San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

With schools literally closed and students falling further and further behind each day, Superintendent Cindy Marten chose an interesting word to describe the state of San Diego Unified School District Tuesday night.

“The state of our district tonight,” said Marten, mustering a level of enthusiasm that must have served her well as an elementary school principal, “is unstoppable!

To give Marten the benefit of full context, she had been talking about how hard all the teachers and students across the district have been working. Because San Diego’s students are unstoppable, so is the district, was her point.

It’s admirable to build up students, who are working hard and also struggling mightily.

But for a school district where traditional education has literally stopped, Marten chose quite the adjective. Some other local school districts have found a way to get students back in the classroom part time. Private day camps – for those who can afford them – have sprung up to replace in-person learning, because the wheels of San Diego Unified have stopped turning.

Meanwhile, San Diego Unified’s signature equity initiative to combat learning loss during the pandemic is falling far short of expectations. For weeks now, schools have been implementing “phase one” – which is supposed to allow students who have fallen behind to come back to school for in-person, appointment-based sessions.

Some students who really weren’t doing well would be allowed to come back all day, every day, a school board member told me. All in all, some 12,000 students would be invited back.

But that’s not happening. The district had served fewer than 3,000 students, as of the latest count. And the students who have been invited back do not seem to have come back frequently. A video with a graphic reading “#unstoppable” in the upper left corner noted that as of late October, students had come in for some 4,000 appointments. That indicates most students have only come in once.

“Unstoppable” is not exactly the adjective that Delphine Duckett, a grandmother of six, would have chosen to describe the district’s operations.

All six of her grandchildren do their online work at her home during the day, and four of them live with her. “They’re all falling behind,” she said. “I have good days and bad days. Sometimes the computers don’t work. It’s always something.”

Duckett says that if San Diego Unified were offering, like other districts, she would send her kids back to school. “I think [the district] could be doing more,” she said.

She knows the pandemic was unexpected and that it’s extremely challenging to deal with. But she would like to see a plan that allows all students to come to school a couple of days a week – or at the very least the students struggling the most.

In the meantime, she does what she can. She goes around to each of the grandchildren, trying to make sure they’re logging on, staying on task. But some of them are tapping out.

“They shut down sometimes. They can’t do it. They get frustrated. They get disgusted. ‘Why do I have to do this, Nana? This don’t make sense.’ This is every day we have to go through this,” she said.

Influencing the Biden Administration?

As part of Marten’s state of the district speech Tuesday, she also talked about work her administration is taking part in to influence President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team. Marten detailed a national strategy for Biden’s first 100 days that the district sent to Biden’s team.

The plan calls for massive spending to undo the learning loss that students have experienced over the last nine months. Marten said Biden should send $350 billion in direct aid to school districts. She also asked for Title I funding, which comes from the federal government, to be tripled.

Marten also suggested the creation of a national teacher corps. To help students who have fallen behind during the past year, the country will need more teachers, she said.

A robust testing and contact tracing program should also be part of any back-to-school plan, she said.

What We’re Writing

Despite a new process to remove board members from office, Kevin Beiser – who has been accused of sexual harassment and unwanted touching by four men – is likely to stay on the San Diego Unified school board. At least two of Beiser’s colleagues believe the new removal process doesn’t apply to his situation. All four of his colleagues would have to agree to move forward with the process.

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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