San Dieguito school board members attend special meeting to ratify lawsuit settlement with teachers union. Clockwise from top left: Michael Allman, Melisse Mossy, Maureen Muir and student member Sarah Williams, leading the pledge. Images via YouTube

By a 4-1 vote, the San Dieguito Union High School District board Monday settled a lawsuit with its teachers union — thus canceling plans for wide in-class instruction starting in January.

Tracy McCabe, who said she taught in the district over 20 years, hailed the vote to rescind a Dec. 15 resolution on reopenings.

“Every teacher I know has been working harder than we ever had, and wants life and teaching back to normal,” she said, adding that the Christmas Eve news of the settlement board meeting was “the best news I could have ever asked for. I did not want to take a leave of absence.”

Teachers and parents were among the eight of 10 remote early callers urging the board to rescind a plan by Trustee Michael Allman to allow all willing students to return to class once a week starting Jan. 4 and five days a week starting Jan. 27.

Public comments submitted for Dec. 28 school board meeting — running 3-to-1 against reopening. (PDF)

Several cited guidance from the state Department of Public Health and argued that the 10-school district wasn’t legally eligible to reopen amid the worsening pandemic.

Ten days ago, the 620-member San Dieguito Faculty Association, along with a teacher’s spouse, sued the school board and Superintendent Robert Haley to block the reopening plan.

Then four days later — Dec. 22 — the county’s public health officer wrote the San Dieguito school board and superintendent to say: “I would be very concerned about returning to your proposed level of in-classroom instruction, unless your staff is able to provide you detailed information explaining how the requirements of the CDPH guidance and County Order will be met.”

The health officer — Dr. Wilma Wooten — added in the note obtained by Times of San Diego: “I also want to emphasize that your decisive leadership, action and support have been essential in addressing this situation.”

Trustees went into closed session at 9:28 a.m. Monday, not coming out until an hour later to debate in public and vote on ratification of the settlement agreement written in part by California Teachers Association lawyers.

Allman voted against the settlement, but later changed his vote on his original resolution to reopen schools in the 13,100-student district.

Board President Maureen “Mo” Muir asked new board member Katrina Young: If the district emerged from the Purple Tier, would she support reopenings? Young said yes.

Ann Cerny, one of Monday’s speakers, sought a unanimous board vote to ratify the deal.

She sought a “smart, safe and comprehensive plan” for reopening and urged the board not to continue “union bashing.”

Dr. Wilma Wooten letter to San Dieguito school leaders. (PDF)

“Union blaming is teacher blaming,” she said.

Marilyn Gallagher, mother of a La Costa Canyon High School junior, said two friends had taken their children to a “psych ward” to deal with the effects of not being part of their campus community.

“We do have the vaccine,” she said before advocating for “kids back to school as soon as possible.”

But Robyne Ruterbusch, a mother of a senior at Canyon Crest Academy and a seventh-grader at Earl Warren Middle School, said: “We are well aware of mental issues” but asked the board to “put physical health and safety first.”

Canyon Crest math teacher Brian Shay, another caller, urged a gradual and phased reopening.

San Dieguito Union High School District letter following Dec. 28 board meeting. (PDF)

He called a one-day-a-week hybrid reopening plan immediately following a holiday break “unwise and reckless. … The only logical, safe and prudent action is to vote to rescind” the Dec. 15 resolution by newly elected board member Allman.

Julie Bronstein, a parent of two district students, thanked the board in advance for listening to parents, especially those not wanting “taxpayer resources [spent] on legal battles.”

Teachers union president Duncan Brown said via email: “The parties also agreed that the District’s lawful in-person small cohort operations should continue and even expand to serve targeted at-risk students identified in the district.

“Both the teachers and the district discussed how important it is that teachers and the district work together to address the educational needs of district students, within the bounds of the state’s reopening rules and the public health concerns of the broader community. We appreciate that the district listened to these concerns, and rescinded its reopening plans for the moment.”

He and other petitioners credited “coordinated advocacy efforts at the state, county and district level that encouraged the district to recognize its important community role in this public health crisis, and to push pause on this reopening.”

He added: “It wasn’t just the lawsuit to enforce the state law that brought decision-makers attention to this matter, but I think it was also parents and students who organized an email and letter writing campaign to the CDPH’s chief health officer, who responded to those concerns on December 22 with this email [from Dr. Erica Pan]:

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has reviewed and noted the concerns you’ve shared regarding the San Dieguito Union High School District Board’s decision on reopening for in-person instruction. The CDPH is reviewing this information, along with Cal OSHA, and will be issuing updated guidelines regarding school reopening in the very near future. We will work closely with the San Diego Public Health Department in order to determine appropriate technical assistance needs of SDUHSD and the appropriate timing of reopening for in-person instruction.

Before the meeting, a group of parents wanting schools reopened shared a new website (sandieguitosubstitutes.com) showing how would-be substitute teachers could sign up in the district — a reply to fears of a teacher shortage if schools reopened.

The site gives information on how how to obtain a 30-day substitute teaching credential “so that more teachers can teach from home if there is a proctor in their classroom,” said a spokeswoman for the group.

An FAQ prepared by the group posed and answered questions:

Q. Isn’t it risky to return students to school while COVID cases are high?

A. No. The District has a safety plan that meets or exceeds all State and County safety mandates. In addition, studies have shown that schools that have safety plans do not contribute to the spread of coronavirus at a rate greater than the rate in the community. In other words, schools reflect the infection rate of the broader community, they don’t add to the spread.

Q. What about teachers? Are they at heightened risk if they return to teach in school?

A. The current evidence indicates that schools are safer than the broader community. This applies to teachers as well as students. However, in a spirit of cooperation, SDUHSD is offering teachers who have valid medical reasons to continue to teach from home.

In a statement to Times of San Diego, parent Erika Daniels of the 1,717-member SDUHSD Families for School Reopening group on Facebook said:

In March, schools across the nation shifted to distance learning to bend the coronavirus curve because the world did not understand much about this novel illness. The shift was intended to be temporary. Teaching is not a “work from home” profession, and there is much more to education than providing lessons through a computer, and the temporary closure was never intended to signal a permanent change to the way that education is provided.

As a professional educator, I am devastated by the rhetoric that the unions have chosen to adopt over the last few months and am perplexed by their hardline stance that very few teachers will be allowed to provide in-person instruction for an indefinite period of time.

A return to in-person schooling is the right thing to do for the mental and emotional health of our students, and it is grounded in what the science says about the virus. CTA and SDFA have not once mentioned students in their arguments, and it is abundantly clear that they are not at all interested in what students need.

It appears that student well-being is not even on the priority list for union leaders. In fact, they keep moving the goalposts so it is unclear exactly what needs to happen for them to feel “comfortable” returning to do the job for which they are being compensated.

California has been under the strictest lockdown orders in the country, and public schools have been effectively closed since March, yet covid numbers keep rising. Clearly a school shutdown has limited to no impact on transmission, but the harm being done to our youth is incalculable. There are very few credible sources advocating for continued school closures, so it is time for this state’s educators to stand up and do what is right for our children.

Adam Fischer, with an eighth-grade daughter in the district, joined Trustees Young and Melisse Mossy in expressing hope the vote starts a more collaborative process that “balances the needs of all stakeholders.”

He said the community would support a plan that doesn’t reopen schools until San Diego County has been out of the Purple Tier for 14 days.

Fischer added: “Focus on what can have a positive impact in the meantime, such as bringing back more students who are struggling and/or in the greatest need, addressing gaps in distance learning, focusing on more extracurricular activities, etc.”

He also wants to let teachers continue working remotely to address their legitimate concerns.

“Allman even indicated that he supports this for any teacher that has a concern for pretty much any reason, but the problem is that wasn’t in the prior resolution at all,” he said. “This would also enable more flexible supervision options on campus and also address the realities of the sub shortage.”

Fischer wants safety standards at least those of UC San Diego.

“SD Unified is doing it,” he said, “then SDUHSD should be able to. Key areas are ventilation/filtration (sufficient level and capacity), testing of students and staff every two weeks, 6-foot physical distancing, and working within community spread metric thresholds.”

Parent Ruterbusch shared thoughts via email after the meeting, saying that over the past six years her family has come to appreciate the cohesiveness of the district, “which has provided a sense of stability and security for students, parents and teachers.”

She added: “This cooperative culture has allowed the district to recruit and retain top-notch teachers who ultimately provide an unparalleled educational experience for our kids.

“While I appreciate Allman’s enthusiasm, he has been provocative and divisive during his short time on the board, alienating many students, parents and teachers. This is why we have been seeing an unprecedented level of student protests and public outcry over the last couple of weeks. I am concerned that Allman’s aggressive stance toward the SDFA will only harm our district in the long run.”

Parent Daniels later wrote: “The majority is feeling disheartened and disenfranchised right now. We do not understand why the ‘keep schools closed’ group is fighting so hard to keep our kids out of school when an option for full distance learning has always been on the table.

“All we want is a choice because our kids are suffering. Even those students who are doing well according to their grades (because they want to go to college) are struggling with depression and loneliness.”

Updated at 7:11 p.m. Dec. 28, 2020

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