San Diego Unified will offer in-person learning to students with learning loss and special needs

A kindergarten class at Central Elementary School in City Heights.
The San Diego Unified School District will allow students experiencing learning loss and special-education students with high needs to go to school for small in-person learning sessions as soon as late September.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

As many as 12,000 students could qualify for the optional, appointment-based sessions, which could start in late September.


San Diego Unified School District elementary students who are struggling academically or who are not meeting special-education goals could go to school for in-person help as soon as late September, the district announced Aug. 27.

The in-person sessions will be scheduled by appointment and will be available only to students in transitional kindergarten through fifth grade. They are meant to provide help for certain students who also will continue distance learning.

The sessions, which are optional for students and teachers, will be held on school campuses in groups of no more than six students for transitional kindergarten to third grade and no more than eight students for fourth and fifth grades.

The in-person sessions represent San Diego Unified’s first phase of reopening schools.

The teachers union, district leaders and school board members have said they want to reopen campuses slowly, serving the most needy students first, to ensure that the district’s coronavirus safety measures are working and to avoid having to close again due to outbreaks of the virus that causes COVID-19.

All participating students and staff will be required to wear masks, and they will stay six feet apart on campus and in classrooms. All in-person sessions will be held in classrooms that the district will outfit with better air filters to help prevent airborne transmission of the virus.

Teachers will identify students for in-person sessions who:

  • are experiencing learning loss
  • are below standards (had an average score of 1 or 2 in math or English on their spring report card)
  • are new to the district and do not make learning progress in the first few weeks of school
  • are special-education students who are not meeting their Individualized Education Program goals
  • are special-education students who need “intense support”
  • need an in-person special-education assessment

About 12,000 of the district’s 102,000 students would likely qualify for in-person sessions based on those criteria, said Richard Barrera, vice president of the San Diego Unified board.

The in-person sessions aren’t limited to academics. Other staff such as counselors and service providers such as speech-language pathologists could schedule sessions to work with students, said Kisha Borden, president of the San Diego Unified teachers union, which this week came to a tentative agreement with the district for the in-person sessions.

“We are working hard to strike the right balance between keeping everyone safe and making sure our students don’t fall further behind,” Borden said in a statement. “We hope that a safer and smaller-scale approach will become the standard road map for other districts around the state.”

Even though San Diego County has remained off the state’s COVID-19 watch list since last week and all schools here may be allowed to reopen Tuesday, Sept. 1, Barrera said the county’s COVID-19 situation is still worse than in other countries that have successfully reopened schools.

The county has a coronavirus case rate of 80 per 100,000 people and “no real capacity” to regularly test students and staff, Barrera said, while other countries have case rates below 10 per 100,000 and more and quicker testing, experts have said.

“We have to build out in phases, and we believe that by doing it slowly and carefully, we’re actually going to accelerate the timeline when all students can be back in school,” Barrera said. “We’re trying to avoid mistakes we’ve seen in other places around the country where they open up for everybody and the next thing you know, people are being tested for positive cases and the school is being shut down again.”

The district announced in August that it was adopting stricter reopening standards than the state’s guidelines for schools, including following all of the county’s COVID-19 goals. The county has continuously failed on one goal: the number of community outbreaks still exceeds seven over a seven-day period. There were 20 as of Aug. 26.

But Barrera said the district isn’t making the community outbreaks threshold a hard-and-fast rule for proceeding with reopening.

The district’s next phase of reopening — including what that looks like and when that happens — will depend on how successfully the first phase goes and what the coronavirus situation looks like in the county, including the case rate, community outbreaks and level of testing, Barrera said.

San Diego Unified’s announcement came two days after the state released new guidance that allows a wide swath of entities — including public and private schools, day camps and recreation programs — to supervise children and provide distance learning support, regardless of whether their county is on the state watch list and is prohibited from reopening schools. The guidance allows groups of up to 14 children in one room or group. ◆