During a downtown San Diego rally, student protesters in April dismissed fear as they called for schools to reopen. Photo by Chris Stone

A new parents group is forming to fight for wider school reopenings and defend school districts with plans to return student bodies to in-person learning.

Called the North County Parent Association, the group says its impetus was a letter sent Dec. 9 to the San Diego County Office of Education.

The letter, from California Teachers Association staff counsel York Chang, urged the county schools office to immediately contact school districts that the labor union says has received SDCOE’s “inaccurate guidance … that condoned unlawful in-person instruction.”

Letter from California Teachers Association to the San Diego County Office of Education. (PDF)

Chang wrote county schools Superintendent Paul Gothold and Bob Mueller, the office’s executive director: “Districts must cease in-person instruction that was not initiated 14 days out of the Purple Tier, save only for appropriate small cohort instruction and approved elementary educational waivers, pursuant to [California Department of Public Health] reopening rules.”

He said that with updated advice from SDCOE, districts will reconsider planned returns to in-person hybrid instruction anytime in January 2021.

“It is not only the wrong step at the wrong time, but also prohibited by governing CDPH guidelines,” Chang wrote.

The North County group, said a parent who didn’t want to be identified, was in the process of filing Monday for 501(c)(4) nonprofit status with the IRS.

“The group will be comprised of parents from the San Dieguito, Carlsbad, Vista, San Marcos and Oceanside school districts with leadership from all district areas,” the parent said Monday. “The mission will be to educate parents about how school districts run and issues that affect the students in these districts.”

On Monday, a spokeswoman for SDCOE wrote a parent in the San Dieguito Union High School District that: “As it relates to the reopening of campuses while the county is in the purple tier, the County of San Diego has taken a position concerning the definition and meaning of a ‘reopened school’ that appears to be inconsistent with the guidance provided by the California Department of Public Health … on this issue.”

Music Watson, the spokeswoman, added: “SDCOE has relayed the contrast in guidance to local school leaders. In consultations with districts, we have made clear that the lack of consistency between the CDPH and the county puts superintendents and school boards in the difficult position of considering both answers and weighing their implications, while attempting to chart a course forward for their schools.”

She said her office has worked with San Diego County officials to request clarification from the state health agency.

On Friday, the day after receiving the CTA lawyer’s demands, SDCOE attorney Adrienne Macklin wrote Chang, disagreeing with his premise about condoning noncompliance.

San Diego County Office of Education response to California Teachers Association. (PDF)

“We are in agreement that the guidance provided by the CDPH should be followed and if these districts are not following that guidance, then they may not be in compliance,” Macklin wrote. “While we make our guidance clear, we do not have any authority or ability to object or mandate compliance by districts that may be following guidance by the County of San Diego.”

She added: “Our position is that any purple tier reopening is not appropriate and reopening in-person instruction is only permissible 14 days after the county has returned to the red tier unless the school is granted an elementary waiver by the public health officer.”

The county office’s Mueller has had no direct contact with any of the districts reopening, she said, and hasn’t addressed inquiries regarding reopening from Carlsbad or San Marcos.

“Only parents have contacted and teachers have contacted him concerning Carlsbad,” Macklin said. “Nonetheless, based on the number of students they’re reporting as being in hybrid instruction, it seems likely that the assumption is correct. So if what you say is correct, it would be contrary to our guidance. All districts are acting independently.”

Chang replied that he appreciated the clarification.

But he added: “You indicated to me that the SMUSD, SDUHSD and CUSD were actually refusing to follow prior guidance the SDCOE Office of General Counsel has given them that their reopenings were not in compliance with CDPH reopening rules, and choosing instead to follow the county’s guidance.”

Chang concluded: “I look forward to working with you in the next week on helping these districts comply with these [California Department of Public Health] reopening rules.”

Meanwhile, a Southern California spokesman for CTA reacted to formation of North County Parent Association.

Ed Sibby, the spokesman, told Times of San Diego that the union “welcomes the diverse opinions of the communities and members we represent. Public dialogue on the efficacy of school reopenings is vital for a safe return to in-person instruction.”

He said teachers want to return to schools as soon as safely practical.

“CTA will continue holding districts accountable to follow the CDPH related to reopenings so we may protect against wasting public resources on litigation due to violations of the law,” Sibby said via email. “This will ensure a return that is safe, legal and lasting.”

In a letter to Carlsbad and San Dieguito superintendents, the Carlsbad Unified Teachers Association and San Dieguito Faculty Association shared what they called their “grave concerns” that district officials are reopening schools in violation of state health rules.

“Leaders also warned that if districts that insist on this path could be held legally responsible for death or injury associated with an unsanctioned return,” the local teachers groups said.

Updated at 7:32 p.m. Dec. 14, 2020