Cots for migrant children
Cots for migrant children have been set up in the San Diego Convention Center. Courtesy of Rep. Juan Vargas

On their second day operating the San Diego Convention Center as a shelter for unaccompanied migrant girls, federal and local authorities began seeking sponsors and providing care for the 723 who have arrived so far, including 70 who have tested positive for COVID-19.

U.S. Health and Human Services is overseeing the process of moving the teens and settling them with relatives and other sponsors in the United States. The shelter, which can hold up to 1,450 minors, is the only one open exclusively to girls.

“It just makes a lot of sense to separate girls and boys; they have a little bit different needs and different things that make them feel nurtured,” said Bonnie Preston, acting regional director for U.S. Health and Human Services.

On Tuesday, the San Diego County Office of Education invited retired educators and others to apply to work with the unaccompanied girls. The county agency plans said it will offer the teens in-person education during the 14 to 30 days they are held at the convention center, but did not provide details.

“We want to instill hope, instill joy and show care for our students while they are with us, no matter if that’s for a few days or a few months,” county Superintendent of Education Paul Gothold said in a statement.

State law mandates that all children in California receive an education regardless of their immigration status or their detention in government facilities. A county education representative said the agency has contracted with the nonprofit SBCS to provide programming for the migrant girls.

“The educational program will include English language development and social emotional learning opportunities,” Kathie Lembo, president of SBCS, said in a statement released late Tuesday. “The teachers who are participating in the program are doing so voluntarily, and the program is following a COVID-19 screening protocol based on guidelines from the U.S, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Temecula, whose district includes parts of northeast San Diego County and parts of Riverside County, released a statement criticizing the plan to provide instruction for the migrant children, noting that many San Diego County schools have remained shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Parents have every right to be angry,” Issa said.

San Diego Unified School District, which has provided online and hybrid instruction to thousands of students in kindergarten through 12th grade during the COVID-19 pandemic, plans to offer in-person instruction four days a week starting April 12. Many other local school districts also have begun offering a hybrid or will soon.

San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond also spoke out against the county plan to provide instruction to the migrant girls, emphasizing the fact that it would occur in person.

Among those who arrived Monday, 70 tested positive for COVID-19, Preston said, noting that teens being held at the center will be tested for COVID-19 every three days. Those who test positive are held on a separate floor from the others. Those who were exposed to the virus but tested negative also are held in a separate group, with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Groups of minors are expected to arrive every other day to allow the teens at least 24 hours to settle in before another group arrives. The next group is expected on Wednesday, Preston said.

At a rate of less than 10%, the migrants arriving at the convention center are not testing positive more frequently than San Diego residents overall. Of the county’s estimated 1.4 million residents, about 270,000 or 19% had tested positive as of Tuesday.

Preston said her agency has focused so far on the minors who have been in custody the longest.

Once brought to the center, the girls are separated into groups of 50 for services and care.

“They are together for everything,” Preston said, adding that their beds are separated just with draping.

Updated at 6:07 p.m. March 30, 2021

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