San Dieguito’s reopening plans continue, parents advocate for masks

Office building
(File photo)

At the San Dieguito Union High School District’s June 18 meeting, Superintendent Robert Haley provided an update about the plan to reopen schools in the fall. In short: nothing has been finalized yet.

Haley said the district’s reopening steering committee continues to “plan for everything,” looking at a wide variety of instructional models including on-campus, in-class instruction with modifications to the structure of school and day, distance learning with a hybrid option and independent study. Haley said they are constantly monitoring the public health orders and he doesn’t want to get into the specifics of what the models may look like as the guidance from the state and county continues to change.

One small step forward is that high school athletic practices and conditioning may be able to resume on July 6 per phase one of CIF, state and county guidance.

Haley said the district is facing many challenges with reopening, particularly at their large high schools: Keeping six feet of distance dramatically reduces the number of students that can be on campus at a time. The district will likely need to get creative in where they put students, utilizing campus spaces like theaters, gyms and learning commons.

Screening every student remains a challenge.

“What I’ve heard from the students is that the more restrictive it gets, and especially about the amount of days that they can be on campus, they’d rather just do distance learning even as much as they dislike it,” Haley said.

Governor Gavin Newsom gave a press conference that day mandating masks for everyone in the state, however, that didn’t change things for schools. As Haley noted, there is not currently a mask requirement for schools—the California Department of Public Health guidance states that staff should use facial coverings and student should be encouraged to wear facial coverings.

“One of the things we definitely know is that we have differences of opinion in our community around key aspects of our reopening, that’s just stating the elephant that’s in the Zoom room,” Haley said.

Through the input from 2,864 participants in the district’s ThoughtExchange platform, Haley said families made it clear that they want a choice in the instructional delivery model, more services to support students’ social and emotional needs and they want to make distance learning more structured and robust.

The district also sent out a preliminary parent survey to get a sense of how many parents wanted an on-campus program five days a week if possible and how many preferred a distance learning model. The survey generated a lot of opposing thoughts about five-day instruction, in-classroom social distancing and mask-wearing.

Per the survey results, 100% of COAST (the adult transition program) and Sunset High School families wanted in-class learning.

At Pacific Trails, 78% of those surveyed wanted in-class learning and 19% distance learning (2% independent study) —similar numbers were seen at Carmel Valley Middle School and Canyon Crest Academy. At Torrey Pines, 87% preferred in-class learning while 11% preferred distance learning (2% independent study). Earl Warren saw similar numbers as Torrey Pines with 82% preferring in-class learning, 16% distance learning.

At the June 18 meeting, the district received public comment that the survey was “poorly worded” and brought on a lot of confusion. With the option of going back to school, masks would be encouraged but not required and there would be six-foot separation when practical, but not required at all times.

Thad Kousser, a San Dieguito Academy and Earl Warren parent, said that with the option being no masks or social distancing, parents were “forced to make this false choice between safety and coming back and having in-person education.”

“I really want us to turn the clock back to a year ago and not have to change our lives at all but we can’t always get what we want,” Kousser said. “We have to make reasonable adaptations to return to school safely and give us the best chance of staying in school.”

Kousser and other parents encouraged the district to take a strong stance toward wearing masks, finding ways to allow for social distancing in classrooms and to make their plans in collaboration with district families and students.

“I do not think students should return to school unless they follow the advice of the local, state and national health experts by practicing social distancing and wearing masks at school,” said Shannon Kearns, a CCA and Earl Warren parent. “I worry that if we don’t take certain precautions like wearing masks, we may have a significant increase in COVID cases that could result in a strict stay-at-home order being enacted again. My hope is that we can go back in a responsible way so we can keep our kids at school rather than at home and online.”

Joshua Graff Zivin, parent of an incoming freshman at Torrey Pines, said he is even more concerned about a voluntary mask policy in light of the impossibility of students keeping six feet apart on large high school campuses.

“I understand it’s neither practical nor conducive to learning to have students wearing masks all day long,” said Graff Zivin, instead suggesting a hybrid policy that requires masks during transition times when students crowded together in hallways and other high-contact moments and optional otherwise.

Other parents, such as Kristin Demarest, believed that masks should be mandatory as they are “the simplest public health intervention available” and they represent the best chance to return to some degree of normalcy until a vaccine is developed. San Dieguito Academy parent Jason Knapp said that wearing masks has been politicized so the district will face pressure to not require them but it would be “reckless” to not require them on campus.

“Saying that students must either attend virtually, thus limiting their access to some classes and denying them the benefits of face to face instruction, or be exposed to other students not wearing masks which endangers their families in the process, is unnecessary,” Knapp said. “The school should simply require everyone to wear face coverings.”

Haley said the first day of school—Aug. 25— is still two months away and the steering committee will continue its planning surrounding the key issues of the state and county guidance: safety measures, distancing, health and hygiene practices; cleaning and sanitation; and screening and monitoring. While they heard the complaints about the initial survey, SDUHSD President Beth Hergesheimer said the district plans to do more comprehensive and open parent and student surveys about the approaches to reopening.

Mossy requests to be part of reopening steering committee
The makeup of the district’s steering committee was again questioned by SDUHSD Vice President Mo Muir and Clerk Melisse Mossy—Mossy was interested in being a part of the committee herself and both have asked for a parent to be on the committee. The committee as it stands now is essentially the superintendent’s executive cabinet and leaders of all the district departments. It’s not a group with set meeting dates and times but rather one that is working and meeting all week long.

Haley said he didn’t know how anyone could think that they haven’t had an opportunity for parent input. He said he’s personally emailed or talked on the phone with thousands of parents and said that the district has been working through existing parent groups to get feedback all spring. He questioned how the board would fairly select one parent out of 30,000 in the district to represent the voice of parents. He said he would not recommend it but would take board direction.

Muir said the only reason she recommended having a parent on the committee was because she had heard from parents who said they felt like they weren’t being heard. She said she felt encouraged that the district is ramping up its outreach efforts but would still like to see Mossy bring her perspective to the group as a parent and credentialed teacher. “She’s got great ideas, she’s always been positive … She knows where the board is going and her perspective is invaluable,” Muir said.

Mossy said she feels that collaboration with a diverse group of people is a good thing and that it is always helpful to have different perspectives.

“Everyone on that committee is exceptionally great at doing their job as a traditional school but none of them really have experience thinking outside of the box…we’ve operated in a system that’s been very much the same for decades. You need creative problem solvers,” said Mossy, who said she could bring her experience with alternative types of education as a teacher and parent. “It’s really important that we are creative and innovative in our approach in all the ways we’re going to need to prepare for next year.”

SDUHSD Assistant Superintendent Mark Miller assured Mossy that the staff is creative and they are thinking outside the box as they consider all the aspects of reopening. “We are working 12- to 14-hour days to make this happen with the information we have at this time,” Miller said, complimenting the district team’s efforts. “We will continue to work hard to make sure our students feel welcome and safe when they return in August.”

The district will continue parent outreach through surveys, parent groups and the ThoughtExchange platform as they explore every possible reopening model. Haley agreed to find a time for Mossy to be able to sit in on some steering committee discussions.

“The last thing I wanted to do is be a roadblock, I just want to be helpful,” Mossy said.