issue its weekly tier assessment based on data from the week before last (Feb. 21 to Feb. 27). San Diego County’s case rate during that period was roughly 9 cases per 100,000 residents.

The state will adjust that metric after comparing the region’s COVID-19 testing rate to the rest of the state. But with local testing declining, the adjustment will be small. And that means the county’s adjusted case rate will remain above 7, the cutoff for the most-restrictive purple tier.

That threshold could change soon. The state will raise the tipping point for leaving the purple tier from 7 to 10 cases per 100,000 residents once 2 million vaccine doses have gone into the arms of Californians living in the state’s most socioeconomically disadvantaged regions, as measured by the California Healthy Places Index.

As of Monday afternoon, March 8, about 1.88 million doses had been administered in these areas. Once the state reaches the 2 million mark, San Diego County will simply have to keep its case rate at or below 10 for two consecutive weeks to enter the red tier.

That could happen by March 23, at which point restaurants and gyms can resume limited indoor operations, along with other gradual reopenings of the region’s economy.

Workman said in an email that the return to the red tier could happen even sooner, by March 16, provided that the state retroactively credits the county for having a case rate at or below 10 this week. It’s not clear whether the state is offering such credits. The San Diego Union-Tribune reached out the California Department of Public Health for clarification, but did not receive a reply on deadline.

‘Shocked and frustrated’

Bardach gave different reasons for denying the school districts’ reopening applications — reasons that some say appear to contradict with state school guidance.

Bardach told Poway she did not approve the district’s application because Poway should have plans to keep students in the same classroom groups with the same teacher for the entire day, Phelps said. The idea is to prevent student and staff mixing by halting the typical middle and high school practice of having students switch classes during the day, to minimize potential COVID spread. It has become a common strategy in elementary schools.

But Phelps said that is impossible for middle and high school students because students have multiple teachers, courses and schedules. Other districts, such as Vista Unified, had shown earlier in the pandemic the difficulties of applying this stable group strategy to secondary schools.

The state’s decision to keep Poway closed, as told by Phelps, appears to contradict the state’s frequently asked questions document on its website, in which the state says that stable groups are not required, including in middle and high schools.

“(The California Department of Public Health) does not require schools to create stable groups,” the state says on a school reopening FAQ page. “Instead, CDPH provides a number of potential approaches to stable groups for middle and high schools and expects schools to follow the intent of why stable groups are important to reduce the risk of in-school transmission and to aim to develop the best stable group system possible within their school with their students that will limit exposure to the greatest extent possible.”

Churchill said Bardach told him that Carlsbad’s application was denied because the district doesn’t have a routine, asymptomatic COVID-19 testing plan up and running yet. He also was told that Carlsbad didn’t have a high-enough percentage of students already on campus to qualify as “reopened” before the state’s new reopening rules were published in mid-January.

Asymptomatic testing also is not a requirement for schools to reopen, according to the state health department’s FAQ page.

Churchill added that Carlsbad has had more than 4,000 students on campus for in-person services since September, and the district had no evidence of COVID-19 spreading at its schools.

“I’m shocked and frustrated that the CDPH would overrule San Diego County public health officials,” Churchill said in an email.

The state denied the three districts’ applications to reopen at the same time it has been encouraging schools to reopen by offering billions of dollars in incentives to schools that open for at least the earliest grades within the next few weeks.

“Gov. Newsom and the Legislature recently reached agreement on a plan to bring students back to campus as quickly as possible. It makes no sense that the CDPH would actively prohibit schools like ours from reopening,” Churchill said.

San Dieguito was originally planning to open on Monday, March 8, to all students who said they prefer in-person learning. Haley said San Dieguito stands by its decision to expand reopening, is reviewing its options and will update families and staff later on Monday, March 8.

Poway Unified is sticking to its original plan to open middle and high schools the week of March 15, because the district is projecting that the county will reach the red tier by then. The district is hoping to open on March 17, the day after the county might learn it is assigned to the red tier.

Phelps added that the district has “worked tirelessly” to create safe reopening plans, including adding air filtration devices and upgraded ventilation systems in all of its classrooms and schools, establishing increased cleaning and disinfecting procedures and requiring social distancing and masks.

“We are confident our reopening plan is comprehensive and addresses all conditions and protocols as required by public health officials,” Phelps said.

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