Behind the Fight to Reopen San Marcos and Oceanside Schools | Voice of San Diego

Education

Behind the Fight to Reopen San Marcos and Oceanside Schools

San Marcos Unified and Oceanside Unified are two of the only large school districts in North County where students are not back in the classroom full time, and there’s no final decision about what will happen for the rest of the school year.

Aurora Guel, the mother of two girls at Discovery Elementary School, is leading efforts to reopen schools in the San Marcos Unified School District. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Many North County parents have begun sending their kids back to school five days a week as coronavirus restrictions ease and cases decrease across the county. Aurora Guel is not one of them.

Three days a week, she supervises her two daughters while they learn at home. Guel’s daughters attend elementary school in their physical classrooms two days a week, per the San Marcos Unified School District’s hybrid-learning model.

San Marcos Unified and Oceanside Unified are two of the only large school districts in North County where students are not back in the classroom full time, and there’s no final decision about what will happen for the rest of the school year. Other district leaders in the region have decided to keep schools closed for the rest of the school year, but the two districts are outliers in North County.

Many parents noted that the hybrid model is in some ways less desirable than distance learning, because it actually entails less face-to-face time between students and teachers.

“Our girls are super frustrated with the online schoolwork,” Guel said. “One of my girls came home crying because her teacher sent me an email on Friday letting me know she’s really falling behind, and she said she really doesn’t understand the work. According to assessments, she is falling behind and it’s because of the hybrid schedule. It’s not adequate.”

Parents at both districts told Voice of San Diego that their trust in school leaders is continuing to dwindle as time passes and their kids are not back at school. They argue there is no reason why school leaders shouldn’t be able to “get it together” and reopen schools like surrounding districts. They’re worried school board members are being too heavily influenced by the teachers unions (which have pushed for distance learning to continue in nearly every district in the region) and said their kids are either falling behind or not getting a quality education without consistent instructional time in the classroom. Meanwhile, those parents said they are sacrificing their time to assist their kids with schooling.

Many North County schools, facing pressure from parents throughout the pandemic, tried to open or stay open for in-person learning, but faced backlash from teachers unions and were hampered by crippling staff shortages. In recent reopening conversations, school leaders from Oceanside and San Marcos cited staffing concerns and negotiations with labor groups as reasons to put off reopening.

At San Marcos Unified, students in all grades shifted to a hybrid-learning model – in which they attend class in person part of the week and learn at home part of the week – when the county entered the state’s coronavirus red tier in February and March. At a school board meeting on April 21, the district’s interim superintendent presented a plan to keep young students in transitional kindergarten through first grade at the current four-day-a-week schedule, have students in second through fifth grades return to in-person learning four days a week and move grades six through 12 to three days a week on May 4. There was not a vote on the item because it wasn’t on the official board agenda, but school leaders directed staff to survey families to see how many want their kids to go back to school in person full time.

On Monday, Jennifer Machado, a spokeswoman for the district, told Voice of San Diego those surveys were completed on Sunday but were not yet counted.

A whopping 75 to 85 percent of San Marcos families said in a fall survey that they’d opt to return to hybrid in-person if the option were available (the option for full in-person learning wasn’t available at the time). The district will likely have to hire more teachers and staff to supervise students and meet capacity limitations in classrooms, Machado told Voice of San Diego.

“While cost is a factor, it is not the primary concern. Recruiting and hiring credentialed teachers and qualified staff will be a far greater issue to overcome,” Machado wrote in an email. Machado said the district has hired quite a few substitutes teachers by raising their pay rates. Oceanside has previously cited similar staffing concerns.

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In Oceanside, elementary students returned to campuses for hybrid instruction (they go to school for half a day, two days a week) on March 15. Middle and high school students returned part time to in-person instruction during the last week of March. At its April meeting, the school board decided to stick with that plan for now.

Then on April 23, the district announced that “as a result of ongoing work” with unions and the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency, it is working toward bringing elementary students back in a larger capacity beginning on May 10, and parents should know more after April 30 about what a “negotiated modified 5-day elementary TK-5 hybrid schedule will look like.” Middle and high schools will stay on the same two-day hybrid learning schedule, “because these scholars and staff have had only one full week of instruction in their current model,” according to the district’s website.

April Plummer has a son in sixth grade at Oceanside schools and said she’s fed up that the district keeps prolonging its reopening plans. Plummer works in the medical field and had reduced her working time during the pandemic to help her son with school. She said he’s a straight-A middle school student now, but she’s worried he’s losing critical learning time on days when he’s not physically going to school, and isn’t sure how students are going to catch up.

“My son went to school and came home and said, ‘Mom, we got to do a science experiment.’ Distance learning is not the same as going to school in a middle school classroom, where there’s thermometers and Bunsen burners,” she said. “The board, the district and the union are working in cahoots with each other. It’s not the science anymore. These kids need to be back in school five days a week.”

Like Plummer, many parents in San Marcos and Oceanside told Voice of San Diego that even though kids are on campus two days a week for half-days, the full online learning model had more face-to-face time with teachers. Now, teachers at both districts teach their students online on Mondays, in the classroom two days a week and give students work to complete on their own the other two days of the school week.

Matthew Jennings, the spokesman for the Oceanside district, wrote in an email to Voice of San Diego that school leaders appreciate “that the group of parents involved with this particular parent association is strongly encouraging an “immediate return to full time five-day in-person instruction” and that the “current transition into hybrid is an important step forward in that direction, and will allow our students, staff, and families time to adjust as we plan for a full return.”

Machado said that while the parent group is vocal, she believes most San Marcos parents are willing to be patient with the district.

“We have union contracts in place and that can’t be changed overnight unfortunately,” she said.

Jennings and Machado were referring to a parent group called the Parents Association of North County, which earlier this year filed a lawsuit attempting to require Carlsbad Unified, Oceanside Unified, Poway Unified, San Dieguito Union High School, San Marcos Unified and Vista Unified to reopen and claiming the state had overstepped its authority surrounding in-person instruction. Since it filed the claim, Carlsbad, Poway, San Dieguito High School and Vista Unified school districts agreed to move toward full reopening, requiring no further action by the court. San Diego County Superior Court Judge Cynthia Freeland previously ruled in favor of the North County group and issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the state from keeping the schools from reopening, but recently declined to press Oceanside Unified and San Marcos Unified to reopen for more than two days a week. The schools argued they need to work on expanding instruction.

Ginny Merrifield, executive director of the Parent Association of North County San Diego, said there’s a misconception that the ruling is permanent. The group can have the judge hear the case again if the districts fail to comply, she said.

Guel is a co-director of the group representing San Marcos schools.

“That’s why we’re protesting and sending emails. Oceanside and San Marcos are still on the hook for opening to the most possible extent. I think it’s misinterpreted to be that the school boards have no obligation to move forward. They have a role not just legally but morally to open,” Merrifield said.

When I last talked to Merrifield in January, she said parents are feeling betrayed by school leaders and teachers unions that they thought were there to protect and teach their children.

Now, Merrifield said parents are getting a lot more clarity about how school districts work, and her concern is inequity and student well-being. She said many wealthy North County parents she knows unenrolled their kids from public schools and moved them into private or charter schools or to other places where schools have reopened full time, and she worries about families who do not have that option. She and others told Voice of San Diego they are concerned about the emotional state of kids while away from school, too.

Before the latest ruling, in a letter to the Oceanside board of trustees, superintendent and district staff on March 29, the Oceanside chapter of that group also cited concern with school funding and wrote: “Many OUSD parents are quite frankly disgusted by your dismissive actions taken this school year. The complete disregard of community outreach has shown this school board’s agenda as well as the comments we have heard from the board itself. OUSD has $60 million to implement safety measures, but we haven’t even been shown a plan to bring our kids back to full-time instruction! And now our neighboring cities, Vista and Carlsbad, are going back 5 days a week, proving it can be done. All that is required is a board that puts the interests of our kids ahead of its special interests.”

Voice of San Diego previously found that Oceanside Unified spent a majority of its CARES Act funding on personal protective equipment, a larger share of its funding than all nine other large school districts in the county. But that spending hasn’t yet resulted in a full reopening. San Marcos Unified reported nearly $2.5 million in spending for crisis counseling.

Two of the group’s leaders, Ally Mineau, a parent of two elementary school students who attend Oceanside schools, and Todd Maddison, a parent of a high schooler at Oceanside who previously ran for a school board position, have feverishly critiqued the district for not giving families the option to send their kids to school five days a week. They say teachers are doing their best to give students a quality education and they blame district leadership for keeping kids away from school.

Mineau, Maddison and other district parents are continuing to press Oceanside school leaders for a full reopening but the end of the school year is nearing.

“At this point whatever they do is undoubtedly going to be too late,” Maddison said.

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