Mira Mesa High School students expressed joy Monday in returning to class and being with friends on the first day of school in the San Diego Unified School District.

But they may find themselves back at home alone in quarantine for 14 days if they and kids elsewhere aren’t committed to mask wearing, said the district’s in-house physician.

“I’m a little bit worried about what children do on the way to school and on the way home,” said Dr. Howard Taras, a pediatric specialist. “Students must wear masks indoors and outdoors while on campus.”

The district’s doctor told Times of San Diego that even though no one may be watching them before or after school, with “no teachers around, no principals, no one wagging a finger, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t just as critical as far as protecting yourself from having to do a longer quarantine at home by following those rules.”

Taras says that’s where parents must step in to reinforce the importance of following mask requirements.

He stressed that no one should be surprised when COVID-19 cases are found at schools because “we are going to reflect the community.”

But that can’t be considered a failure, Taras said at Mira Mesa High.

“A failure is if we have many transmissions within the school,” he said in an interview.

Asked if he foresaw any circumstances that would necessitate closing a school again, Taras said: “If for some reason a school could not manage to keep transmissions within the school community from occurring, I could see that.”

District officials would then have to step back, examine the problem and correct that, he said.

But Taras added that he doesn’t expect that to happen because district employees have learned from last year’s struggles.

“The real focus this year … is to have as many kids be in school learning here safely,” he said at a press conference. “No one wants another year like last year, where so many children were learning from home.”

How are students reacting?

“It’s great,” said Kristy Dunn, a junior at Mira Mesa. “It is so nice to just get back into the routine and see all of these friendly faces, just get back to the normal.”
Dunn said she didn’t like having to learn online, adding: “It was kind of a struggle, so that’s why I am happy to be back in person.”

Junior Sofia Moaga also looked forward to being with friends: “I enjoy being back a lot better than just spending my entire day at home.”

Freshman Jaye Fernando said she is getting her focus on school back and that maintaining motivation on line can be difficult.

The San Diego Unified School District opened the 2021-22 school year with COVID-19 safety measures in place and additional investments in student success.

“A new school year is full of excitement, hopes, dreams and new experiences,” said Interim Superintendent Lamont Jackson. “That’s no difference this time around.

“What has changed is the safety protocol,” he said. “We’ve invested time, energy and money into providing scientifically backed safeguards to allow everyone to reach their potential as carefully as possible.”

San Diego Unified is investing nearly $3 billion in academic and social-emotional and well-being programs for students as well as upgrades to classrooms this school year, a 14% increase per-student from a year ago. District leadership touts it as the largest investment ever in students and schools.

To reduce the possibility of COVID-19 transmission at schools, the district has adopted measures that include:

  • Upgraded HVAC filtration
  • Portable air purifiers for areas not served by a larger filter
  • Face masks required indoors and outdoors at all times, except when students are eating or participating in physical education, athletics or visual and performing arts
  • Handwashing stations and cleaning wipes in multiple locations
  • A particulate sensor and CO2 monitor at each site for monitoring indoor air quality
  • Electrostatic disinfectant sprayers for cleaning school buses
  • Protocols in place for contact tracing, should it be necessary
  • An online COVID dashboard

“For over a year, we’ve been working closely with a team of scientists and doctors at UC San Diego, as well as county health officials, to design a roadmap for reopening, staying open and keeping students safe,” Taras said.

Mira Mesa High School administrative assistant is tested for COVID 19. Photo by Chris Stone

All San Diego Unified staff will be required to get vaccinated or be prepared to take part in weekly COVID-19 testing. For students, all families are required to make a choice on COVID-19 testing at the start of the new school year.

All families must complete a COVID-19 Testing Acknowledgment Form and submit their response online. For unvaccinated school athletes, the district plans to have a testing team at high schools.

“Science has shown that testing, vaccinations, masks and excellent indoor ventilation all work to lessen the prevalence of COVID-19 in a given community,” Taras said.

Families still not comfortable with returning to in-person learning have the option of enrolling in the new online Virtual Academy.

Every student, whether attending in person or online, will receive a laptop computer for the 2021-22 school year.

With the intention of helping to address the academic and social- emotional needs of students who are returning to campuses, the district will accelerate learning by giving students extra time and attention from teachers, counselors, school nurses and psychologists.

“We know schools are the best places for students to learn and grow, which is why we’ve put so many resources behind designing a plan for kids to get back in the classroom as safely as possible to start the new school year,” Board of Education President Richard Barrera said.

Additionally, San Diego Unified is expanding Transitional Kindergarten- 4 access to all age-eligible early learners who turn 4 by Sept. 1, as part of TK-4/Universal Transitional Kindergarten district initiative. For the 21-22 school year, TK-4/UTK will be offered at any of the district’s TK-4 elementary site locations.

This year, all San Diego Unified students also will have access to free meals on campus, regardless of their school of attendance or family income. All told, 17 meals per week — breakfast, lunch, and supper Monday through Friday, plus lunch for the two weekend days — will be available to students. Families will not have to fill out subsidized meal applications this year.

Updated at 2:30 p.m. Aug. 30, 2021

— City News Service contributed to this report.

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