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No one ever wants to see an email from their principal that mentions Child Welfare Services. But back in August, that’s what the parents of Hancock Elementary school got.

Here’s how it went:

“It is illegal to keep your school aged child at home without the proper homeschool curriculum, standards-based lessons, and direction from a credentialed program service provider. It is up to the parent to research and select what homeschool options you wish to take. As the public school we are not at liberty to provide that information. Our staffing is completely dependent on opening of school enrollment. If parents attempt to enroll at a later date when schools begin to reopen we may not have room due to class size limitations and teachers who had to be released due to low enrollment and you could be turned away. Families who have school aged children at home and have not provided the school with an affidavit of proof in an accredited home school program would be subject to investigations from Child Welfare Services.” (Emphasis mine.)

Principal Irene Hightower left a lot for us to unpack here. She seems to have sent the email to inform parents that if they plan to homeschool their children, they will have to file an affidavit with both the state Department of Education and San Diego Unified.

First off, she was wrong. Parents do not have to file an affidavit with their local school district. So when she said that anyone who doesn’t file an affidavit with the school will “be subject to investigations,” she was making a baseless threat.

Telling parents they will be investigated by child welfare officials when they won’t is not a great look. But there’s something else buried deeper in this email that is even more interesting: fear.

Right in the middle of the paragraph, Hightower breaks away from the subject of affidavits for two sentences. She says the school’s staffing is dependent on enrollment. And she says – in another not-at-all veiled threat – if parents don’t enroll now, there may not be room for them later.

Here’s the deal: School districts are terrified of declining enrollment, due to parents opting out of district-led online learning programs.

Los Angeles Unified officials reported that kindergarten enrollment is down by three times as much as previous years. San Diego Unified has not made similar figures available, but we know the district is worried.

Last week, the communications department sent out a press release titled: “San Diego Unified School District Warns Against Kindergarten Gap Year. Schools Create Community During Pandemic Through Laptops for All, Virtual Playdates, Experienced Teachers.”

(Sidenote: Do you think parents were convinced that schools create community through virtual playdates? Zoom happy hours were fun for about a week, but now I can’t think of anything I’d rather do less.)

Districts are terrified of declining enrollment because of – could it have been anything else? – money. San Diego Unified gets somewhere around $10,000 per student it educates. But if parents opt out – and stay opted out after the pandemic – that could be a huge budget problem.

(For the current year, districts are insulated from funding problems. The state agreed to fund them based on previous enrollment numbers. But that security could go away after this school year and if the parents haven’t come back by then – say they stay at a charter school or parochial school or keep homeschooling – it will hurt the district’s already pinched budgets.)

Interestingly, kindergarten is not actually required in California. So if parents decide to take a gap year, it’s allowed from a legal perspective. No affidavit or anything else required. Assuming many parents do take a gap year, it’s also entirely feasible that many, or even most, of them will enter public schools in first grade. Presumably, only a very small fraction of parents would decide they love homeschool so much they will just keep doing it.

Hightower’s point that parents who try to enroll later in the year might be turned away is also obviously false. School districts must enroll any child who lives in the district boundaries. It is possible that if a child lived in the boundaries for Hancock Elementary – but Hancock were full – the district could assign the child to a different school.

I asked Hightower for comment on her email and she sent me a correction that she sent out to the school community. The email did correct the record – informing parents that if they choose homeschool, they only need to file paperwork with the state Department of Education and not their local school.

It didn’t mention the references to Child Welfare Services or that children who try to enroll later in the year might be turned away.

New Attendance Policy

Exactly how schools should take attendance for online learning has been a fraught question. Los Angeles Unified’s policy “raises eyebrows,” according to the L.A. Times. Students can be marked present in L.A. if the child or their parent makes any type of contact with the teacher during the day.

San Diego’s new policy seems to be a little less liberal, according to a document obtained by Voice of San Diego.

Students will be marked present if they participate in any of the following:

  • “Participation in online activities OR
  • Completion of assignments for that particular day
  • Students will NOT be marked tardy during online learning.”

This attendance policy is actually a lot like other online schools. Generally speaking, within online schools – most of these are charter schools that are also publicly funded by the state – attendance is based on the amount of work students complete. In online schools, students also usually have to sign a log saying they actually did school work each day they were supposed to.

Essentially, students can be marked present if they log onto Zoom meetings or if they turn in the work that was assigned that day. Teachers must submit attendance every day at 4 p.m., according to the document. But they will have five days in which they can revise a student’s attendance if they are able to verify that a student did their schoolwork on days they didn’t participate in online activities.

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 or 619-693-6249.

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