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San Diego Unified Allows Limited In-Person Teaching In Schools

A teacher guides students through a lesson at Lafayette Elementary School in ...

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Above: A teacher guides students through a lesson at Lafayette Elementary School in Clairemont Mesa on Oct. 13, 2020.

As part of its reopening plan amid the coronavirus pandemic, the San Diego Unified School District allowed some students facing severe challenges to return to in-person learning Tuesday, but a timeline for the district to reopen fully remains unclear.

Phase 1 of the district's plan to reopen is to allow elementary school students "who have been uniquely identified by their teachers as experiencing learning loss" to have limited in-person appointments. Participation is voluntary and students who participate in the sessions will continue to receive online learning.

On Tuesday, Lafayette Elementary School in the Clairemont Mesa neighborhood invited back 25 of the 27 students who were asked to return to in-person instruction — many of whom are part of a deaf and hard-of-hearing program at the school.

"We were looking at students that were struggling in the online learning environment to make sure that we could add on to what they're doing," Lafayette Elementary principal Anne McCarty said. "Not every student is struggling online."

Reported by Matt Hoffman , Video by Nicholas Mcvicker

The district's Phase 1 includes a mandate for less than 20% capacity for rooms and for schools, half days to avoid groups eating at schools and a six-foot distancing everywhere on school grounds — barriers or no barriers.

"Some students are here one day a week for a couple hours," McCarty said. "We have some students that need to be here two hours a day, Monday through Friday so it's really based on student need."

This summer, San Diego Unified adopted standards developed in consultation with experts from UC San Diego. As a result, conditions for the district's reopening local schools are considerably stricter than state standards and much stricter than various other school districts in the region that have opened for in-person learning.

"This has been a challenge for everybody not just in San Diego Unified and we certainly understand," McCarty said. "Really what we're seeing a lot of struggle with is the social-emotional aspect, parents are having to be the teachers and work and do everything so we’re trying to help out as much as possible.”

According to the district, all California Department of Public Health criteria has been met to a level where limited in-person classes are possible. The next stage will be when both state and county data fit the district's stricter metrics. That date is anyone's guess, leading to some frustration from parents.

Parents and guardians in the "Reopen SDUSD" group said the district's current reopening plan was "riddled with vague language that is a far cry from a comprehensive plan that families have been asking for."

With the criteria SDUSD has in place, it could be weeks or months until in-person school becomes more widely used. Even then, it's not a guarantee school will head back as soon as the numbers fit.

"We want to listen to the perspective of all parents," SDUSD board trustee Richard Barrera said. "But we’re also clear about what we think is the right way to proceed and we will follow that plan even as we listen to all the perspectives in the community."

In the Chula Vista Elementary School District, a push from Superintendent Francisco Escobedo to reopen the state's largest elementary school district for in-person instruction on Oct. 26 was met with significant backlash from the Chula Vista Educators union.

Susan Skala, the union representative, said collective action and possibly even a strike was on the table unless Escobedo and the administration backed down. Chula Vista is seeing higher-than-average numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and after parents, guardians and educators spoke at a town hall last week, the district relented, moving the new start date to sometime "near the end of the year."

That example leaves San Diego Unified with a difficult path to walk during the continuing pandemic with public safety, education, unions and families all playing a part.

The district has made efforts to make schools and sites safe, purchasing $45 million in personal protective equipment and other safety equipment. It has also received some 200,000 masks in child and adult sizes from the state, along with 14,000 bottles of hand sanitizer.

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