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Facing pressure from parents, some North County schools are trying to open or stay open for in-person learning, but they’re facing a backlash from teachers unions and crippling staff shortages as the coronavirus rages through the county and new cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise.
In some parts of North County, school leaders are closing schools because they’re running out of teachers, substitutes and other school personnel to run classes in person. Many employees have had to quarantine after positive cases in their classrooms arise and others are calling out of work for health reasons.
This semester’s staffing challenges are likely to present themselves in districts’ reopening schedules for next semester, district leaders told Voice of San Diego.
Early this month, Escondido Union School District leaders decided to close campuses for all grades and return to online learning until Jan. 11 for its more than 14,000 students due to a lack of personnel, including substitute teachers, operational staff and custodial crew, Leila Sackfield, a deputy superintendent of human resources at Escondido Union, wrote in an email to Voice of San Diego. The district’s ability to open and operate in person safely next semester will depend on the number of employees who are available and willing to work.
So far in December, the district instructed 344 students and 95 employees who were exposed to a positive coronavirus case to quarantine, and 806 students and 209 employees since Sept. 28, Terry Schmidt, a director for integrated support services at Escondido Union, wrote in an email to Voice of San Diego.
Escondido Union and the Escondido Elementary Educator’s Association and California School Employees Association, two of the district’s employee unions, have been working collaboratively and those groups have been supportive of the district’s efforts to open our campuses for learning, Sackfield said.
“If we don’t have the people to man the phones, clean the classrooms, teach the students, supervise them to ensure that we are adhering to the protocols of six feet of physical distancing, appropriate mask-wearing, proper sanitizing of our workplaces and classrooms, keeping our technology equipment functioning, then we can’t have students on campus and we need to limit the staff as well,” she wrote.
Nearby, Vista Unified School District school leaders shifted all middle schools and high schools to virtual instruction on Nov. 30 until the end of the semester. Like in Escondido, the decision was fueled by a lack of teachers and substitute teachers able to teach in-person classes and concerns about the escalation of coronavirus cases in Vista and regionwide.
But the district will reopen after an extended period at home after the winter break.
Vista Unified Superintendent Matt Doyle told Voice of San Diego his district’s staffing challenges were due to the district’s stringent quarantining protocols for staff and students who came into contact with anyone with a positive coronavirus case. Vista Unified saw several positive cases shortly after it welcomed back nearly 10,000 students of all grades for in-person learning, leading to closures of individual schools and then, all middle and high schools.
The Vista Teachers Association reaffirmed its concerns about in-person learning in an October complaint to district officials in which they argued the district failed to adequately establish social distancing in classrooms, and that it doesn’t have an appropriate plan for contact tracing and testing when positive COVID-19 cases occur among staff or students.
Doyle told Voice of San Diego he’s listening to ongoing feedback from parents, union representatives and teachers.
“We’re not always going to agree with the unions, but we’re listening. It’s a tough conversation but these are ones I need to have. We shouldn’t be afraid to connect,” he said.
He said that the district doesn’t anticipate staffing challenges next semester because it has lowered the criteria for when a staff or student has to quarantine after coming in contact with a positive case based on public health recommendations from the county’s public health office. Now, instead of directing a whole middle or high school classroom to quarantine when a positive case arises, only someone who came within six feet of a positive case for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period must isolate themselves. Entire elementary classrooms will pivot to distance learning if there’s a positive case in those classrooms, according to the district’s reopening plan.
Currently, all elementary schools in Vista Unified will move to virtual learning for the week of Jan. 4 and will return to in-person learning on Jan. 11. All middle schools will move to virtual learning for two weeks from Jan. 4 to Jan. 15 and students will return to in-person learning on Jan. 19 and all high schools will move to virtual learning from Jan. 4 to Jan. 22 and in-person learning on Jan. 26.
The most tension right now may be in San Dieguito Union High School District, where Superintendent Robert Haley and his team have spent months coordinating reopening plans for January.
State restrictions say schools in Purple Tier counties like San Diego cannot reopen now for in-person instruction, but the district is reopening with the county’s permission. The San Dieguito school board voted last week to approve in-person instruction for all students starting Jan. 4. The district plans to offer all students a one-day-a-week in-person instruction starting Jan. 4 and a full week of in-person learning starting on Jan. 27.
Alongside union opposition to resuming in-person learning, some parents, students and even a renowned local scientist helping districts reopen joined teachers in sharply opposing the move and criticizing the safety measures.
Dr. Kim Prather, an atmospheric chemist at UC San Diego who is helping San Diego Unified on its reopening plan, disagrees with the district’s plans to reopen in January.
“ICU beds at 0%, cases skyrocketing in San Diego and I just heard the San Dieguito reopening Jan 4. Just saw the plan … it is not good. They are mostly focused on cleaning surfaces when they should be focused on cleaning the air. It is so disappointing to seem them so far behind the state of science,” Prather wrote.
The California Teachers Association filed a lawsuit against the district on Dec. 18, arguing it’s violating state guidance. The union is seeking to block reopening at Canyon Crest, La Costa Canyon and Torrey Pines high schools.
York Chang, a staff counsel for the California Teachers Association, wrote a letter on Dec. 9 on behalf of the San Dieguito Faculty Association demanding that the district “immediately cease and desist in the implementation of its current plan to return to in-person hybrid instruction at its secondary schools and high schools in January” contending “it is not only the wrong step at the wrong time in this dangerous pandemic.”
The district plans to increase cleaning, ventilation, implement distancing, train staff and educate families on mitigation of the COVID-19 spread, check for symptoms of coronavirus and take other precautions, according to its reopening plan.
Adam Fischer, a parent of an eighth grader, said he’s concerned about the plan to reopen against state recommendations in part because teachers don’t have the ability to decide whether to return to school like students do and the plan isn’t up to par with other districts like San Diego Unified, among other concerns.
He said district leaders are wasting resources on opening schools for in-person learning now when they should be looking ahead to opening after teachers receive coronavirus vaccinations and build immunity against the virus.
“I don’t want my daughter to, and my daughter certainly does not want to her to lose her teachers on Jan. 4,” he said. “I don’t want that connection my daughter has with her teachers to be completely upended when teachers are given the choice between considering their life and teaching.”
Even if the district does reopen, it could face the same staffing shortfalls as nearby districts. Forty teachers requested leave for health reasons, and 20 had requested leave for child care reasons and the district only has 12 substitute teachers at best to fill any openings, Cindy Frazee, the district’s human resources chief, told the Union-Tribune.
Other North County school leaders are grappling with whether to continue in-person learning or force students back to learning through a screen for the remainder of the fall semester.
School leaders at Poway Unified are slowing down reopening plans for the second semester because the district doesn’t have enough staff to safely reopen campuses.
Oceanside is also facing staffing challenges.
“With the recent rapid rise of COVID-19 cases, and our commitment to keep staff at home who are feeling sick, we’ve experienced a direct impact on staffing. As a result of compounding staff shortages, we are unable to provide the amount of substitutes needed to effectively run our schools and classrooms. Additionally, we are not permitted under public health guidance to reopen our secondary campuses while we are in the most restrictive purple tier,” the district’s website reads.
On the other end, some North County parents have pushed since the beginning of the pandemic to open schools quickly, and formed online Facebook groups like Escondido Parents for In-Person Learning.
After district leaders at Escondido notified parents on Dec. 6 that campuses and daycares were closing for three weeks starting Dec. 8 until Jan. 11 and left families of about 15,000 students who were learning in a hybrid model with just one day to change course, some parents held a rally at the district office protesting the move and demanding families have more of a say in how school reopening and closures move forward.
Escondido Union Superintendent Dr. Luis Rankins-Ibarra told NBC 7 that the decision wasn’t made lightly, and that he looked for other solutions before declaring a full closure, but that wasn’t feasible because the district didn’t have nurses on campuses or front office staff.
Brianne Russell, a parent of two children in the Oceanside Unified School District, previously told Voice of San Diego she’s increasingly concerned that her kids will fail without the structure of in-person learning, and that teachers should bear that burden.
“I know I’m at the risk of sounding uncaring and harsh, but it’s bothering me that teachers have the right not to be exposed but here I am; I’m a grocery worker and I’m on front lines of the pandemic beginning Day 1,” Russell said. “It kind of says to me my life is less than a teacher’s.”