San Dieguito continues to prep for Jan. 4 return to school

The SDUHSD board discussed the January return to school at Earl Warren Middle School on Nov. 19.
(Karen Billing)

As the San Dieguito Union High School District prepares to return students to campus one day a week starting on Jan. 4, it faces challenges of staff attrition and concerns about the safety of returning to in-person school while the pandemic surges nationwide.

According to Cindy Frazee, the district’s associate superintendent of human resources, a number of staff members have come forward with doctor’s notes and health and safety concerns—the district has held about 44 accommodation meetings so far. At this time, the district has potentially 63 teachers going out on leave when schools reopen, which represents about 10% of the district’s teaching population. That number could go up or down as the reopening date nears, Frazee said.

“There is a lot of fear out there,” Frazee said of both classified and certificated staff. “Our principals are doing an amazing job of trying to help people understand all of the protections we have in place and helping to reassure them but the fear is still there.”

Recently the district sent out surveys asking parents to commit to either continuing in distance learning five days a week or coming on campus one day a week for in-person instruction with distance learning from home the other four days.

SDUHSD Superintendent Robert Haley said the district is prepared to reopen safely. The reopening plan includes mandatory masks for all students, daily symptom screening, additional hand-washing stations, maximizing the use of outdoor space, intensified cleaning and disinfecting, and HVAC improvements and additional HEPA air purifiers where filtering of air and window openings do not exist. Per a board resolution, there will be a minimum of six feet of physical distance between teacher work stations and student desks and a minimum of one meter of physical distance between student desks, with the intent to maintain six feet of distancing as practicable.

Additionally, the district is close to an agreement with UC San Diego Health similar to one entered into by other local school districts that will provide symptomatic COVID-19 testing for staff and optional symptomatic testing for students.

Currently, there are 779 students and staff on campus in the district. According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, there is one active case at Earl Warren Middle School (with 116 on-site students and staff) and one at La Costa Canyon High School (123 students and staff on site). There have been no transmissions at schools, Haley said.

Each school site has its own unique logistical concerns and they are working hard to prepare to bring more students back to campus. Earl Warren Middle School is working to create a variety of classroom set-ups that will allow teachers to deliver instruction to students in person and at home; at Torrey Pines High School they are establishing new student arrival procedures and directional traffic flows for students. Canyon Crest Academy has added 40 pop-up tents for flexible outdoor learning spaces. An additional challenge at Diegueno Middle School: it only has one bathroom for girls and one for boys.

“We’re trying to balance academic integrity with safety,” said Diegueno Principal Cara Dolnick of each site principal’s work. “It’s not simple.”

At the Nov. 19 board meeting, several parents expressed concerns that the district is not prepared to return and questioned the adequacy of the safety protocols in the reopening plan. Some asked the district to push back the Jan. 4 return date as reopening after the winter break is “dangerous” given the spike in cases and the potential for travel and gatherings over the holidays.

Duncan Brown, president of the San Dieguito Faculty Association, said that during this pandemic, many things remain unpredictable but the one thing that can be controlled is the ability to provide quality and stable instruction for all students.

“For the sake of that continuity, we will need to allow some educators the option to work from home,” Brown said. “By forcing teachers to go out on leave, the quality of instruction will significantly be compromised. If 10% of the educators go out, there will be in all likelihood positions that will not be filled. What is the district going to do then? Think about how this will impact students.”

A speaker representing SDUHSD Parents for Reopening, a group of parents who have been advocating for a return to school, asked the board to make decisions based on facts and not fear.

“Our children are suffering needlessly in the distance learning model when there are worldwide proven methods for a safe return to campus,” said the representative. “Just because distance learning is going relatively smoothly doesn’t mean anyone likes it or that it’s ideal for social and emotional wellness.”

The group, as well as several other parents, expressed disappointment that teachers did not return to their classrooms to teach on Oct. 29, as was directed by the board on Oct. 14. “The blatant disregard for this board directive is baffling to us,” the representative said.

Following the return to work resolution, Haley said they gave school sites a window for teachers to return in phases. Haley said there was 100% compliance within that window with teachers coming to campus to look at classroom arrangements and make requests to be more comfortable or efficient with in-classroom teaching.

“We want our staff safe, we want our staff in a position to be able to teach,” Haley said.

The visits lowered the anxiety level for some teachers, Haley said, and some but not all have returned to campus to teach. On the low end Haley said they have some sites with 30% of staff on campus and at the high end, about 75%.

A side letter between the school district and the teachers union does have an offsite work agreement that each principal can sign off on as long as the teacher’s work conditions are met, maintaining the integrity of the instructional program.

“Although they came back and have been very cooperative with the district and their principal, some do fit into a high-risk category that if they were in a position where they had to come back and have students in the room, they would opt to take a leave,” Haley said.

SDUHSD Vice President Mo Muir asked what was the disconnect and why teachers do not want to teach in their classrooms. Haley said all of their situations are unique: some have fear, some have medical conditions, some have family members with medical conditions and some have childcare issues.

For the teachers that they expect to go on leave Frazee said the district has been posting the job positions, however, mid-year it will be difficult to secure teachers who are seasoned. As they begin reopening, they also expect that teachers will get sick or experience symptoms and will have to stay home, requiring a substitute. This is another challenge as there is a statewide shortage of substitute teachers.

As the district has been losing substitutes to other districts who pay more, the board voted unanimously to increase the daily rate for substitutes from $120 to a temporary rate of $175 in order to be competitive. Muir had even proposed $200 a day as she does not want to have to cancel any in-person classes.

Muir suggested that the district tap into the local community and parent population for substitute teachers, people who do not have jobs currently and would work, setting a clear path for obtaining an emergency teaching credential. Clerk Melisse Mossy asked that they hang banners at the school sites and get the word out about the help needed.

Several parents said they were “appalled” about the substitute discussion, asking that the district do everything it can to keep its teachers rather than increase substitute pay, such as ensuring the flexibility to teach from home and improving the working conditions on campuses.

Parent Michelle MacCosky said forcing the return of the teachers will only result in a significant loss in staff and a bigger need for substitutes.

“Voting yes to increase pay for subs? That might make some difference in your ability to cover some classes but that effort is undercut unless the board acts to retain our current talented, dedicated teachers and also improves the safety on our campuses,” MacCosky said.

“The specter of having inexperienced, unemployed parents teaching our kids seems like a good idea to some of you, it’s not,” said parent Jen Charat. “Putting out banners to attract unemployed passersby? Really I’m offended for our teachers, that cannot be what you think of them.”

Haley and the board stated that the substitute issue was not about replacing teachers and was separate from the reopening —Mossy noted that it’s possible that a teacher could get sick even through distance learning and they need to make sure classes are covered. Banners, she said, could help widen the candidate pool.

Trustee Kristin Gibson said that long-term substitutes would require more qualifications and subject area expertise.

“I am absolutely committed to doing whatever I can to make sure that my daughter’s teachers remain her teachers,” Gibson said. “With us going into a flu and COVID winter, regardless of reopening, I want to make it very clear that this item is not about replacing our current classroom teachers with substitutes.”