A Torrey Pines High School teacher labeled as “unconscionable” the school district’s decision to return its 2,600-plus students to campus while San Diego County is under purple tier restrictions. Photo via SDUHSD

Despite San Diego Unified’s decision to drop plans for reopening schools in January, the neighboring San Dieguito Union High School District is staying the course for a Jan. 4 return to in-class learning.

On Friday, schools Superintendent Robert Haley noted Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order for regions where hospital intensive care unit capacity falls below 15%.

“The order does not modify existing state guidance regarding K-12 schools,” Haley wrote on the San Dieguito website before a state partial lockdown order.

“Our schools remain open and will continue to provide targeted support for small priority groups of students to ensure our most vulnerable students can access in-person teaching and learning.”

He said the district’s guiding principle has always been the health and safety of students, families, staff and community.

“We are closely monitoring the situation and will continue to work with local public health and update our Safe Reopening Page as we move forward,” he said. “Our plans remain focused on a safe return to campus for all students, and we will continue working towards the goal of providing a one day of week in-person option as well as continue to offer an online option for students beginning the week of January 4, 2021.”

Teachers don’t have an option, however, says the president of the teachers union.

Duncan Brown of the San Dieguito Faculty Association said Saturday: “No, the district has made no provision for teachers to be able to telework. Currently, everyone will either be expected to be on campus on Jan. 4th or will have to go out on unpaid leave.”

District spokesman Miquel Jacobs said Friday that the school board will discuss related issues at its Dec. 15 meeting but didn’t indicate any changes are proposed.

“We have a standing item for our Board of Trustees at every meeting regarding our safe reopening plan,” he said via email. He said information wasn’t available regarding leave-of-absence requests from certificated or classified employees.

Parents and teachers, meanwhile, have ramped up their opposition to once-a-week classroom instruction for as many as 13,000 students.

A 5-day-old petition calling for stricter measures before reopening had more than 1,000 signatures Friday night — decrying the district’s “pseudo safety protocols” that could result in “dangerous outcomes.”

And a half-dozen teachers told Times of San Diego about their fears of returning to work under current safety regimens.

Only one allowed their name to be used — Carmel Valley Middle School P.E. teacher Jasmine Stiles, a former Teacher of the Year.

“No one in the district has been able to answer the question of what we do with our students if it rains,” she said. “There is no place that is properly ventilated and safe for our students at CVMS to go.”

Lisa Delano-Wood, an associate professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego, is supporting critics of the district plan.

“Scientific modeling shows that rates here in San Diego will likely triple again by Christmas, and ICUs and hospitals will be full,” she said. “Given this, it would be criminal to open schools right now, even with all the best PPE and other measures in place.”

Delano-Wood has no children in any of San Dieguito’s 10 schools but has two kids in San Diego Unified.

She said that last summer she co-founded a task force called San Diegans for Science-Based School Reopenings.

“Over the past several months, I’ve worked closely with public health officials, scientists, politicians and the media — as well as other concerned parents — who have been watching this pandemic grow more and more out of control, as predicted almost perfectly by nearly all infectious disease and epidemiology experts since early last spring,” she said.

Her main concern with San Dieguito’s plan is that it doesn’t meet the minimum UCSD “Return to Learn” guidelines.

“For example, SDUSHD will not even mandate 6 feet of distancing, which many scientists think is fairly arbitrary anyhow and only helpful in rooms with adequate ventilation (which they will not have based on inadequate air filtration), small class sizes, and appropriate PPE.”

She called SDUSHD’s contact tracing “very flimsy, not at all comprehensive, and does not involve appropriate notification of teachers in all cases where their students may test positive.”

In fact, one teacher said students have reported they’ve tested positive for COVID-19.

“Had they been in the classroom, undoubtedly, they would have infected others,” the teacher said. “With no testing protocol for students, and a useless one for teachers, the district is flying blind with respect to knowing if COVID is on any of their campuses.”

School board members, including recently elected Michael Allman, didn’t respond to a request for comment on the petition posted anonymously by “Concerned SDUHSD Parents.”

But district spokesman Jacobs said: “We continue to keep all of our information available on the Safe Reopening information page of our website, including our Safe Reopening Plan, our District COVID-19 Dashboard, recent communications from the district and county as well as resources for the community.”

A Torrey Pines High School teacher said the decision to return 2,600-plus students to campus while San Diego County is under purple tier restrictions was “unconscionable.”

“We ignore the public health order and Cal/OSHA guidelines that clearly stress the importance of cohorts” — or keeping the same small groups of students together as CDC urges.

“We have made no attempt at cohorts other than to limit campus to 600-700 students each day,” the teacher said. “There will be no way to distance students as they travel the halls between classes and gather in the quad for breaks and lunch.”

Depending on how many students return, teachers will have up to 100 different students in their classroom each week, “all of whom will have attended three to four different classes with other students and teachers,” the teacher said.

“If there is a comprehensive plan, the teachers haven’t seen it and no one has asked us our opinion,” said an Oak Crest Middle School teacher.

The teacher decried decisions being made virtually in the safety of board members’ or the superintendent’s homes — “or in a board meeting with individuals spaced well beyond the 3 feet apart that they want us spaced in the classroom.”

Another Oak Crest teacher said they use a portable classroom whose HVAC unit has a history of breaking down.

“I’ve been told the protocol for when it malfunctions is to ‘put in a work order.’ What do the students and I do while we’re waiting for that work order to be fulfilled?” The teacher asked.

Another Carmel Valley Middle School teacher said: “There are no safety measures in place for lunchtime and passing periods. What is the point of returning without safe distancing?”

The change.org petition calls for physical 6-foot distancing as part of meeting the UC San Diego’s Return to Learn standards — and not to reopen schools until San Diego County is out of the purple tier.

It also wants ventilation and frequent air changes, masking, testing, contact tracing and notification, and “teachers should be given a choice to continue teleworking.”

Times of San Diego asked district officials: “Did San Diego Unified’s decision to delay its own January reopening indefinitely give you pause or reason to rethink your Jan. 4 plan?”

“No,” said spokesman Jacobs.

Updated at 11:12 a.m. Dec. 5, 2020