San Diego County schools banned from reopening until COVID-19 numbers improve

Maria Limas (right) leads children back to the classroom at Chase Avenue Elementary School May 5 in El Cajon.
Maria Limas (right) leads children back to the classroom after an outside break at Chase Avenue Elementary School during the Cajon Valley Union School District’s Emergency Child Care Program on May 5 in El Cajon. The district was one of the first in the state to bring students back to campus.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The state has banned all public and private schools in San Diego County and most other California counties from holding in-person classes until the counties do a better job of containing the coronavirus.

The decision announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom Friday, July 17, overturns the plans of many local school systems that were forging ahead with reopening next month despite the recent surge in COVID-19 cases.

“We all prefer in-classroom instruction… but only if it can be done safely,” Newsom said. “As a parent I believe that, and as someone that has a responsibility to help support the education of six million-plus kids in the state of California and have the backs of our staff, our teachers, our school nurses, our counselors, our guidance staff, principals, bus drivers, janitors and all of the folks that are responsible for the caretaking, the safety and the health of our children.”

“Safety is foundational and safety will ultimately make the determination of how we go about educating our kids as we move into the fall and we work our way through this pandemic.”

The Del Mar Union, Solana Beach and Rancho Santa Fe school districts were all planning to reopen for in-person school in August—San Dieguito Union High School District has been looking at a wide variety of instructional models including online and in-class instruction but has not yet clarified its plans.

Local private schools, including San Diego Jewish Academy and Horizon Prep, had also been planning for in-person school, five days a week— Cathedral Catholic High School is planning a hybrid model.

Several districts like Del Mar and Poway have already been holding in-person summer learning programs on campus and said they have done so successfully with safety measures. San Diego County’s health order has allowed schools to hold classes in-person since mid-June.

The new state mandates are some of the first detailed, concrete directions for how schools should reopen. They represent a significant assertion of state authority over schools, which have until this point had the freedom to decide whether they open or close.

According to Newsom’s order, schools can physically open for in-person education when the county has been off the monitoring list for 14 consecutive days. San Diego County has been on the list since July 3 because it has a case rate greater than 100 per 100,000 people three days in a row; the county’s rate is currently 145.3.

When schools do reopen they must follow the state’s plan for safe in-person school which includes new mask requirements: All staff and all students in third grade and above must wear masks. For students in second grade or below, the state strongly encourages masks or face shields.

School staff must be tested regularly for the virus and they must keep a six-foot distance from students and other staff.

Newsom also announced requirements specifying when schools should close if a student or staff member tests positive for the virus while in-person classes are in session. A school classroom would be closed if a student or teacher tests positive, and an entire school would close if multiple student cohorts or 5% of its students and teachers test positive. A school district would have to close if a quarter of its schools close within a 14-day period.

Per Newsom’s mandate, the distance learning that is offered to students in place of in-person school must be “rigorous” with daily live interaction with teachers and other students.

“Learning in the state of California is simply non-negotiable,” Newsom said. “Schools must provide meaningful instruction during this pandemic whether they are physically opened or not.”

In a message to families on Friday, July 17, Del Mar Union School District (DMUSD) Superintendent Holly McClurg said the district is reviewing the new order to determine what it means for their schools, “We will continue to work diligently to develop plans that have the academic, social, physical, and emotional well-being of students, families and staff at the center,” she wrote.

Solana Beach School District (SBSD) Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger said the announcement significantly changed their course for opening schools in Carmel Valley, Solana Beach and Rancho Santa Fe on Aug. 25—the district had been prepared to offer two learning models and hosted parent information meetings on reopening for all seven schools last week. Carmel Creek School’s meeting was held on Friday, July 17, the only one after the governor’s announcement.

“While SBSD will still offer an onsite model when it is safe to do so, we will now be shifting planning efforts to focus primarily on launching online learning for all students,” Brentlinger said. “We will also continue planning the Onsite Scholars model for when conditions are deemed safe to return staff and students to our schools.”

Brentlinger said that she remains optimistic that they will physically be able to reopen school during the 2020-21 school year. An update will be provided at the next board meeting on Thursday, July 23 at 6:30 p.m.

Both Solana Beach and Del Mar will be asking parents to commit to either an on-site or online model for the upcoming year by the end of July and first week of August. Parents expressed frustration about needing to make the decision now for the rest of the school year: “It is really unfair to have full-year commitment for a teaching method which we all don’t like and a second method where we have to risk our life,” said one Solana Pacific School parent during the site meeting.

At the Solana Pacific meeting, some parents said they were grateful that they were being given a choice—San Diego Unified and Los Angeles Unified, the state’s two largest districts, announced last week that they will start school next month online only. Other large school districts that have already decided to start the school year online include Escondido Union High and Chula Vista Elementary.

One Solana Pacific School parent thanked the Solana Beach district for being creative and diligent about getting kids back in the classroom, “I cannot homeschool and work. I’ve failed miserably so I’m hopeful this works.”

For many parents, the choice remains very unclear.

One DMUSD parent said they plan to enroll their fourth grade child back in school but still has questions about what to do with their rising kindergartner.

“We’re very skeptical that remote learning will work for her, both because of her age and personality differences between her and our fourth grader,” said the parent, who is considering options such as leaving her at her current preschool which may offer kindergarten this fall or forming a “pod” with other parents, hiring someone to supervise their children while they learn remotely.

“Both of these options are going to be a significant expense compared to sending her to normal-circumstances DMUSD kindergarten, but we don’t seem to have a choice,” the parent said.

Parents’ challenges are not lost on the school principals—during the parent meeting, Solana Santa Fe School Principal Matt Frumowitz said he understands that every individual family is responding to the pandemic in a different way—with over 300 students, he said there are probably 300 different ideas of how to best serve the school community.

“As much as we are doing everything we can to design plans to allow school to feel as close to familiar as possible, it is going to be undoubtedly different,” Frumowitz said. “There may be a grieving process we have to go through as we move forward. As a parent myself, I understand the feeling of loss and uncertainty at this time and it does trouble me. As the principal of our school, I am living those feelings professionally too.”

Frumowitz asked for flexibility, patience and understanding as they all work together to make the best out of a difficult situation.

Before San Dieguito’s closed session special meeting on July 16 on labor negotiations with the teachers union, 34 teachers and parents submitted public comment that the district should only consider distance learning in the fall. Teachers wrote about being scared and worried to return to classrooms where the average class size is 40 students, questioning if the district can realistically meet the physical distancing, cleaning and screening requirements.

“We love our students. We would love nothing more than to come back to school. Distance learning is extremely difficult and time consuming and it lacks the connectedness that drives our passion to work with kids,” wrote Duncan Brown, president of the San Dieguito Faculty Association. “We certainly understand the impact of distance learning on students but with the recent increases in positive cases in the state and San Diego County, we have a responsibility to err on the side of caution to ensure the health and safety of our students, staff and community.”

An additional 10 parents provided comments that reopening schools safely is possible and that in-person school is the best option for students’ mental health and academic progress; others asked that they are given a choice between the two models.

— Kristen Taketa is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
—Karen Billing is a reporter for U-T Community Press (which includes the Del Mar Times, Carmel Valley News and Solana Beach Sun)