San Dieguito planning for reopening of schools under new restrictions

SDUHSD building
(Staff photo)

On June 8, the California Department of Education released “Stronger Together: A Guidebook for the Safe Reopening of California’s Public Schools.” The long-awaited guidance includes recommendations for schools as they work with local public health officials to plan the next steps toward reopening in the fall. Among the recommendations: Students should have their temperatures taken every morning with no-touch thermometers, teachers should wear face masks or shields, students should wear face coverings and their desks should be spaced 6 feet apart.

“I’m very concerned that the more restrictions there are, the more difficult it’s going to be for school districts to reopen,” San Dieguito Union High School District Superintendent Robert Haley said at the board’s June 4 board meeting.

Measuring classrooms with the social distancing standards, San Dieguito found they could only fit eight students at a time. It was estimated that it would take hours to take the temperature of every student at Torrey Pines High. Haley said at a recent student summit, students make it clear that sitting six feet apart and wearing masks all day while a teacher instructs from behind a plexiglass divider may not be realistic.

A San Dieguito reopening steering committee is currently planning for how they will start the year under the new restrictions. The committee includes the associate superintendents, and representatives from the middle school, high school and the unions.

Haley said the district has also been reaching out through the crowd-sourcing Thoughtexchange platform and has received 3,700 thoughts from students and parents. The district is also using surveys to gauge what instructional models families are interested in this fall: continuing online distance learning, in-person school or a hybrid model. In one hybrid model in the state’s guidance, half of the student population would attend in-person learning four full days per week while the other half is engaged in distance learning.

Haley said any decision the district makes will be guided first by the health and safety of students and staff, following the executive order of the state and the public health order of the county.

“The kids need this, they need to be back in school, they need to be with their friends,” said SDUHSD Vice President Mo Muir. “We need to get ready to reopen. It’s good for the kids, it’s good for their wellbeing.”

Muir questioned the effectiveness of Thoughtexchange as an outreach tool and wanted to see more parent participation in the planning for fall, “I’m not happy that we don’t have any parents on the steering committee or a board member, I think that’s a big problem,” she said. SDUHSD Trustee Melisse Mossy also urged the district to provide more communication and parent participation.

“I would personally open schools tomorrow if I had that authority,” Haley said. “I will reopen the moment we are allowed to reopen...This is the core of who I am, this is my passion. I’m watching kids cry. I’m seeing parents cry. I started out my career in special education and I know that those families are suffering. I want to make it really clear: We will reopen when we are allowed to reopen.

“My heart wants kids in school.”

Muir said she appreciated Haley’s passion and just wants to ensure that the district is being proactive and not reactive. SDUHSD Trustee Kristin Gibson said she believes the district is taking a reasoned approach, trying to find a way to open without “overly cumbersome restrictions that we aren’t certain will enhance our kids’ safety.”

“It’s hard to be proactive when the landscape is shifting every second,” Gibson said. “We can’t plan anything too tightly at this time because we don’t know what those health orders are going to look like.”

Budget meeting to be held June 18
The “strain of the spring of 2020” has also had an impact on the budget as the district is mapping out a budget with no idea what the instructional year is going to look like. The board is expected to approve its budget for the 2020-21 school year at its June 18 meeting.

“I’m presenting a budget to you and the only thing I can guarantee is that things will change,” said Tina Douglas, SDUHSD associate superintendent of business services. “There’s a lot we still don’t know yet.”

In May, the governor proposed a 10 percent reduction to the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) for school districts and a 50 percent reduction to some categorical programs. Douglas said the cuts to LCFF will have little effect on San Dieguito as they are a basic aid district, mostly funded by property taxes which may be volatile this year.

“During tough economic times, property taxes are at risk,” Douglas said, adding that an additional challenge this year is that tax collections have been extended to July.

The district is projecting a $1.4 million deficit and ending the year with a reserve balance of $11 million. Projecting out over three years, the reserve may decrease below the state-recommended 3% level for economic uncertainties. At the June 18 meeting, the board will approve a resolution to identify the amount of budget reductions needed in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years.

“Every $1 saved now is a $2 savings in year two and a $3 savings in year three,” Douglas said. Some savings recommendations included no new programs or increased costs to existing programs, a freeze on non-essential expenses and travel, adjusting site and department staffing allocations, reviewing extra-curricular activities and eliminating home to school transportation.

SDUHSD Trustee Joyce Dallessandro expressed concerns about cutting transportation for students. “Buses have always been a big issue for me and I have pushed to keep it for many, many years,” she said.

Haley said the school district would still provide two buses to Torrey Pines and Sunset High School for students who are low income or foster youth. Of the six middle school routes that the district currently has, Haley said they wouldn’t even be able to fill half a bus under the new state guidelines that require one student to a bench skipping every other row.

Douglas said while they would be eliminating the six routes, they would not be reducing any staff. Drivers would be used to support field trips, athletics and to take back some services that had been contracted out to transport students with special needs. Bringing back those services that had been contracted out could save the district $260,000 a year, almost $1 million over three years.