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Desks at Lafayette Elementary School are adorned with plexiglass to protect students from the spread of coronavirus. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

A lot stands in the way of most public schools reopening their campuses to all students during the pandemic but one unexpected hurdle is confusion about whether they are even allowed. Dizzying government guidance has confounded some school officials, teachers and parents.

County health officials were off when they interpreted the state’s rules in an “inconsistent” way last year, a problem flagged by the county superintendent of schools. A San Diego Unified trustee complained to the state Legislature. And the dissonance has helped derail reopening plans in different parts of the county.

Disagreements about when public schools can lawfully reopen while subject to state lockdown orders tied to COVID-19 public health metrics recently attracted problems in San Dieguito schools and a North County charter school chain. Amid backlash, both scuttled their reopening plans.

San Diego Unified school board president Richard Barrera also highlighted the confusing landscape school officials are trying to navigate while testifying before the California Senate last week.

“As we have gone through dealing with the pandemic, to be frank, we have received very vague and, in some cases, contradictory advice, whether it was the CDC or [the California Department of Public Health] or other entities,” Barrera said at the Jan. 21 hearing.

While San Diego Unified school campuses have remained almost entirely shuttered this school year – with few opportunities for in-person services for only select student groups – other districts reopened more fully when the region was under less restrictive “red tier” lockdown orders in the fall.

Now, it is clearer those past decisions have big consequences.

They can’t open. New state guidance this month from California public health officials aims to set the record straight and clear up the confusion. The result: Many schools will remain closed or delay reopenings indefinitely, as reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Schools that had not offered on-campus schooling for at least one entire grade level at least part of the week during the red tier cannot expand reopenings while in the purple tier – which San Diego County is in now.

Limited in-person services like those offered by San Diego Unified to special education students, some English-learners, homeless students and those academically struggling so far this year are not enough to be considered “open” and qualify for expanded in-person schooling now.

It is not an obvious threshold, and it confused school officials trying to reconcile state and local government guidance.

“We are accountable to the standard set by the state,” wrote County Superintendent Paul Gothold in a Dec. 17 communication to local school leaders. “School leaders should proceed with caution when evaluating the reopening status of their schools and making plans to expand” and “work closely with their legal counsel to ensure that they are properly authorized to proceed as planned.”

If in-person schooling had not reopened to at least one grade level and county COVID-19 adjusted case rates exceed 25 cases per 100,000 population per day, “the school must delay reopening until the county case rate drops below the threshold,” Dr. Naomi Bardach, head of the state’s Safe Schools for All team, wrote in a Jan. 19 letter to school and county officials statewide.

Barrera, the San Diego Unified board president, highlighted just how far off San Diego County is from that mark during his recent testimony to the Legislature.

“Our (adjusted) case rate in San Diego County today is over 60 per 100,000. The idea we are going to be anywhere near that 25 per 100,000 within a couple weeks, by mid-February, is simply not going to happen. The idea that it would even get down into that level by March or April is very much up in the air,” Barrera said.

Bottom line: Even if San Diego Unified officials wanted to reopen campuses right now – and they don’t, citing public health concerns – they couldn’t. They and other districts like them must wait until COVID-19 case rates and local health conditions move the county back to a less restrictive tier.

For the grand majority of the 97,000 students enrolled in San Diego Unified, that means the timeline for getting back on campus remains unclear even as COVID-19 testing expands to more and more campuses populated by few staff and students.

According to data reported by the San Diego County Office of Education, just 1,000 out of 97,000 San Diego Unified students are participating in some kind of hybrid learning with an on-campus element. Nearly 99 percent of students are schooling entirely from a distance.

Across the county, the data shows more than 86 percent of public school students are also learning from a distance only, not including charter schools, while private schools serve less than 36 percent remotely only and 64 percent, or about 21,500 students, in person at least part-time.

Ashly McGlone

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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