San Dieguito Union High School District board members discuss plans for reopening its 10 schools. Image via YouTube.com

Parents and teachers in the San Dieguito Union High School District are alarmed over plans to resume in-person instruction Jan. 4, with at least 60 teachers signaling they won’t come back to class as COVID cases surge in San Diego County.

“Almost everybody I’ve talked to  — and that includes people who are at the district [offices] — are really horrified,” said one parent who asked not to be identified.

Concerns include having to hire substandard substitute teachers and adding stress to the lives of around 13,000 students at five high schools and five middle schools drawing from south Carlsbad, Encinitas, Rancho Santa Fe, Del Mar, Fairbanks Ranch, Solana Beach and Carmel Valley. All will have only three weeks left in the semester, with the holiday break raising fears of family infections.

The affluent district now has about 500 students in hybrid learning — going online from home some days and being in class others. They are mainly special education students, English learners and others who need “targeted” care.

Nov. 19 comments on Jan. 4 reopening plan in San Dieguito Union High School District. (PDF)

At the Nov. 19 school board meeting, about 10 community members spoke out against the plan for once-a-week in-class learning. One backed the plan, saying: “Will you make decisions based on fear or facts?” and asserting that “schools are not a source of significant community spread.”

In comments posted online, 46 were critical of the Jan. 4 plan. But 13 were for it — with one note signed by nine parents who said: “We are shocked that the teachers did not return to teach from their classrooms on Oct. 29” they said was promised at an Oct. 14 board meeting.

(In fact, said one parent, schools Superintendent Robert Haley presented Nov. 9 and Nov. 30 start dates for students — “which totally caught everyone off guard. There were huge concerns with that.”)

Meanwhile, at least one member of an Expanded Reopening Committee has resigned over frustrations that the advisory group had no say in the January return-to-class decision.

Having met only twice — Oct. 8 and Oct. 22 — the panel includes all 10 principals, several key district officials, four medical professionals, teachers, students and school trustees Kristen Gibson and Melisse Mossy. (But officials declined to share all the names, saying the board’s members hadn’t given the district permission.)

One member told Times of San Diego: “Several of us emailed the reopening committee saying: Why are we being sidelined? Why can’t we provide feedback? Why can’t we talk about it? Nothing came of that.”

No other meetings have yet been scheduled.

During the group’s Zoom meeting, said one member, “It was a completely one-sided presentation” favoring a return to in-person learning.

Another committee member, who also asked not to be named, said the district has claimed UC San Diego’s “Return to Learn” group of experts has reviewed district reopening plans — but hasn’t.

Asked if he can prove that the UCSD team reviewed the SDUHSD reopening plan, district spokesman Miquel Jacobs said: “We have consulted with Dr. [Natasha] Martin and Dr. [Robert “Chip”] Schooley of UCSD on the health and safety aspects of our plan.”

Professor Kimberly C. Brouwer, co-director of the Global Health Track of SDSU/UCSD Joint Doctoral Program in Public Health, is part of the Return to Learn group.

She said Wednesday: “I was on the committee that advised San Diego Unified in August. I haven’t seen anything to review on San Dieguito.”

On Nov. 19, Haley told the board the district has access to “all the top professionals in San Diego County and, quite frankly, across the state,” including four medical professionals associated with Rady Children’s Hospital or UCSD (or both) on the Expanded Reopening Committee.

He said he’s consulted with Dr. Tom Coleman at the county level and Gary Johnston, the chief resilience officer for San Diego County.

“We run our plans by him,” Haley said of Johnston. (Coleman and Johnston weren’t immediately available for comment.)

But a member of the committee said they had personally not seen confirmation that UCSD’s Return to Learn group had given its blessing to San Dieguito.

“It would be surprising if they did because their protocols fall below those of that model,” the member said. “The county has said repeatedly it does not approve school reopening plans, so I would be surprised if either Mr. Johnston or Dr. Coleman replied that they did.”

Echoing that was Michael Workman, a spokesman for San Diego County, who noted that the state gives guidance on school openings.

“We have consulted on some plans. Not all,” he said Wednesday. “It is not required. Some districts ask for suggestions on their plan. But all plans must follow state guidance — which includes when they can open their schools.”

District spokesman Jacobs said the Jan. 4 reopening plan wasn’t vetted by the committee because “that is not the role and purpose of the Expanded Reopening Committee.”

On Oct. 30, a note by Haley posted on the district website cited the district’s Safe Reopening Plan.

“We have shared our planning with the UC San Diego Return to Learn leads and also with Rady Children’s Hospital,” he wrote. “Additionally, our planning has been shared with our Expanded Reopening Committee.”

At the Nov. 19 board meeting at Earl Warren Middle School in Solana Beach, Haley added that the district’s Safe Reopening Plan has been “reviewed by many experts … and is very, very robust. … There’s nothing in personal protective equipment that we don’t have.”

One of two committee members who spoke to Times of San Diego said some of the doctors on the advisory group remarked: “This wasn’t my area.” In a breakout session, teachers said they “didn’t have PPE and principals [said] they had no clue what they would be doing at lunchtime.”

Haley and other district officials described safety measures being taken for the return of thousands of students. (The San Diego County Office of Education also tracks how many students are back in class.)

“I feel like I’m a broken record,” said Tina Douglas, associate superintendent for business services. She noted supplies of face shields, disposable gowns, gloves, thermometers, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes in classes and hand-washing stations.

Haley said classrooms would have Plexiglass barriers, although “most professionals we’re consulting with have really moved away from (barriers). Some of the products being used to constantly disinfect surfaces are actually maybe causing more harm than good.”

Douglas said they’ve transitioned to hydrogen peroxide-based cleaners and disinfecting was happening on a daily basis. Air filters were being changed out every three months but air circulation is being increased. Windows and doors would be left open.

And all staff and students are required to wear masks — inside and out except for meal times, which can be moved outdoors. But school board members were told students won’t have their temperatures taken on campus — with parents signing pledges to check for symptoms before sending kids off to school.

A Facebook group called Open San Dieguito Safely isn’t impressed, however. Neither is the president of the teachers union.

Duncan Brown, leader of the 610-member San Dieguito Faculty Association, is more concerned about loss of experienced teachers, citing a conservative estimate that 10% of staff will use existing sick time or take unpaid leaves of absence.

Other surveys indicate 1 in 5 teachers at some schools will balk at going back Jan. 4. (Some schools are said to have found via parent surveys that a little more than half of students won’t return.)

“Because the district has not set a deadline, staff have not formally committed and the numbers are still only estimates,” Brown said via email.

He said teachers who apply for unpaid leave will also have to pay for their own health care benefits.

“The district has committed to probationary and tenured educators that they will save their positions for when they are able to come back,” Brown said, “but at this time, they have made no provisions for any person with a medical condition to be able to work from home and to continue to do so after the Jan. 4th return.”

As Brown sees it, the January return has several significant problems.

“Our first semester ends Jan. 22,” he said. “If teachers with health issues are forced out, it will cause a great deal of instability at the end of the semester when consistency is so important. Students preparing for exams will have to do so with, in all likelihood, a substitute who is substandard.”

He noted teachers’ mastery of subject matter and months spent with various technologies to be able to teach well in a distance learning model.

“There is really no way someone walking into a classroom for the first time will be able to perform at a competent level,” Brown said. “And if this was not difficult enough, on Jan. 4 educators will continue the distance learning model with students in the classroom.”

He says having students learn via computer in their own classrooms makes no good instructional sense. They could have done the same from home.

“With students in class, the teacher will have to manage their virtual lessons, communicating those lessons through a mask, while managing the classroom environment as well,” he said. “The instructional model will not be better when students return; it will be significantly decreased.”

Brown said the district has refused to look at any other model, such as a virtual school for those teachers and students who want to continue distance learning and an in-class one for those who are comfortable with a return.

“Instead, the district is putting everyone at risk for an inferior instructional model,” he said.

The prospect of having to hurriedly hire dozens — or hundreds — of substitute teachers led the school board to approve increases in daily pay to $175.

Previous pay for substitutes started at $120 and rose to $130 on the 11th day and $140 on the 21st consecutive day in the same assignment.

But committee members interviewed by phone are worried about a statewide sub shortage and ideas suggested by school board members Maureen “Mo” Muir and Melisse Mossy. The committee pair said suggestions included recruiting unemployed parents — with the help of banners at district facilities — and emphasizing that SAT requirements were not that high in order to land a sub job.

“What’s terrifying is that if there really is a teacher loss, are they even going to come back?” said one committee member. “Why not create the safety conditions that would make them want to come back?”

One teacher told Times of San Diego that the district Human Resources department couldn’t say, if colleagues go on medical or personal leave, whether the district would allow them to terminate the leave if they return to distance learning.

“They have no plan,” the teacher said. “I could not get an answer on where to find all the information about leave and how situations will be handled.”

Both committee members suggested political pressure was involved in the Jan. 4 return edict.

A recently elected board member, Michael Allman, campaigned “very hard” on reopening, said one committee member. Trustee Muir was “very strong on trying to reopen.” Mossy was “in the middle but leans toward opening.” And Superintendent Haley was “very heavy into reopening.”

(Allman was a Republican challenger to Rep. Scott Peters in the 2018 primary election.)

The teacher who emailed Times of San Diego works at the celebrated Canyon Crest Academy.

“Unfortunately our parents, teachers and community were unaware that this was the [political] undercurrent until it exploded,” the teacher said.

The majority of parents and students have been very happy with distance learning as a workable solution and were unaware that they needed to defend it, the teacher said, asserting that Allman’s children “all went to private schools.”

Muir and Mossy didn’t respond to requests for comment. Allman didn’t immediately have time to comment.

The teacher stressed: “I want to express to you how much teachers want to teach. We miss seeing our students and our schools. … None of us ‘like’ teaching from behind a computer screen. We have turned ourselves inside out to make this robust and engaging for our kids. We are succeeding.”

The teacher added that it wasn’t fair to be told the only option is to go on leave, where financial hardships loom.

“[We will] potentially be uninsured during a pandemic because without a salary we can’t afford our astronomical insurance as well as having our students and their academics suffer because an unqualified sub who saw a ‘banner at the district office’ is put in our place,” the teacher said.

“It is unconscionable that the board, superintendent and associate supes are not coming up with a workable solution to retain our highly qualified teachers. Instead they are backing us into a situation that no one benefits from.”

Updated at 10:20 p.m. Nov. 25, 2020