Students at Magnolia Elementary in Cajon Valley take part in a summer enrichment program. Only 12 students are allowed in a single class. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

On a recent Thursday, David Miyashiro, superintendent of Cajon Valley Union School District, stood outside of Chase Avenue Elementary in El Cajon waiting on a reporter (me, that is) so he could begin a tour. Miyashiro was dressed in a polo shirt with his district’s logo and long, baggy black shorts, reminiscent of ‘90s-era basketball. He had on black New Balances with white socks. Despite his casual appearance, he was anxious to get going, like a dad waiting on dithering kids at the zoo. Miyashiro had been trying to convince the county Health and Human Services Agency to send someone to see the work he’d been doing: namely, keeping his schools running over the summer at roughly 30 percent capacity. On this day, the department finally sent someone.

Miyashiro wanted to make it clear that schools can in fact be opened safely. He wanted the county representative to see this neatly ordered world he created, so that such a program might be brought to other schools districts across California. The tour took visitors through a day in the life of students and teachers in the middle of a pandemic. Parents can no longer get out of their vehicles when they drop students off. They must arrive during a pre-scheduled window. Before entering the school, students and visitors have their temperature checked with a forehead-scanning thermometer. A school worker standing near the entrance gate asks if they have had any symptoms or been in contact with someone with COVID-19.

Inside, school life is different – but not too different. Most classrooms have anywhere from seven to 10 students and one or two adults. Everyone is wearing a mask or a face shield. (The youngest kids are allowed to pull theirs down if they need a breath.) The students are spread out at desks, more than six feet apart. One classroom is studying famous people. (“I thought, ‘OK great we’ll do George Washington, Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr.,’” said the teacher. “But no, they wanted to do Johnny Depp, John Cena and Kobe Bryant.” Is Johnny Depp still cool?) Another class is practicing space raps. (“I’m a hip-hop astronaut. Yeah, yeah. /I’m a hip-hop astronaut. Yeah, boy. /Got my space suit on cuz my gravitiy’s gone. /And I’m dancing out in space like Neil Armstrong.”)

“We saw a real impact to the youngest kids. They had been home with their families for so long in what can be a socially sterile environment. When they came back it took two or three days to start seeing the light in their eyes and their interests come back,” said Brian Handley, the school’s principal. “Some of our students live in two-bedroom apartments with siblings and their parents. … Imagine the emotional toll that takes on kids. They were hurting. This gives them a safe place where they can have fun. The fun part and being with their peers is where we’re seeing the sparkle come back in their eyes.”

Miyashiro made this plan work by using money from the CARES Act. The program serves mostly children of essential workers, who he gave priority in being able to access it. He had to bring back custodial workers, teaching assistants, principals and teachers. Only those who wanted to return were asked to come back. In all, Miyashiro brought back 900 staff members. They were paid with the CARES money, which totaled more than $10 million. Cajon Valley serves grades K-8 and has roughly 17,000 students. More than 6,000 students took part in the extended summer learning. For free.

“We didn’t charge. What we said is, ‘Parents are already paying for public schools through their taxes. They shouldn’t have to pay twice.’ Districts that are charging for child care, they’re charging parents twice for what should be a public education system – which should be free.”

“I bet your colleagues [in other districts] don’t like it when you say that,” said Alethea Arguilez, who was representing the county. Arguilez runs First 5 San Diego and focuses on early childhood education.

“No, they really don’t,” said Miyashiro.

Over the course of the summer, Cajon Valley’s program only had one brush with the virus. One student showed symptoms of COVID-19 and one of their parents tested positive. Everyone in the child’s class, including teachers, was told to stay home for two weeks. A principal tried to trace the steps of the child and make sure he or she had not come in contact with any other groups. Ultimately, the school decided just the one class needed to quarantine and the virus didn’t spread. San Diego County has only had two outbreaks at child care centers over the course of the pandemic.

Miyashiro’s program technically started out as a form of school, which he was calling summer enrichment. But then last month came the governor’s order that schools in counties above a certain case count must close. That order included San Diego. But throughout the pandemic, summer camps and child care – as distinguished from school – has continued to be allowed. Miyashiro kept operating his school program, but now it was considered more of a summer camp, like programs run at the YMCA and other similar organizations.

“We have some people [in the child care industry] now questioning if schools are shutting down, how are we being asked to stay open?” said Arguilez. “But the reality is if you have a proper system in place, where you are every day not only adhering to minimal standards but increasing to a higher quality, we’re creating new best practice models.”

Miyashiro agreed. “Some of the districts in the Midwest we’ve seen open with hundreds of students in the hallway with no masks – that’s different than what we’re doing here,” he said.

“This just calls us to really create systems that are better aligned that are supportive of our families,” said Arguilez.

For now, current regulations will not allow Cajon Valley’s program to open in the fall. Miyashiro would like to replicate the program for families – who he said are desperate to see it continue – but he can’t. State regulations say that unlicensed camps can only operate during the summer and outside of normal school hours. The governor would have to provide a waiver from that requirement for Cajon Valley to continue operating on campus.

“It’s frustrating, because we are ready,” said Miyashiro. But he’s also holding out hope. He said that after Arguilez’s visit, county public health officer Dr. Wilma Wooten said she would advocate for a waiver that would allow programs like Cajon Valley’s to continue.

What We’re Writing

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

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