Eugene Brucker Education Center in University Heights on Oct. 24, 2022.
San Diego Unified offices in University Heights on Oct. 24, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

For many workers, the pandemic upended the concept of the commute. Instead of getting in their cars and sitting in traffic to make it to the office, they went from their bed to their couch or dining room table. They curated office spaces in the corner of their living room, purchased a computer monitor for their laptop and maybe even upgraded their Wi-Fi. 

That was especially true at San Diego Unified. While the district’s teachers returned to in-person instruction nearly two years ago after a grueling negotiation process, many San Diego Unified employees, especially in its central office, continued to work remotely.

Those workers included staff in the district’s technical and professional services departments like communications and IT, among others. But two months ago, district officials announced they expected all central office staff would return to in-person work by mid-August. District officials could not provide Voice of San Diego an estimate of how many employees this policy would affect.   

The move came in concert with businesses across the country urging their employees to return to the office. But it blindsided district staff who said that while they understood the remote work policy was a pilot program, the district’s leadership had consistently assured them a permanent policy was in the works.

They say the decision defied a commitment the district gave them and was made despite surveys that showed many valued the program. Staff’s frustrations seem to echo other district decisions that have sparked pushback – from the abrupt closing of iHigh virtual academy that took parents and teachers by surprise, to the quiet purge of area superintendents that shocked many of the stakeholders who worked with them.  


In a July 18 letter to staff, district leaders wrote “While we have explored a permanent remote work policy, San Diego Unified has not adopted such a policy.” In the letter, officials wrote they expected all staff to be working from the office again by Aug. 16. “We believe that being in person creates a space for meaningful connection, collaboration, and a sense of belonging and togetherness among teams,” they wrote. 

Despite the district’s remote pilot program having officially ended at the end of July 2022, many central office staff had continued to work remotely under the impression that the district would roll out a new hybrid policy soon. So, the call back to the office, labeled a final notice, took many by surprise. 

The Administrators Association of San Diego City Schools, which represents San Diego Unified’s classified and certificated supervisors, wrote in a response that it had received a draft of a new hybrid work policy nearly a year earlier. It had requested what it called “minor changes” but had never heard back from the district. 

“AASD does not support or agree with the district decision to force … members to return to the district work place,” the letter read. 

The union wrote that the district hired some employees with the understanding that their position would be remote permanently. Others had purchased homes outside the district boundaries under the impression that remote work was permanent. 

The AASD’s letter proposed changes to the district’s return-to-office policy. These included a delayed return to office timeline, Wi-Fi upgrades to district facilities and installation of air conditioning in offices that lacked the amenity. They also requested employees have a way to complain if their workplace were to have vermin, bugs like fleas or mold. AASD claimed in the letter that under the remote work pilot program, employees had been required to purchase everything from ergonomic furniture to fire extinguishers. The union requested that the district reimburse staff being expected to return to the office for those purchases. 

A Sept. 11 email to district leaders cosigned by nearly 300 San Diego Unified employees urged San Diego Unified to reconsider its axing of the remote work program. 

“The Central Office Staff is writing to remind you of a commitment. A commitment that the district made to staff and to the environment … of a remote/hybrid work policy,” the email read. 

A survey completed by hundreds of staff and managers indicated support for remote work options. Of the 89 managers surveyed, 74 reported that they’d had generally positive experiences with remote work with many saying it improved morale, increased productivity, efficiency and flexibility, aided employees’ work-life balance and that work quality was not impacted. 

“It was one of the most effective ways I’ve seen to reward/incentivize productivity,” one manager wrote.  

Those who opposed or critiqued the program wrote that it created divisions in staff and that in-office time needed to be better coordinated. 

In the Sept. 11 email, staff argued that the remote work program improved employee health and wellness, reduced demand for district office space and optimized the use of district facilities and enhanced the opportunities and working experience of those with mobility restrictions.  

The letter also underlined another frustration employees had with remote work’s nixing: At the same time the district was committing itself to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, it was demanding that hundreds of workers begin commuting again. An inventory of the district’s 2015 greenhouse gas emissions showed that 26 percent of its emissions footprint came from employees traveling to and from school and even listed reducing staff commutes as a strategy to reduce its overall greenhouse gas output. 

In a Sept. 25 response San Diego Unified’s Deputy Superintendent of Operations, Drew Rowlands wrote that while the district has formalized a temporary remote work program with the AASD, it wasn’t moving forward with a full remote work program because it “produces a lack of team cohesion, silos, and a disconnect among staff.” 

“In a post-pandemic context, a regular remote work schedule is not possible, especially when nearly all staff are working from their assigned location – whether in the classroom or at the office,” Rowlands wrote. 

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @jakobmcwhinney. Subscribe...

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  1. San Diego Unified lied to staff and only cares about the environment when it means getting grant money. They’ll spend millions on electric buses and solar panels, but won’t take the free option to help the environment. Hypocrites and liars!

  2. The district could help reduce gas emissions immediately by implementing a remote/hybrid work policy now, as other school districts and public agencies have done.

  3. These lazy union employees are upset because they finally have to go to work like grown-ups? They should all be outsourced anyway. Dysfunctional school district…but I repeat myself.

    1. Exactly!! Thank you!!! If they don’t want to go back to work, then quit! There are plenty of other people searching for jobs that would be more than happy to go in to the office and work!

  4. If City Schools is considering Hybrid stay at home work, it makes you wonder why the taxpayers had to borrow bond money to buy a new Ed Center. It looks like there are some real savings available here.

  5. San Diego Unified’s Deputy Superintendent of Operations, Drew Rowlands wrote that while the district has formalized a temporary remote work program with the AASD, it wasn’t moving forward with a full remote work program because it “produces a lack of team cohesion, silos, and a disconnect among staff.”

    This sounds like a management problem, not a remote-work problem. For years I worked in organizations -in person- where we discussed the issues of people working in silos, etc. Now that I work remotely, I feel more connected to my co-workers than ever. We check in more, communicate better, and everyone is happier with the life balance.

  6. Another article criticizing San Diego Unified bought and paid for by a charter school. Money they could be spending on students goes for a regular feature knocking their direct competition. Hmmm.

  7. The Ed Center is an unsafe work environment. There is no air conditioning (except in the Superintendent’s office) and there is no heating either. It’s freezing in the winter and up to 90 degrees in parts of the building during the summer. The building also has rats and insects.

  8. I’m sad to read this article. As a person who observes my carbon footprint, this decision is a RIDICULOUS move by the school district! Having some employees return physically when they’re perfectly capable of doing their job remotely, doesn’t make sense. Why did the district promise work remotely to them?

    I have two items for the San Diego Unified School District Superintendent, Dr. Lamont A. Jackson:
    1. Be more considerate of our CARBON FOOTPRINT. Care about climate change and try to help our Earth; and
    2. Why are you silent in all of this with your $375,000 annual salary not including benefits or other pay? REALLY?

  9. There are almost 300 school districts in California that have some kind of remote work policy. In addition to that, most San Diego public agencies have remote/hybrid programs to reduce emissions. Why is SDUSD still in the pollution stone age?

  10. Get your lazy a**es back to work!!! No wonder I can never reach anyone by phone or my emails go unanswered! Everyone supposedly working from home but are actually at Disneyland or Sea World on company time! If you don’t want to go back, then quit! There are P L E N T Y of people looking for jobs that would be more than happy to go into the office to work! Forget the “team cohesion and a disconnect among staff” b.s.! What about actually BEING THERE for students and parents!!! Enough of this!!!

    1. This is not a matter of going back to work. People have in fact been working from there homes. This includes working hours outside the normal 8 hour shift. Keep in mind that there are numerous departments within the district that are not school sites. These departments DO NOT have ANY contact with the public.

  11. My wife has an office job and her employer allows her to work remotely 4 days a week. I’m in construction. The nature of my job doesn’t allow me to work remotely. She works hard at her job and I’m happy she isn’t stuck in a tiny windowless cubicle all day. I’m also happy for myself because more people working remotely means fewer people on the road and an easier and faster commute for me. Personally, I wish everyone that could work remotely would, then I won’t spend an hour sitting in traffic trying to get home.

  12. I think some of the commenters are a little confused… To clarify, the issue of a hybrid program is for Central Office Staff. That means the people working out of the Ed Center. The majority of those people do NOT interact with the public. They work in departments like Accounting, IT, Programing, Finance, Budget, HR, Procurement, Payroll, etc. These are behind the scenes people and most will never interact with a student or parent during their entire career.

    Currently the School District has plans to redevelop a property they purchased and it will eventually become the new Ed Center. The estimated cost for this project is somewhere between $150,000,000.00 – $200,000,000.00. The plans call for renovating the current building on the property, building an additional connected three story building, a six story parking garage, a gym and a cafeteria. Rather than wasting this much taxpayer money on people who don’t need to be there all the time, I’d rather see these funds directed to schools for the enjoyment of students, parents and teachers.

  13. I know from a personal friend that the Return to the Office Policy, is disappointing and has caused unnecessary stress to many employees. Let the employees work remotely, they have proven to be effective and loyal. In this day and age community building can be built on line and can be much more efficient. I also know many of the work buildings were not in the best condition.

  14. To clarify, central office staff is asking for a hybrid work policy, not a remote work policy. Most central office staff monitor emails and do not deal with external community members. Most go to school sites when the need is there.

    One problem is that managers know who their good employees and bad employees are, but are not being trusted by the Superintendent and Deputy Superintendent to manage.

    Another problem is the new Deputy Superintendent and Senior Executive Director of staff took away office spaces to build themselves master suites for offices, so employees lost office spaces. They also stirred up asbestos during the process.

    The Supt. also added corn hole, mini golf, jenga, and plastic axe throwing games, which are very loud and distracting when leaders play with them all day.

    The morale is also bad because the Superintendent has his clique who he gives everything to: secret raises, custom-made jackets, etc.

    Hard-working staff would like to be heard and continue to be ignored.

  15. SDUSD is an absolute joke!! The hypicryon display with this is egregious. They claim to care about enviro causes and reducing carbon emissions. But they can’t move into the 21st century to allow flex telework??

    The crazy part is I think they really DO care about the green energy causes they espouse, but they’re too stupid to realize they’re willfully killing our planet with stuff like this. And with all the cross-citu driving parents have to make for their school choice program.

    Richard Barera, Cody Peterson, elected officials you should be ashamed. big step back for clean air and our environment

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