San Dieguito changes course, moves toward bringing back more students

The SDUHSD board meets at Earl Warren Middle School.
(Karen Billing)

A resolution passed by the San Dieguito Union High School District board on Oct. 14 represented a shift in the district’s thinking regarding reopening, allowing them to move toward bringing students back to in-person school one to two days a week by the second quarter.

For the last several months, SDUHSD Superintendent Robert Haley has said the district faced obstacles in bringing students back due to the guidelines on stable cohorts and physical distancing. Now with consultation and clarity from the San Diego County Department of Public Health, the district’s counsel and insurance carrier, Haley believes it is consistent with California Department of Public Health guidelines for middle school and high school students to follow individualized schedules and they are not required to remain in stable cohorts; he said it is also consistent with the guidelines to make efforts to provide physical distancing between the educator and students “as feasible and practicable.”

Per the resolution, there will be a minimum of six feet of physical distance between the teacher work station and student desks, and a minimum of one meter of physical distance between student desks. The resolution also states that all staff members who have not already physically reported to work shall do so beginning Oct. 29, the first day of the second semester, in order to support the efforts to bring more students back to campuses.

The resolution did not pass unanimously with SDUHSD President Beth Hergesheimer voting against it.

At the meeting, Haley also brought forward target dates for all students to return to campus if they choose—the distance learning option will always remain available for families. The board directed staff to move forward creating plans that could allow for middle school students to return to one day a week for in-person instruction on or before Nov. 9 and two days per week on or before Nov. 30. The target date for the comprehensive high schools would be Nov. 16 for one day a week on campus and two days a week on or before Dec. 7.

Haley said this does not mean all of a school’s students will be on campus the same day and it will not look the same at every single campus—it will likely be a “day cohort” in a hybrid model.

“We believe these are reasonable goals, we believe it’s reflective of what we’ve heard from the community,” Haley said. “Setting those dates is a goal. I do believe that our students want to see some hope.”

As Haley noted several times, SDUHSD is open—students with special needs, English language learners and high-risk students with inadequate learning environments are attending schools in small groups.

Sunset High School has the most students back and with its smaller enrollment than the comprehensive high schools, is moving toward having all students back at least one day a week. There are about 13 kids back at Oak Crest Middle School, meeting four times a week in Crest Hall, and this month San Dieguito Academy welcomed an English language learner who was stepping foot on a school campus in the United States for the first time after moving to this country in the spring.

“We’re going to have kids come back to school,” Haley said. “We’re prepared to do it. We want to be careful, we want to follow the guidelines. We want to assure our staff, our students and our families that we’re doing it safely and carefully.”

The district and board have heard a wide variety of opinions on reopening—a rally held by parents last month demanded that kids return to in-person learning as soon as possible and the district’s expanded reopening committee held its first meeting last week.

A recent survey conducted by the district with nearly 7,000 respondents showed that 80% of families would return to in-person instruction. Of the 20% who said they would not send students back in current conditions, 40% said that they would come to campus for a social activity. The survey did not, as several parents pointed out, detail what the instructional model would be if students returned.

The district received 104 public comments ahead of the Oct. 14 special meeting and 43 requests to speak. The board selected 10 speakers at random to speak.

Some comments praised the district for moving forward.

“Our kids need the opportunity to be in school both to maximize their educational opportunities but also for their mental and emotional wellbeing,” said parent Kerily McEvoy. “I am confident that the staff along with parent and community support can work together to figure out a way to make that happen safely and effectively.”

The majority of the comments asked the district not to be pressured into making decisions or to rush without a clearly articulated plan. Parents said they were concerned about “physical distancing as practical” and how switching models now will compromise learning opportunities as well as safety. They asked the board not to cave to a “loud minority” of parents.

“Many families like ours have been hugely satisfied with our experience this fall and our satisfaction is why you have not seen us protesting at your headquarters or on social media,” parent Thad Kousser wrote.

“A loud small group of privileged parents should not be dictating the safety for all of a school district,” echoed parent Lily Bolig.

The lack of significant change or more in-depth plans from the district was also concerning for parents. They were worried that teachers do not have adequate cleaning supplies and that they had not seen a proposed hybrid schedule with details like staggered start times or a plan to clean classrooms between periods. The reopening committee’s work was also not mentioned in the plan.

“This is ‘wants’, not evidence-based thinking or sound planning,” wrote parent Molly Schneider. “I am losing my trust and confidence in this shallow discussion.”

At the meeting, SDUHSD Associate Superintendent of Business Services Tina Douglas went over some the details of the district’s safe reopening plan which includes the requirement for face coverings, additional hand-washing station on campus, restroom capacity limits, maximizing the use of outdoor space and directional stickers to mitigate congregating during passing periods and to keep foot traffic flowing in one direction. The district also plans to utilize HVAC filters in the MERV category and additional HEPA air purifiers where filtering of air and window openings do not exist.

Members of the public have accused the board of undermining what’s best for children by placating the teachers union, however, the president of the San Diego Faculty Association Duncan Brown came out with strong words against the superintendent, calling the Oct. 29 date “an artificial deadline”: “The information has not changed, it is a manipulation by the superintendent,” Brown wrote in his public comment.

On Oct. 15, Brown sent a message to teachers that he was meeting with the California Teachers Association’s legal department and an emergency negotiation session was called as the union considers their next steps. Duncan wrote that they have received emails from SDFA members mentioning a strike, sick leaves or other job action measures.

The Oct. 14 meeting stretched on for nearly five hours and board members were at times emotional in their discussions. They remarked that these are challenging, frustrating times and they are feeling the weight of these difficult decisions.

SDUHSD Vice President Mo Muir was determined to set the return dates—”This would be huge to lift these students up,” she said—but as it was not agendized, it would have been a violation of the Brown Act which guarantees the right of the public to participate in meetings. SDUHSD Trustee Kristin Gibson said she was surprised to be presented with specific dates at the meeting. She wanted to see more of a plan attached to those dates that addressed what the hybrid model would actually look like on each campus on Nov. 9. Gibson said she would also like to see the work of the reopening committee play out. They have so far only met once with a second session scheduled Oct. 22.

“There’s going to be a cost either way, whatever we do. It’s easy to have opinions but I have to take responsibility for 13,000 kids and 1,000 staff members,” Gibson said.

Gibson said the resolution was a “jumping off point,” establishing a framework and making a commitment to return more students but she was not yet ready to approve target opening dates without more information. The board expects to ratify the dates at a future meeting.

The voice of the teachers
One of Hergesheimer’s hesitations in approving the resolution was that she didn’t believe it addressed the many teacher concerns she has heard, such as the lack of childcare for teachers whose own children are in school only two days a week or who come from a household that is high risk—they haven’t been given the option to work remotely and teachers in some cases are being forced to take leaves of absences.

“I think we may have more disruptions than we recognize,” she said.

At the meeting, the board did approve agreements with the San Dieguito Faculty Association and the California School Employees Association, the classified employees union—Haley said the district has been working very closely with the unions over the last months. Teachers had already been notified that they needed to be prepared to return and the district can require that as long as they adhere to the health and safety protocols. A signed side letter with SDFA stated that employees should be prepared to return by Oct. 12.

“That side letter didn’t really get the voice of the teachers as far as looking at a quality educational program where all students are receiving meaningful instruction,” said Carmel Valley Middle School PE teacher Jasmine Stiles.

Stiles said unlike spring’s distance learning which was not very productive, over the summer SDUHSD teachers were able to create distance learning programming that was both meaningful and engaging for students. She is worried about what it will look like in the next few weeks to now have split classes, teaching students in-person and online at the same time: “I want to have time to do this right before we go in, I don’t want this to be like the spring where we had to knee jerk and figure out something that is not quality education,” she said.

In public comments, teachers said they are being portrayed as the villains, “People are rallying against the very people they want to leave their children with for over seven hours a day.” They agree that the goal has to be to reopen but they want to return under safe working conditions: “We abhor teaching online and encourage you to enact a safe not rushed reopening,” wrote one teacher.

SDUHSD Associate Superintendent of Human Resources Cindy Frazee said since they have begun bringing back specialized groups of students, four teachers have requested leaves of absence due to health concerns or lack of childcare. One additional teacher retired.

Frazee said they talk to teachers about their concerns and their options and it is left up to them to decide what to do. “It weighs heavily on all of us,” she said “It is a very, very challenging time.”

The Family First Coronavirus Response Act requires the district to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for reasons related to COVID-19. For teachers who qualify, the district must find a substitute and teachers receive two-thirds of their regular rate of pay for up to 10 weeks.

Haley noted that 500 classified employees, such as campus supervisors and maintenance staff, have already returned to work—including some with life challenges such as health risks and lack of childcare. He said it bothers him that there was not a similar level of board discussion when they were required to return. Douglas said while she understands it is different for teachers who are coming back to a classroom, no one asked about the circumstances of the bus drivers that are on the buses with students and no one asked about the nutrition services employees who have been at work providing hundreds of meals to families.

“I’m empathetic and I understand but we’ve already required a significant amount of teachers as well to report to work,” Haley said. “We do it with as much compassion as much as we can but ultimately our role as educators, our role as essential workers, is to provide students with an education. And it can’t be fully sustained through distance learning with students off campus forever.

“Students are coming back and the only way we can continue to do that is if we have our teachers.”