Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

For the past several months, state and local leaders have publicly agonized over opening bars and restaurants. Outdoor seating? Indoor seating? Six feet markers? Limited seating capacity? No detail was left off the table.

Meanwhile, schools – an arguably larger engine for the economy – have been left out of the daily conversation until recently. Would they open? Some districts said yes. Others said no. Many waited and watched.

On Monday, the state’s two largest school districts – Los Angeles and San Diego Unified – settled the uncertainty for nearly 20 percent of California’s 6 million students. Neither district will open for in-person learning on the first day of school.

It’s a massive turnaround from last month, when San Diego Unified officials said they would offer physical school five days a week for any family that wanted it.

For the moment, many other districts are pushing ahead with physical reopening. Grossmont Union in East County has a nuanced five-level plan. It allows for anywhere from one to five days a week of physical school depending on the severity of the coronavirus outbreak. It also has an option for full distance-learning. Cajon Valley has a three-tier plan that allows students to come to school if they choose.

The Orange County Board of Education was poised to recommend schools reopen without masks or social distancing Monday night, Voice of OC reported.

With the spread of coronavirus increasing in California, San Diego and Los Angeles officials said it was simply too risky to plan for a normal reopening.

But having no plan to return to physical school leaves some of the most vulnerable students – such as those who require special education services or students who are homeless – without a safety net.

“When people talk about a risk-free option, there isn’t one,” said San Diego Unified board president John Lee Evans. Going to school means risking the spread of the virus; not going to school means putting vulnerable children at risk, said Evans.

Both Evans and board vice president Richard Barrera said that the district would need to come up with in-person alternatives for the district’s most vulnerable students, if schools appear they will be closed indefinitely.

“There was no way, as of today, with this uncertainty that’s going on with the virus in the community, that we could confidently plan on the first day of school,” said Evans.

Federal, state and local agencies have given schools extremely mixed messages about what would constitute a “safe” reopening. To get around this dilemma, San Diego Unified officials announced last week they would partner with a task force of scientists and doctors from UC San Diego to decide how and if it would be safe to reopen schools.

But on Monday, when the decision to postpone physical reopening came down, the task force had not even been convened yet.

Evans said district leaders will still meet with the task force later this month to consider two major questions. First, does the number of new coronavirus cases in San Diego County suggest going back to school would be safe? Second, does the district have a sufficient plan to socially distance students and school workers?

Based on these conversations, San Diego Unified officials will report back to the public on Aug. 10 about when they think they will be able to reopen schools. Online learning will begin Aug. 31, the official first day of school for San Diego Unified.

“We don’t know whether it will be very soon [after the official first day of school] or much later,” said Evans.

Many leaders have acknowledged that online education is a poor substitute for in-person learning. And if other school districts push ahead with their physical reopening plans, it could open the door for a constitutional battle around educational quality.

The state Constitution guarantees an equal education to all students. But based on districts’ wildly varying plans, educational quality could be extremely uneven.

“That would be ripe for a lawsuit,” John Affeldt, who specializes in education law for Public Advocates, told me in May. “If there is too wide a variation, such that quality suffers, then that is a constitutional problem.”

But Los Angeles and San Diego Unfied’s joint decision could also open the floodgates for most schools across the state to go online.

When schools closed abruptly in March, Los Angeles and San Diego Unified also made a joint statement that they would both close on the same day. That joint statement led to a cascade of school district closures that eventually led nearly every school in the state to close.

In Monday’s joint statement, both districts called out federal and state leaders for so far offering school reopening guidelines that are “vague and contradictory.”

Despite the criticism, Gov. Newsom praised both districts. “I want to just acknowledge and applaud the leadership of those districts for leaning in and recognizing their responsibility,” he said Monday.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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