Children went back to the classroom in San Diego Unified School District as part of Phase 1 to help special-needs students. The girl is returning to Lafayette Elementary School in Clairemont. Photo by Chris Stone

By Chris Stone

San Diego classrooms are no longer empty. Tuesday morning, children were inspecting school gardens, doing work in the halls and enjoying lessons on a classroom’s giant smart board.

Special-needs students returned to limited on-campus instruction in the San Diego Unified School District’s elementary schools in the first phase of returning all students to in-person learning.

“What we are seeing is a lot of struggle with the social and emotional aspects,” said Principal Anne McCarty at Lafayette Elementary School in Clairemont. “Parents are having to be the teachers and work and do everything, so we are trying to help out as much as possible.”

The majority of the 25 students back in school this week are in the deaf and hard of hearing program, McCarty said.

Teachers volunteered for the in-person teaching in the first pandemic-era reopenings of the state’s second-largest school district. (Other San Diego County districts began several weeks ago.).

However, other students at other district schools enrolled in the appointment program include pupils who are homeless, in foster care, special-education or have other specialized needs.

At Lafayette Elementary, students had indoor and outdoor lessons.

Using American Sign Language over Zoom was difficult, McCarty said. Students and teachers couldn’t hear each other well enough.

Elementary students were selected by their teachers and school specialists because they were struggling with online learning loss.

They were offered appointments to receive in-person sessions that often last two hours per day. Students who take part in the in-person learning sessions will continue to receive online learning.

Some students will attend once a week, while others will be in the classroom Monday through Friday.

Safety messages are posted on campus — signs promote social distancing. Available are hand-washing stations, hand sanitizer, masks, shields and temperature checks.

Students must wear masks at all times and bring their own bottles of water.

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Parents are asked to check their child’s temperature and fill out a checklist before heading to school. They are also asked to keep children home who have symptoms including fever, cough, shortness of breath, nausea, diarrhea or sore throat.

School board member Richard Barrera said some teachers are doing Zoom lessons while a few students are in the classroom. In other cases, teachers have synchronous lessons online and are teaching students in the classroom at other times.

This summer, San Diego Unified adopted new standards to better protect students, staff and the community from the spread of COVID-19 in consultation with experts on multiple aspects of the pandemic from UC San Diego.

School officials say conditions for reopening local schools are stricter than state standards. 

San Diego Unified says it has purchased $45 million in personal protective equipment (PPE) and other safety equipment. The district has received some 200,000 masks in child and adult sizes from the state, along with 14,000 bottles of hand sanitizer.

Because school sites have not fully reopened, and not all staff members have returned to campus, the type and amount of the additional services provided to students during Phase 1 will be limited, officials said.

The district’s Phase 1 includes a mandate for less than 20% capacity for rooms and for schools, half days to avoid groups eating at schools and a six-foot distancing everywhere on school grounds — barriers or no barriers.

According to the district, all California Department of Public Health criteria has been met to a level where limited in-person classes are possible. The next stage will be when both state and county data fit the district’s stricter metrics. That date is anyone’s guess, leading to some frustration from parents.

Parents and guardians in the “Reopen SDUSD” group said the district’s current reopening plan was “riddled with vague language that is a far cry from a comprehensive plan that families have been asking for.”

With the criteria SDUSD has in place, it could be weeks or months until in-person school becomes more widely used. Even then, it’s not a guarantee school will head back as soon as the numbers fit.

In the Chula Vista Elementary School District, a push from Superintendent Francisco Escobedo to reopen the state’s largest elementary school district for in-person instruction on Oct. 26 was met with significant backlash from the Chula Vista Educators union.

Susan Skala, the union representative, said collective action and possibly even a strike was on the table unless Escobedo and the administration backed down. Chula Vista is seeing higher-than-average numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and after parents, guardians and educators spoke at a town hall last week, the district relented, moving the new start date to sometime “near the end of the year.”

That example leaves San Diego Unified with a difficult path to walk during the continuing pandemic with public safety, education, unions and families all playing a part.

The district has made efforts to make schools and sites safe, purchasing $45 million in personal protective equipment and other safety equipment. It has also received some 200,000 masks in child and adult sizes from the state, along with 14,000 bottles of hand sanitizer.

— City News Service contributed to this report

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