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Some San Diego Schools May Be Affected By Return To Purple Tier

A sign welcoming students back to school at Hedenkamp Elementary school in Ch...

Photo by Alexander Nguyen

Above: A sign welcoming students back to school at Hedenkamp Elementary school in Chula Vista on Sept. 2, 2020.

Schools that haven't resumed in-person instruction will not be allowed to do so if San Diego moves to a more restrictive tier due to rising coronavirus cases, state officials said.

The state's Department of Public Health said late Thursday that K-12 schools can reopen in a county once it has been moved out of the most restrictive purple tier — which signals widespread virus transmission — for two weeks.

Listen to this story by Joe Hong.

But if schools haven't resumed in-class instruction and the county returns to the most restrictive tier, they can't do so, the agency said in an email.

That could happen in San Diego, which has seen a recent rise in coronavirus cases tied to San Diego State University. The infections could push California's second-most-populous county to the most restrictive tier when the state's color-coded system for business reopenings is updated next week.

RELATED: San Diego COVID-19 Rate Improving But May Be Too Late To Prevent More Restrictions

Reported by Joe Hong

Some districts like San Diego Unified and Sweetwater Union High would be minimally affected by the move into the purple tier.

Last month, San Diego Unified released its own plans designed in collaboration with UC San Diego experts. The plan includes the district’s own additional criteria of having fewer than 7 outbreaks within a seven-day period. As of Thursday, San Diego County had 17 community outbreaks within the seven-day window.

Being in the purple tier is not an immediate concern for San Diego Unified, but it could delay the district’s longer-term plans for more comprehensive reopening.

Despite the current numbers in the county, San Diego Unified Board Member Richard Barrera is hopeful the district will be able to reopen safely in the 2020 calendar year.

“We will move forward with our Phase 1 plan and we think that’s consistent with state guidelines,” said San Diego Unified Board Member Richard Barrera. “We intend to open before 2021, our plan is if phase one is successful, we would move onto the next phase which would be elementary schools and the next phase which would be middle and high schools.”

San Diego Unified’s plans to bring back its youngest and highest-needs students for appointment-based in-person instruction will be allowed to move forward even if the county moves into the purple tier. The California Department of Public Health said districts can conduct in-person instruction in small groups as long as they follow proper safety protocols.

The county’s prospective move to the purple tier matters even less for Sweetwater Union High School. The South Bay district’s zip codes have theoretically been in the purple tier for weeks with upwards of 14 cases per 100,000 residents each day.

“At this point in time there is no way that Sweetwater will be able to make the decision to reopen,” said Julie Walker, president of the teachers union at Sweetwater Union High School District. “The district’s plan is very specific that we go by the metrics in our zip codes.”

At the start of its school year in August, the district committed to distance learning at least until its Fall Break starts on Oct. 2. Sweetwater Spokesman Manny Rubio said the district will make an update about reopening plans on Monday afternoon.

Poway Unified, which recently announced dates for reopening elementary schools, could have its plans disrupted. Poway Unified Spokeswoman Christine Paik said the district is awaiting clarification from the county about whether or not its elementary campuses will be able to reopen if the county enters the purple tier.

Some San Diego County schools have already resumed in-person classes and others don't plan to anytime soon, but some districts had set campus return dates in late September and October.

Paul Gothold, the county's superintendent of schools, said in an email to school officials that the change could “punish schools and families that have been taking time to plan carefully for safe reopening.”

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