San Dieguito starts process for state approval to reopen

Torrey Pines and La Costa Canyon's cross country
Torrey Pines and La Costa Canyon’s cross country squads raced at La Costa Valley fields in the first intradistrict high school cross country competition of the year on Feb. 15.

(Courtesy SDUHSD)

On a week when high school cross country runners felt the joy and hope of a return to competition, the San Dieguito Union High School District found a new route toward getting students back to school.

In addition to working toward an expanded reopening when San Diego County moves into the red tier, on Feb. 10 the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) released a new School Safety Review process that would permit school districts like San Dieguito to reopen if they were planning a phased reopening that was impacted by the new state guidance in January.

The district had been prepared to welcome students back one day a week in a hybrid model on Jan. 4, building toward five days a week by Jan. 27. In December, the California Teachers Association and the San Dieguito Faculty Association sued the district, arguing that the district’s plan violated state rules that forbid schools from reopening if they did not reopen before the county fell into the purple tier. The district settled with the union and rescinded its plan to reopen.

Under the new School Safety Review process, districts like San Dieguito that never offered all students in at least one grade the option to return for in-person instruction while the county was in the red tier and therefore did not meet the CDPH’s revised definition of “open” are now eligible to apply for the new pathway to reopening.

According to SDUHSD Superintendent Robert Haley, the district applied to start the process on Feb. 12 and were approved the same day. They now have 10 business days to gather the necessary forms, gather documents, submit to the San Diego County Department of Public Health and secure a signature from the local health officer, which in this case would be Dr. Wilma Wooten. They must then submit to the CDPH and the CDPH has seven business days to approve, deny or request more information.

As San Dieguito turned in its letter of intent on Feb. 12, they have until March 1 to submit to the state.

At a Feb. 16 special board meeting the board heard public comments from parents and students who still questioned the district’s reopening plan, sharing concerns about teacher accommodations, air filtration and maintaining distancing and stable cohorts during lunch time, passing periods and arrival and dismissal. Other parents, as well as the majority of the board, expressed confidence in the reopening plan.

Haley said the plan has been reviewed multiple times by San Diego County Department of Public Health (although not yet for any kind of approval) and all of the feedback they have received has been addressed. To him, the School Safety Review process represents another opportunity to move forward.

“I’ve made it clear all along throughout this that I believe there’s a pathway for us to keep our students and our staff and community safe by having school more open than it is now,” Haley said. “I’m committed to it. I will investigate every avenue to do that for this board of trustees.”

Trustee Michael Allman said he couldn’t stress enough how important it is that the district gets the state authorization process right.

“We have to do everything we can to make sure the state says ‘yes’,” Allman said. “Our kids have been out of school for a year…we have a safe reopening plan. We cannot let this opportunity pass by for the sake of our kids.”

Following the set timeline, the state could give authorization on whether or not San Dieguito could expand reopening as early as the week of March 8.

At the Feb. 16 special board meeting, SDUHSD President Mo Muir asked each school site principal individually if they had the resources they need and are ready to reopen.

Most principals agreed with San Dieguito Academy High School Principal Adam Camacho, who said they would need time to issue a survey to families that reflects exactly what the learning model is going to look like so students can make an informed decision. Then he said begins the hard work of logistical planning, following all the CDPH safety guidelines.

Canyon Crest Academy Principal Brett Killeen said that when CCA was prepared to welcome more students back on Jan. 4, he knew that they would have 800 students returning to campus, 14 teachers who were getting accommodations and that there would be a continuity of learning. With any expanded reopening, he would want to ensure he knows where the school would be at staffing-wise so they would be able to provide all learners, both those at home and those who choose to come to school, with a high quality education.

Torrey Pines Principal Rob Coppo said it was important that the logistical plan to welcome more students back is not only safe but, most importantly, sustainable.

“I don’t want to bring students back and then have to send them home again,” Coppo said. “I really want to keep them on campus.”

The School Safety Review process will all hinge on the state’s approval, but the district hopes a new survey could come out by the end of this week or Monday, Feb. 22, giving a week for families to make a selection to remain in distance learning or return to school one day a week. Once the data is received, SDUHSD Deputy Superintendent Mark Miller said the schools would need at least a week to prepare to bring more students back.

Following the district’s other reopening pathway, according to a Jan. 21 resolution passed by the board, the district is prepared to “immediately” bring back all students who wish to return for in-person instruction as soon as the district is legally able to do so, which will be when San Diego County is in the red tier for five days.

San Diego County remains in the purple tier but case rates have dropped this week. As of press time, the case rate is currently at 22.2 cases per 100,000 residents, which is down from 34.2 the week prior. To get out of the purple tier and into the red, that number needs to reach less than seven cases.