North County parents unite to form group to expedite school reopening

Morgan Yang, 9, center, and Lucy Riddle, 10, display signs urging officials to reopen schools in Carlsbad in September.
Morgan Yang, 9, center, and Lucy Riddle, 10, display signs urging officials to reopen schools during a protest in September at Carlsbad School district headquarters.
(Bill Wechter / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Organization plans to advocate for students in five school districts


Parents of students in five local school districts have joined forces to form the Parent Association of North County San Diego, to advocate for students’ needs amid the pandemic and beyond.

The organization, which aims to educate parents and shape school policy, includes members from Carlsbad, San Marcos, Oceanside and Vista Unified School Districts, and San Dieguito Union High School District.

They organized in response to protracted school closures that began in March, with parents asking themselves how they could expedite the move from distance learning back to campus, said Ginny Merrifield, one of the organization’s founders.

“How can we influence decision-making so that kids can choose to go back to school now,” she said. “Out of that conversation, we needed to realize that we need to share our resources and our stories, and put a lens on the decisions to put students first.”

The organization hopes to work with school administrators and teachers to ensure a safe return to in-person learning, she said. As school officials, employee unions and government officials have hashed out reopening plans, she said parents sought an organized way to weigh in on those decisions.

“Parents really value teachers,” she said. “They are the workforce, and we need them to operate schools. But we need to put students’ needs first.”

Vista Unified Superintendent Matt Doyle said he wasn’t familiar with the new organization, but welcomes parents’ input on their children’s education.

“I have always been an advocate for parents as partners in education,” he said. “I support any effort to amplify and elevate the voice of parents in our educational system. As educators, we are here to serve the community.”

Carlsbad Unified Superintendent Ben Churchill said he did not have any comment on the new organization. Officials for other North County School Districts and teachers’ unions did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Merrifield, who does not currently have students in school, but has children who graduated from San Dieguito Union High School District, said families have struggled with virtual learning and shifting timelines for school reopenings.

“Distance learning is a completely inadequate method of teaching,” Merrifield said. “It wasn’t ever designed to be a long-term solution. But here we are, going on a year with kids in virtual learning.”

During that time, parents said, they and their children have been frustrated and disappointed that school reopenings have become moving targets. Although some elementary schools have opened part time throughout the fall, few middle or high school campuses have. And some districts have repeatedly postponed plans to return to full-time elementary instruction, or any in-person education at secondary schools.

“The school district keeps giving them hope that they’re going to be going back,” said Parent Association member Scott Davison, who has a son in eighth grade in the Carlsbad Unified School District. “And they keep reversing course every time. It’s devastating to have to tell your son that you were going to go back, and now you’re not.”

Davison is an attorney who also helped form another organization, Families for Opening Carlsbad Schools, which staged protests at the school districts’ headquarters in the fall, calling for a return to full-time, on-campus instruction. Davison said his son’s grades dropped early in the semester as he attempted to master new educational software and deal with fickle technology. In some cases, grades weren’t updated regularly or assignments his son submitted didn’t transmit properly on the learning platforms. Davison said his family worked to help his son bring his grades up, but cannot make up for the loss of activities and social interaction.

“There’s a lot of boredom with being stuck in one room staring at a screen,” Davison said.

Although most school districts have focused on reopening elementary school campuses first, and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s school reopening plan and guidelines prioritize the youngest students, Davison said school officials have overlooked the effect of school closures on adolescents and teens.

“There is a huge disconnect with the effects on these students, who crave social interaction, and want to be with their friends, and are entering young adulthood,” he said.

Unlike parent teacher associations, which support individual school campuses with resources, funding and activities, the Parent Association aims to represent a geographically larger group of parents on a broader range of school issues including school district policy, budgets and representation, Davison said. They hope to establish a presence that will extend beyond the pandemic.

“The parent association will be a much bigger, policy-focused group focusing on board policy and negotiations with the teachers unions and who’s on the board, and what educational programs we’re putting in place,” Davison said.

— Deborah Sullivan-Brennan is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune