Desks at Lafayette Elementary School are adorned with plexiglass to protect students from the spread of coronavirus as San Diego Unified begins phase one of its reopening plan at elementary schools. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

On Feb. 23, San Diego Unified officials blasted out a press release: “San Diego Unified Sets April Target for Reopening.”

The news traveled through the local media ecosystem and made its way to parents who had been hungry for any new reopening news. Previous district announcements had lacked details or specific opening dates. But now the story was more clear: San Diego Unified would reopen its doors on April 12, officials said. 

San Diego Unified school board President Richard Barrera confirmed the date in multiple interviews and has said he believes the district has laid all the necessary groundwork to make reopening by April 12 a reality.

But just a day and a half later, teachers union officials – who hold massive sway in the local debate over whether to reopen schools – poured cold water on the timetable, according to an email obtained by Voice of San Diego. 

Media coverage in the past few days has fixated on the potential date of returning to in-person instruction,” officials wrote in an email to members. “This is concerning as it diverts attention from the critically important work that must be done to create the conditions for a safe return and may set up false expectations around dates should these conditions not be met. … Any date for a required return is a projection and not set in stone.”

The email noted that union leaders and the district had reached an agreement on the necessary conditions for teachers to return – not an actual return date. 

Kisha Borden, president of the San Diego Education Association, reiterated the point in a separate email to Voice of San Diego. The plan “doesn’t set April 12 as an absolute reopening date which seems to have been lost in reporting by some members of the media,” she wrote.

Shane Parmely, a San Diego Unified teacher and candidate for the 79th Assembly District, also indicated that many do not take the April 12 opening date very seriously in a forum hosted by Voice of San Diego.

“They didn’t say they’re opening the entire school [district] April 12. It was interesting to watch that get put out in the media. Both the union and the school district was like, ‘That’s interesting, because nothing’s finalized,’” she said. 

Union leaders secured three central guarantees that are required for reopening to move forward:

  • All teachers must have the opportunity to receive a full vaccination schedule and achieve maximum immunity before being asked to return. 
  • San Diego County must fall into the state’s red tier, meaning the COVID infection rate should be 7 per 100,000 residents or less. 
  • All schools should have strict virus mitigation measures in place. 

To make the April 12 timetable, school district officials have little room for error when it comes to the vaccine schedule. 

School district employees started receiving Moderna and Pfizer vaccines on Saturday, but it can take a month or more to achieve full immunity with both vaccines. 

That means thousands of San Diego Unified employees will need to get their first shot this week in order to make it back to school by April 5, the date district officials want employees to come back to work. (Employees will have a week to prepare and receive training on new COVID protocols, before students return the following week of April 12.)

“We’re actually pretty optimistic,” said Barrera, the board president, about the timetable to return to in-person instruction. He brushed off the union’s pushback. “It is true that it’s the conditions that will trigger the reopening. But we’re optimistic that we’re gonna meet those conditions in order to meet those timelines.”

The district has roughly 15,000 employees. Somewhere in the ballpark of 10,000 will need to receive their first shots this week, or have the opportunity to do so, for the district to be able open schools on April 12, Barrera said. 

Complicating reopening further is a new plan from Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature that incentivizes schools to open TK-2 grade classrooms by April 1, no matter what tier they’re in. 

But Barrera said that plan will have little effect on San Diego Unified’s timetable. 

The state plan sets aside roughly $6.5 billion related to COVID-19. Roughly $4.5 billion will automatically be divvied up equally among California school districts to address learning loss. The other $2 billion will go to school districts that open up transitional kindergarten through second grade by April 1 or soon after. (Districts that don’t open by April 1 will lose roughly 1 percent of their share of the funding each day they don’t open, according to EdSource. If they don’t open by May 15, they will lose all access to their share of the $2 billion.)

San Diego Unified stands to gain or lose about $30 million in incentive funds. Regarding the $4.5 billion chunk of state money, San Diego Unified will receive roughly $75 million no matter when it opens, Barrera said.

The $2 billion in incentive funds do not require districts to fully reopen for transitional kindergarten through second grade. Districts will be allowed to open on a hybrid basis and provide differing ratios of online to in-person instruction. 

The state plan, which was discussed in an Assembly Budget Committee hearing Tuesday, does not currently require any minimum amount of in-person instruction, a committee staffer said. 

San Diego Unified plans to offer hybrid instruction when it reopens. But it has not settled on the details regarding in-person instruction time. The district is in the process of sending a survey to parents, asking whether they plan to return to in-person learning, which will help determine the details of the plan, Barrera said. 

But district officials have begun to think through other details.

It appears that teachers will be expected to continue teaching students online and in person – potentially at the same time. As the school year is coming to a close, it’s important to allow students to remain in the same online classes they have been in throughout the school year, Barrera said. Allowing some teachers to teach online, while others teach in person, would require those classes to be broken up, he said. 

Some schools, but not all, will provide after-school care. In many cases, outside organizations, such as the YMCA, run the after-school programs at given schools. Whether after-school care resumes will depend on the willingness of those organizations to come back to campus, Barrera said. 

Meals will be provided on campus. “Part of the struggle is you can’t just have students go to lunch areas in ways that you normally would,” Barrera said. “It’s more likely we’ll have to set up smaller lunch areas outside each class or have students eat at their desks.” The district will also continue providing meals to students who decide not to return for in-person learning. 

Classrooms will be outfitted with different COVID-19 protections, depending on the age of their ventilation systems. Classrooms with newer air conditioning systems will be outfitted with MERV 13 air filters, which help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Older classrooms will be outfitted with portable air filtration systems and air quality monitoring devices, Barrera said. 

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at

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