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A teacher at Lafayette Elementary School works with students as San Diego Unified begins phase one of its reopening plan at elementary schools. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

San Diego Unified leaders launched their “phase one” reopening this week to help the district’s most vulnerable students. But the launch appears to be wildly uneven – with some schools not even participating.

Donis Coronel is the executive director of the local principals union. She told me that in the lead-up to phase one, she talked to 25 to 30 elementary school principals.

“At least half of the principals I’ve talked to said they maybe have one teacher or zero coming back,” said Coronel. “It is an equity issue. You may have a school with 70 percent of staff returning and others with none. It’s challenging.”

The reality on the ground clashes with the narrative pushed by district leaders: that phase one services will be available to as many as 12,000 students as often as they need them. Phase one, district leaders have said, is designed to even the playing field for students who aren’t doing well in distance learning. It is meant to include in-person services for special education students, as well as those who have fallen behind academically.

Yet the plan seems to have created new inequities, in that services are available for students at some schools, but not others.

Principals have directly contradicted some of the claims made by district leaders about how phase one will play out.

For instance, school board vice president Richard Barrera previously said, “Some portion of [phase one] students will be able to come back all day, every day.”

Barrera, as a board member, is responsible for setting district policy. But the policy is clearly not being carried out as envisioned.

In one communication to parents in Point Loma, a group of nine principals directly responded to, and refuted, Barrera’s claim. The idea that some students might be able to come back all day, every day “does not apply to phase one,” they wrote, but rather to future phases of reopening.

Barrera has said some students might need just one appointment to get back on track. Others might need intensive support – and will receive it if they do, he said.

But Coronel also doubted that most schools would be able to schedule intensive sessions.

“When I talked to principals they were talking about doing hour-long sessions, or maybe hour-and-a-half at the most,” she said.

The district held a press conference about the launch of phase one on Tuesday at Lafayette Elementary. Lafayette’s principal said most of the sessions would be two hours long at her school.

At Lafayette, roughly 25 students (out of a student body of more than 200) were asked to participate in phase one.

I reached out to more than a dozen principals – none of whom were authorized by the district to discuss phase one. Some declined to speak on the record, others did not respond.

But an internal FAQ document obtained by Voice of San Diego does acknowledge that services across schools will be wildly different.

“Can our school choose to begin phase one after the Oct. 13th date?” is one question asked by principals.

The district’s response: “The start to phase one is a site based decision dependent on student need and available site staff/resources.”

That contradicts Barrera’s claims that all students who need services will receive them. Whether a student receives services appears to instead depend on how many educators decide to return to school.

Another FAQ deals with school psychologists and speech therapists, who play an important role in assessing and helping students with special needs. What if neither volunteer to return, the principals asked?

If they “do not volunteer to return, they can use alternative assessments that can be done online or delay the assessment,” the district responded.

In other words, some children who desperately need an assessment will get it, while assessments for other children will be delayed.

The document also gives insight into principals’ overall concerns about phase one implementation. They hit district officials with a barrage of questions about equity.

“How will equity be established if some schools have many willing to come on campus and other schools don’t?” one asked.

“I, too, am concerned about equity issues for students at schools with high numbers of students with academic needs. How do we tell some families we can not invite them on campus? ‘Voluntary for staff’ is very complicated … How do we explain differences from one campus to the next when speaking with parents?” said another.

Another principal brought up the dilemma that students in poorer areas of the city are most likely to need in-person services, but those parts of the city have also been hit harder by the virus. Thus, there might be less teachers willing to return in those areas, the principal noted.

“There is a significant mismatch at my site between students needing services and staff willing to teach in person. What is the equity response to this dilemma?” they asked.

Here was the district’s response to all of the questions: “Sites need to identify who has the greatest needs. Then, they will figure out how to meet the needs of these students by leveraging available staff or resources (i.e. noon duty, paraeducator, staff funding). Sites can be creative with how they can ensure equity.”

In a later question, principals asked about one area in which they might have some discretion to help ensure equity. They wanted to know if they might have a group of teachers do all of the online work for a grade level, while one teacher came in to do in-person learning.

The district essentially said no.

Shuffling responsibilities isn’t allowed because, according to the contract negotiated between the district and teachers union, teachers are still responsible for teaching their online classes, even if they choose to help some students with in-person services during phase one.

District spokeswoman Maureen Magee declined to provide specific figures about how many schools are not providing services for phase one.

“Schools have gradually started bringing back students for small-group instruction and assessments at their own pace,” she wrote. “Some schools, for example, have invited students back exclusively for IEP assessments. At others, teachers have started offering targeted instruction to small groups of students. Phase one looks different campus by campus, by design.”

Barrera, the board member, said that if phase one services are unequal then the district must find a way to fix it. Even, he said, if that means shuffling personnel between school sites. “We have to [figure it out],” he said.

Many parents districtwide have been clamoring for more information about when a second phase of reopening, which might include all elementary students, will begin.

The FAQ briefly addressed their concerns. “Is there a notion of the duration of phase one?” one principal asked.

“Future phases have not yet been bargaining (sic),” the district responded. “Updates will be given as we reach agreements with our bargaining units.”

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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