Politics Report: Schools Struggle Attracts DA | Voice of San Diego

Politics

Politics Report: Schools Struggle Attracts DA

Uncertainty about schools is driving a panic. MTS changes its mind on fares. And the mayor has a big decision (and a lot more money to work with).

escondido schools covid
Students at Bear Valley Middle School watch a video during class. The Escondido Union School District offers hybrid-model in-classroom at all campuses. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan is headlining the “Press Conference and Family Rally to Reopen Schools” Saturday.

Ginny Merrifield runs the Parent Association, which is helping organize the event. She’s the former chief operating officer of Connect.

The nascent group Reopen SDUSD is also involved. Reopen just filed a lawsuit against San Diego Unified for not reopening yet. A lot of groups are starting to get more organized to absorb some of the demand from extremely anxious parents.

Full disclosure: Scott Lewis, one of your Politics Report authors (me), is an anxious parent. “We do not know what to do,” he (I) said. “It’s not just that we can’t wait for schools to reopen. It’s that after a year, we have no idea exactly what we’re waiting for.”

It’d be a lot easier to wait, for example, if we knew things like what the planned reopening, April 12, which teachers warned was not the official date at all, would actually look like? It sounds like they won’t be going back very much at all? Is it two days a week? Four? For a couple hours?

No idea.

But worse is the fall. We would like to know what circumstances the district needs to see to reopen fully then.

If you’re a parent, you have no doubt heard something like this: Of course they’ll open in the fall. They’re getting all this money. They have the vaccine. The president says we can have barbecues if all goes as planned on the Fourth of July. A joke trending in different ways on social media is that soon people are going to have switched from containing SARS-Cov-2 to spreading STDs.

Ha ha! That’s funny!

Districts in other parts of the region have reopened elementary schools fully and are pushing for high schools.

Is there a chance San Diego Unified, however, won’t open fully in the fall? The district has not said it would definitively. The parent group leading the protest Saturday, Reopen SDUSD, seized on a comment made at the San Diego Unified board meeting by Dr. Howard Taras, a UC San Diego pediatrician advising the district. He said the district was reopening in such a limited way because kids have not been vaccinated.

The logical deduction was that we would not have full-time school until they were vaccinated.

He insisted to us that wasn’t the case. There may be other factors that allow it but he could not say what those were. The top public health officials in the nation would have to decide, he said.

“Its importance is a Fauci-level issue,” he wrote in an email.

The biggest question: Do students need to be six feet apart? If they do, then school officials appear to have decided that all students cannot be accommodated on campuses. They’ve concluded there’s no way to spread them out.

Taras followed up later with a study of Massachusetts schools that showed that schools with six-foot rules did not have lower spread of the virus than schools that tried to maintain half that distance.

“Hope some other group of researchers can confirm such findings. That could seal it and change guidelines,” he wrote.

On the air: San Diego Unified did seem to really embrace the UC San Diego scientists’ consensus that air ventilation and filtration was key. They have begun promoting what they have done to extensively improve what’s available in schools. It was a big part of the district’s tour with Sen. Toni Atkins of the newly rebuilt Hoover High.

The virus spreads through the air. Since it spreads in the air, there’s very little difference between six feet or three feet. That only matters for big sneezes and coughs, for which masks are ideal.

Teachers told the district not to overdo it on plexiglass barriers, which can hinder ventilation.

Gloria’s Big Decision on Homelessness

Our Lisa Halverstadt did an important story this week on San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria’s approach to homelessness and how he has largely kept up the same police-led enforcement actions on homeless encampments across the city. He had promised a pretty significant change but even with the police work, the camps are growing.

In short, he has a big decision to make. He believes a more humane approach is needed but if he stops the sweeps and they proliferate, a lot of other people will be angry.

Change at MTS

As the Metropolitan Transit System’s Twitter account celebrated new agency fare policies – lowering youth fares, allowing free transfers – we couldn’t help but notice it had been that agency’s own staff who had, for years, argued against making those policy changes.

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, the agency’s board chair, responded with a simple observation: The agency is different now.

“But agency decisions are made by the board of directors,” he wrote. “When those board members change (elections matter) than the policies change.”

That’s true. It’s still jarring, though, for those of us who argued with the agency staffers over those policies, staffers who are in many cases still in the same position.

MTS isn’t the only significant institution in town that’s hardly recognizable from where it was just a few years ago.

SANDAG, for instance, touted late Friday that the new regional transportation plan it’s working on will double transit investments, from $26 billion to $56 billion. It was not long ago that any suggestion that SANDAG was not especially committed to transit would garner a sharp response from the agency’s press shop. But elections (and legislation) have changed things at SANDAG, too.

To us, the switch was just as jarring as would be a press release from the San Diego County Water Authority stressing that a feud with the Metropolitan Water District doesn’t benefit anyone, a tweet from the San Diego Union-Tribune’s editorial board declaring that endorsements do reflect the entire newspaper’s preference or an acknowledgment from a BIA flak that single-family homes built on semi-rural property 50 miles from downtown constitute suburban sprawl.

So Much Money Is Coming

The federal government is expected to send some $600 million to San Diego local governments this year, with roughly $300 million headed to the city of San Diego, largely curing its temporary budget woes.

Unlike last year’s federal bailout, which likewise erased the need for significant cuts after tourism and commerce all but halted in the region, the idea with this one-time cash infusion is that the pandemic could soon be over, and travelers could soon start again filling our coffers with hotel taxes, obviating the need for continued restraint.

Last year, Councilman Chris Cate expressed significant concern about spending the money, which was not billed as a bag of cash that could replace any lost revenue, but one with strings meant to ensure it was used only in direct response to the pandemic.

In the end, tying that money to pandemic-related needs – and using other city money – for everything else wasn’t difficult, and the city didn’t need to lay anyone off. This year, it’s unlikely it’ll even be that tricky, as relief package supporters have proudly said their goal was to fill the hole in local government budgets. (The fare reductions discussed above, for instance, are expected to be paid for from COVID-19 relief funds earmarked for transit agencies in the federal bill).

Gyms and Restaurants and More Can Open March 17

San Diego County announced that it would be moving into the red tier March 17. That means gyms and restaurants and movie theaters could start hosting people indoors, though at limited capacity. Bars are considered restaurants if they serve food

Unrelated: March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day.

If you have any feedback or tips for the Politics Report, send it to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org.

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