Ali Murphy drops her two daughters off at Day Prep, a private school in La Jolla. / Photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

Back in June, San Diego Unified leaders said they would fully reopen their schools in the fall. Then a month later, everything was suddenly off. District leaders said they would go fully online.

That was the moment Ali Murphy, a La Jolla parent, decided to pull her kids out of public school.

“It just felt like it was clear they weren’t even gonna try to open at that point,” she said. “That was a huge trigger for many families I know to jump into other alternatives.”

Murphy enrolled her two daughters at Day Prep, a small private school and tutoring service in La Jolla. Many other affluent San Diegans also seem to be leaving San Diego Unified, because they perceive the district is stalling on reopening or because they dislike the district’s online curriculum.

At La Jolla Elementary, for instance, enrollment is down nearly 20 percent. The school projected it would enroll 608 students, but only 496 are currently enrolled, according to an email obtained by Voice of San Diego. If enrollment drops at certain schools, those schools usually lose teachers during the annual teacher shuffle.

Seven different families told me they had un-enrolled their children from various La Jolla schools, including Muirlands Middle, Bird Rock Elementary and La Jolla Elementary. Others told me they will un-enroll if the district doesn’t figure out a way to start bringing kids back to school soon.

Three San Diego County school districts have already brought students back to school and several others have physical reopening plans in the works, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

“We’ve been failed by the district and the union at the leadership level. They have failed us. I don’t think they’ve worked in best interests of students,” said Julie Bubnack, who un-enrolled her fourth grade son from La Jolla Elementary.

Bubnack doesn’t think schools should just completely reopen, with all students coming back five days a week. But she also thinks there’s a middle ground, and that the district has failed by not already having its youngest and most vulnerable students back on campuses. (Most research indicates that younger children are not strong vectors for transmitting coronavirus.)

She would have stuck with the district, she said, even if other more vulnerable students came back to school before her own children.

Richard Barrera, San Diego Unified’s board vice president, countered that the school district does have a plan to bring back vulnerable students. By the end of the month, 12,000 students will be eligible to get some appointment-based services on campus, he said.

Barrera also pointed out that other big urban districts like Los Angeles and Long Beach Unified still had not reached an agreement for any in-person services on their campuses. This, he said, was evidence of effective leadership and bargaining between the district and the teacher’s union.

“The reason schools haven’t reopened is not because of some failure in negotiations between [San Diego Unified and the teachers union],” wrote Kisha Borden, president of the San Diego Education Association, in an email. “We have no dispute when it comes to implementing a phased-in approach toward reopening.”

But among La Jolla parents I spoke to, the district’s plan so far is too little, too late. All of them felt the district was not, in good faith, actually moving toward reopening.

Borden, however, shared results of a poll that suggest parents who think the district is moving too slow are in the minority. The poll of 400 likely voters within San Diego Unified showed 43 percent believe the district is moving at the right speed, 29 percent believe it is moving too quickly and just 17 percent believe it is moving too slowly. That was the breakdown before voters had even heard a description of the plan. Once they heard a description, support for the district’s approach went up to 59 percent.

The poll – which had a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points – was conducted by the Mellman Group in Washington D.C. Borden only shared the topline results and did not provide a more detailed report of the poll’s findings.

Across the United States, wealthier and whiter school districts are more likely to be back on campus, according to an analysis by the Associated Press and Chalkbeat. That trend also seems to be true in San Diego County, where districts with reopening plans tend to be among the most affluent.

It’s unclear exactly why the trend is playing out this way. Rich parents tend to have more political power to push their school districts to action. But communities of color have also been much harder hit by the virus and may be more wary of going back to campus.

American schoolchildren are the grist in a brutal dilemma: If wealthy students go back to school first, it will almost certainly widen the achievement gap and warp the playing field of opportunity even further. But for the students who need a return to in-person learning the most, it may also be the least safe.

When asked for enrollment data for the entire district on Thursday, spokeswoman Maureen Magee declined to provide it. Instead, district officials issued a press release on Friday afternoon, which shed some light on the district’s current enrollment.

District officials already assumed enrollment would decline in San Diego Unified, even before the pandemic. But enrollment is down even more than expected. The district has lost 2,474 more students than expected. Percentage wise that represents a small fraction of the district – somewhere around 3 percent. But in actual dollars, that many students could add up to tens of millions of dollars down the road.

The biggest drop in enrollment appears to be at the kindergarten level. Kindergarten is not required in California, and parents who decline to attend virtual kindergarten this year may still attend public schools in first grade.

Barrera noted that the decline in enrollment appears to be happening most at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. In other words, the richest and poorest schools seem to be losing the most students. Rich families have the means to choose other options, while poorer families may have been more likely to move during the pandemic, said Barrera.

In San Diego, and within the whole state of California, poorer families are not without options. Charter schools are free public schools that families may apply to attend.

The Classical Academies is a group of charter schools with seven campuses across San Diego County, which offers both online and in-person instruction. Its enrollment has grown by 26 percent since the pandemic and would have grown by twice as much, but the schools had to cap enrollment, said CEO Cameron Curry.

Among those families enrolling, a much higher percentage live in poverty than those who normally apply. The percentage of students who receive free or reduced price lunch has grown by 19 percent with the addition of the new crop of students, said Curry.

Incidentally, The Classical Academies won’t receive funding for those students, which is why Curry had to cap enrollment. The state, which funds public schools, decided it would not pay for growing enrollment at non-classroom-based schools like The Classical Academies.

Recent scandals with online schools like Inspire and A3 charter schools have led state leaders to be skeptical of online or semi-online charter schools.

San Diego Unified, on the other hand, won’t take a funding hit even though its enrollment is shrinking faster than expected. The state decided to fund school districts based on the previous year’s attendance figures.

When the pandemic ends, however, the state will presumably begin funding school districts based on enrollment and attendance, as it has in the past. If thousands of parents have moved to private and charter schools, that could mean a loss of tens of millions of dollars for San Diego Unified.

“I’m not gonna assume those decisions on the part of parents are permanent any more than parents should assume that the district has already thrown in the towel on reopening,” said Barrera.

For Bubnack, even though she has adored her kids’ time at La Jolla Elementary, the decision likely is permanent: “I think we’re done at this point,” she said. “We will probably stick with the private school because I don’t feel it’s fair to him to move him around like that.”

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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