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All San Diego County schools are cleared to reopen for instruction, thanks to red tier

McAuliffe Elementary students arrive on campus after Oceanside Unified reopened its elementary schools on Monday.
Students of McAuliffe Elementary School make their way to class after arriving on campus on Monday. Oceanside Unified reopened its elementary schools on Monday.
(Don Boomer/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Several districts plan to reopen next month, a couple will wait until May, July

After months of waiting, all public and private schools in San Diego County received the green light to reopen for instruction starting Wednesday, now that the county’s COVID case rate has finally stayed low enough to reach the state’s less-restrictive red tier.

The momentous yet expected tier announcement by county officials Tuesday, along with a decision by a county judge on Monday, cleared the way for an expanded reopening at some North County districts that have for weeks been asking the state to reopen their middle and high schools.

At least three of those districts — Poway Unified, Carlsbad Unified and San Dieguito Union High — this week started offering at least one day a week of in-person instruction to their middle and high school students.

Carlsbad will expand to offer two days a week of instruction to secondary students starting Thursday, while Poway will start doing so on Monday.

San Dieguito Union High will discuss at a Thursday board meeting what its next steps will be to expand reopening, Superintendent Robert Haley said.

San Marcos Unified, which had also asked the state to reopen its middle and high schools, will open on March 23 and offer two days a week of in-person learning to each student. Escondido Union High, where two-thirds of families said in a survey they are ready to return to school, will start returning students to campus on March 23, with students in all grades returning by April 20.

For several districts that have yet to reopen, the news does not accelerate their plans but confirms that they can move forward with them. Many had already set reopening dates for next month.

San Diego Unified, San Ysidro Elementary and Lemon Grove Elementary had set April 12 as their reopening date, while La Mesa-Spring Valley set April 19. Oceanside Unified, which reopened for elementary grades on Monday, will reopen for secondary students the week of March 29.

Chula Vista Elementary had decided to open no earlier than April 5 for staff and/or students.

“We have learned so much from the many school districts in San Diego County that have already welcomed back students to in-person instruction,” Chula Vista Superintendent Francisco Escobedo said in press release earlier this month.

“We have taken extra precautions. I have had so many teachers and staff tell me it is time. The students need us. The families need us.”

Other districts in South County, where COVID rates had been disproportionately high, are choosing to wait months longer to reopen, even with news of the red tier and even as teachers are expected to be fully vaccinated in a few weeks.

South Bay Union Elementary does not plan to reopen until the start of its next school year on July 26. District staff “overwhelmingly indicated that they preferred to remain in distance learning for the rest of the school year,” South Bay Superintendent Katie McNamara said on the district’s website.

But its parents were more evenly split; a recent parent survey found that 51 percent preferred to remain in distance learning while 49 percent preferred to return to in-person instruction.

Sweetwater Union High, one of the county’s largest districts, plans to reopen April 12 — but it will be voluntary for staff to attend in person, said Vernon Moore, Sweetwater’s chief of educational equity and support services. It will become mandatory for staff on May 3.

Unlike most other districts, Sweetwater will not invite all students back at first. It will only reopen at 10 percent of capacity, so no more than 10 percent of a school’s students will be allowed on campus at any one time.

The district is inviting roughly half of its students back first, prioritizing high school seniors and vulnerable students, such as foster youth and English learners, said Julie Walker, president of the Sweetwater teachers union.

Sweetwater set additional conditions for reopening in an agreement with its teachers union that goes beyond getting into the red tier. The agreement says the district will not reopen until the 14-day average “case rate” within the district’s zip codes is less than 200, and until the COVID test positivity rate is less than 8 percent for 14 consecutive days in its zip codes.

In the National Elementary district, the school board won’t discuss a reopening date until April 14, Superintendent Leighangela Brady said. The board said last week that it believes it is still too early to set a date because its local case rate was above the red tier level, it is still reviewing options for COVID testing of students and staff, and staff had not yet confirmed appointments for their second vaccine doses, Brady said.

San Diego County schools have to reopen for all elementary students and at least one middle or high school grade level by the beginning of April in order to qualify for the full incentive funding that the state is offering to schools to reopen. For every school day past April 1 that a school does not reopen, a school loses 1 percent of the incentive funding it is eligible for.

Schools that reopen after May 15 will miss out entirely on the incentive funding.

A four-month wait

For the past four months that San Diego County has sat in the most-restrictive purple tier, schools have been forbidden by the state from reopening for regular instruction if they did not do so by the time San Diego fell to the purple tier in mid-November.

The state later announced an opportunity only for elementary schools to reopen during the purple tier via a waiver process once a county’s daily new COVID case rate dipped below 25 per 100,000 residents, but the state continued to prevent middle and high schools from reopening until the county returns to the red tier.

With the county in the red tier as of Wednesday, schools will have a minimum of three weeks to reopen, even if the county’s case rate rises again past the level for the purple tier.

“We are very pleased with the move to the red tier,” said La Mesa-Spring Valley Superintendent David Feliciano. “It means we will be able to open our middle schools for hybrid learning in April alongside our elementary schools.”

In addition to the red tier, teachers in some districts were waiting on vaccines before going back to school.

On Feb. 27 the county opened up vaccinations to teachers and other school staff, starting with schools in more disadvantaged communities as measured by the state’s Healthy Places Index. About 22,000 vaccine doses have been given to K-12 school staff so far.

“We never opened this year ... our board was really cautious. Lemon Grove did have a higher-than-average community case rate,” Lemon Grove Superintendent Erica Balakian said. “But once the vaccine became available, our teachers completely got on board.”

When school districts reopen, all will offer families the choice to remain home in distance learning. Some families have said they do not want to return until students can get vaccinated or until case rates fall further.

All local districts that are reopening in the red tier are offering hybrid learning, meaning students will get to attend part of the school day or week and will spend the rest of the time in online learning. Many districts say hybrid learning is needed to reduce building capacity and maintain distancing between students in classrooms.

While several districts are still making plans to reopen, many districts and private schools in the county already have students attending in-person because they reopened before the county fell to the purple tier. Some, like Alpine Union and Lakeside Union, are increasing the number of days students can come to campus.

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

— Reporters Phil Diehl, Karen Pearlman and Gary Warth contributed to this story.


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