On a day San Diego County reported a record number of COVID-19 deaths, a North County school board voted 3-2 to resume full-time in-class learning starting Jan. 27 for any of its 13,123 students wishing to attend.

The San Dieguito Union High School District apparently becomes the largest* in the county to require all teachers to return to class five days a week despite the pandemic’s winter surge.

The board received 143 written comments about a plan by newly sworn-in Trustee Michael “Mike” Allman, which was rewritten by Trustee Melisse Mossy to designate the entire board — not Allman alone — as district COVID spokespeople and overseers.

Comments sent to San Dieguito school board for Dec. 15 meeting. (PDF)

The so-called “expanded reopening” — based on the district’s Safe Reopening Plan — begins Jan. 4 with once-a-week in-person learning at the affluent district’s 10 schools. (Any student can opt to stay with online “distance learning.”)

But fewer than 10 people, selected at random, addressed the board remotely — several backing the Jan. 4 reopening.

The vote came just before 11 p.m. Tuesday — with new board president Maureen “Mo” Muir joining Allman and Mossy in the majority. New Trustee Katrina Young* voted no along with Kristin Gibson. The meeting made it through a third of its 280-page agenda and was adjourned until 5 p.m. Thursday.

Four medical doctors advising the district — all with kids in San Dieguito schools or their feeder districts — appeared in the meeting live-streamed on YouTube. Two explicitly praised the wider return to school — beyond the small “cohort” groups of special education and English learning students. Two didn’t.

Dr. Keri Carstairs, an emergency medicine specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital San Diego, called the reopening plan “very safe.” Dr. Shakha Gillin, a Del Mar pediatrician, said she was “extremely impressed” with the plan.

“I highly encourage this to move forward because it’s a safe, healthy choice for our kids and our community,” Gillin said via Zoom from home.

Carstairs later said: “The beauty of the plan is they’ve been given a choice,” referring to students. “At our own hospital, we’ve had a profound increase in suicide attempts, depression and completed suicides. Some of those kids are in our own district.”

Dr. Paul Grossfeld, a pediatric cardiologist at Rady who also teaches at UC San Diego, said: “We’ve had differences of opinion.” But he said the four treated each other respectfully “and all share the common goal of being able to hopefully come up with a plan that will safely allow our children to get back into school through a gradual process, slowly but surely.”

Michael Allman (left) and other board members were criticized for holding an in-person meeting (at Earl Warren Middle School in Solana Beach) in apparent defiance of state health orders. Image via YouTube.com

Likewise Dr. Peter Zage, a Rady hospital oncologist.

“I’m impressed with the ability to rationally and reasonably step back and discuss some of our plans and goals and different strategies,” he said at a meeting that lasted six hours (with a few breaks). “Hopefully, [this yields] a safe plan … for everybody involved.”

But perhaps the biggest conflict emerged when Allman minimized the value of student board members.

One of them — Carrie Su, the elected student rep from Canyon Crest Academy — said from home that teens have a “complete right to be scared about returning to school,” fearing contracting the virus from peers but also spreading it to their families and community.

“Losing a loved one, of course, will have a detrimental effect on mental health,” she said, answering concerns about home isolation. “With the spike in cases, we should be working to provide more outreach for mental health and wellness for our students by allowing clubs on campus instead of bringing all teachers back on campus.”

She said a “significant portion” of students and teachers don’t feel comfortable coming back. (The teachers union president has said as many as 20% of teachers will seek a leave of absence.)

Said Trustee Allman, a Republican who campaigned on a platform of reopening schools: “I would propose that we have a discussion right now about the value of the ASB students [on the board]. … I think the value that they provided, in what we have to decide, is very near zero.”

He referred to the high-schoolers as “young kids.”

“And this is a serious topic,” Allman said. “But to think that this board should place very much weight at all on what a couple of individual high schoolers think is a dereliction.”

Allison Stratton, a parent of a Torrey Pines High School junior, was delighted by the return-to-school vote.

“Prior to this meeting tonight, I had emailed the board dozens of heartbreaking stories I had collected from students and their parents describing the suffering and loneliness they’ve felt while in distance learning,” she said via email. “I am so grateful to newly elected board President Mo Muir and Trustees Melisse Mossy and Michael Allman who, guided by expert medical advisers, made the decision to bring students safely back to campus.”

But other parents who responded to Times of San Diego requests for comment weren’t so thrilled.

Michele Macosky said she was shocked to hear students being told by a trustee that their voices didn’t matter.

“ASB representatives were brave enough to publicly give thoughtful, articulate comments expressing their fears and concerns about returning physically to school,” she said. “But apparently because the comments did not fit into a ‘reopening’ narrative, they were told by Mr. Allman that comments by students were next to worthless.”

Cassie Miller, board member from San Dieguito High School Academy, asked the board to rethink the Jan. 4 starting date for once-a-week in-person learning. Trustee Young backed the young woman, concerned about families returning from holiday travel.

“The board did not even open it for discussion,” Macosky said.

Parent Adam Fischer — “very disappointed” by the move to full-time on-campus instruction — said it was confusing when Mossy passed out the revised resolution, which the remote participants could not see.

“Also, the vote was very rushed since it was approaching the 11 p.m. deadline to end the meeting and it did not seem like there was sufficient time to complete the discussion,” he said.

Fischer noted that district staff said the plan was likely not feasible due to the compressed timeframe and staffing challenges.

He praised board member Mossy for suggesting that teachers should be allowed to continue teaching from home.

“This would address at least much of the staffing challenges,” he said, referring to concerns that substitute teachers wouldn’t be able to meet student needs. “But unfortunately her idea was not discussed further or adopted.”

Fischer also was critical of the four medical advisers.

“None of them was an infectious disease expert,” he said, “and they never mentioned any specific aspect of the SDUHSD safety plan. They appear to have been hired to provide a general endorsement of the SDUHSD plan without getting into any details.”

He also worried that San Dieguito schools would defy orders of the California Department of Public Health, which says schools cannot legally reopen until the county has been out of the purple tier for 14 days.

“SDUHSD schools (with the exception of Sunset) have only been operating with small groups (as stated by district personnel) under the Cohorting Guidance, and so they are definitely NOT open under state law,” Fischer said.

Allman had his way on the Jan. 27 full reopening — the start of the distict’s third quarter. But he was rebuffed in efforts to adopt Rosenberg’s Rules of Order for board meetings and his proposal to hire John Lemmo of Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves & Savitch at $350 an hour. Allman said Lemmo was needed to attend school board meetings to be able to answer legal questions.

Members hit the cost and questioned whether Allman as a private citizen had the authority to engage Lemmo a month before he joined the board. The board eventually decided to let a trustee subcommittee conduct a law firm search, and include current lawyers working for the district. They also said Lemmo is suing neighboring school districts and favors charter schools.

Allman said several constituents recommended Lemmo, who he’d never met before Nov. 10, and had no connections with the law firm (or took any kickbacks).

But student rep Su had perhaps the sharpest criticism of Allman.

She noted — without using his name — the Rancho Santa Fe man’s widely circulated email response to a teacher worried about a return to class. Allman said at one point: “There is no doubt, you should NOT be teaching our kids. Period.”

Su said: “On behalf of our CCA community, I want to let you know that the response to this teacher’s message does not represent our character and our values. … If my teachers have taught me anything, everyone deserves kindness, compassion and common decency.”

She closed with: “We wish you all a happy holiday season.”

*An earlier version of this story incorrrectly referred to Katrina Young as Katrina Taylor. Also, San Dieguito isn’t the only county school district with full-time in-class attendance. Cajon Valley Union School District has nearly 10,000 solely in-person or hybrid students, and Del Mar Union Elementary has 2,488 in-person students and 1,382 distance learners. On Nov. 11, the Alpine Union School District signaled that on Jan. 19, students will return to campus four days a week for face-to-face learning “with Wednesday remaining a distance learning day and for deep cleaning of our campuses.”

Updated at 1:02 p.m. Dec. 17, 2020