Even the Most Firm School Reopening Plans Are Up in the Air - Voice of San Diego

Education

Even the Most Firm School Reopening Plans Are Up in the Air

On Tuesday, San Diego Unified will present its plan for re-opening in the fall. It’s just one of 42 districts in the county that is grappling with an existential dilemma brought on by the coronavirus and the state’s unfunded mandates.

San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten announces school closures amid the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

On Tuesday, the San Diego Unified School District Board of Education is set to “approve plans for the safe reopening of school facilities ahead of the 2020-21 academic year.”

If parents, educators or students want to comment on the plan, they have to email publictestimony@sandi.net with no more than 150 words by 9 a.m.

There’s one thing missing, though: a draft plan. The agenda has no documents or anything to actually comment on.

The district is just one of 42 across San Diego County. All are facing existential decisions in coming weeks.

It may seem like they have some time. They do not. Anyone who has ever been a kid in America knows how fast June, July and August pass. June is half over. Some school districts start up again in July. Others start in late August. At the least, they have a month to get ready for the new year. At most, they have two.

Two months. None of their regular traditions are happening. No kindergarten assessments. No enrollment projections. Of all the things the pandemic disrupted, schools lay completely gutted.

Legislators are barely discussing it.

“I really feel like we can’t reopen the economy until we open our child care centers, and I would extend that to K-12 as well,” California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon told Politico.

A useful observation by the Assembly speaker.

He is a ranking member of the Legislature for the state government that punted the challenge to local districts. The state never actually closed schools. School districts closed on their own. Then, locally, the county of San Diego issued a public health order that kept them closed.

Now that has changed. The order allows them to open but only if they follow the state’s guidelines. And the state’s guidelines? They’re a list of “shoulds” and “considers” and recommendations. The word “practicable” comes up regularly, as in “students should remain in the same space and in groups as small and consistent as practicable.”

There’s one firm “should,” and it is very jarring: “All staff should use cloth face coverings unless Cal/OSHA standards require respiratory protection.”

Every teacher should wear a mask. But what if the kids need to see their mouths? The state says they can use a face shield in that case.

Who will pay for face shields? Will anyone clean them?

Even in normal times, the logistics of managing the daily routines and safety of hundreds of thousands of young people in San Diego schools is a nightmare.

Before all this, discipline and safety measures led to vast inequities. Now the virus and the state have made those logistics even more complex. Adding more rules — like requiring masks — is sure to exaggerate them. But if you don’t require masks, do you endanger families? If you do, what are the punishments for not wearing one?

If they try to implement all the recommendations, school sites will be unrecognizable. If they don’t open school sites, parents and students may seek out charter schools or home-school alternatives that have spent much longer refining remote learning.

Either way, the future of public education is at stake. Right now. San Diego Unified School District has had many big meetings the last few years and yet it’s hard to picture one like Tuesday’s, with such vast potential ramifications. And it’s not even a live meeting in which parents can participate.

If parents do not have confidence or do not find schools attractive and don’t return their students, they could cause massive budget deficits for districts. And that’s not due to new state budget cuts, but the dollars connected to children based on the basic logic by which schools are funded. If kids don’t attend schools, the schools don’t get the money. The historic connection between neighborhoods and schools could be severed – for better or worse.

And that is a very real possibility.

Poway Unified School District surveyed parents and found only 59 percent wanted students to return to physical classes. A full 16 percent wanted to stay remote. The rest preferred some kind of hybrid, which the district said was unworkable.

“The District has analyzed various blended learning models (partially in-person and partially virtual), and at this time, they do not appear to be viable for Districtwide implementation,” the district informed parents.

There’s still no plan for Poway schools, either.

Cajon Valley was the first among local school districts to produce an actual plan. Superintendent David Miyashiro and his team decided they could do a kind of hybrid, a little online, a little at home. Or students could do it all at home.

And the district informed parents everyone can go to school five days a week – “based on site availability.” That is, if they have room for all the kids who want it. Even the most firm plans are up in the air.

Everything we know about schools is in the balance.

Monday, San Diego Unified sent out a press release. It did not have an announcement of its plan. Instead it was another joint statement from San Diego and Los Angeles demanding more funds from the state to make this work.

“Unless the funding needs are addressed comprehensively in the state budget, there is no way schools will be able to follow all the new recommended guidelines required for a safe, responsible reopening in the fall,” wrote Austin Beutner, the superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District and Cindy Marten, San Diego Unified’s superintendent. “It is inappropriate to pronounce public guidelines as recommended best practices and then leave districts without the necessary funding to implement them.”

Budget uncertainty for California schools in the summer is nothing new. Uncertainty about whether schools will even open is.

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