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‘Our facilities are ready to go’: S.D. Unified lays out preparations for students’ eventual return to schools

San Diego Unified School District Chief Operations Officer Drew Rowlands
San Diego Unified School District Chief Operations Officer Drew Rowlands speaks at the Oct. 15 La Jolla Cluster Association meeting about ventilation plans in preparation to reopen schools.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

With preparations for improved ventilation and COVID-19 coronavirus testing, San Diego Unified School District representatives indicated that campuses are prepared to welcome students back following a pandemic-caused closure that so far has stretched seven months. However, a date for all students to return has not been set.

Plans for ventilation have been carried out after conversations with experts from UC San Diego about “how COVID works in our world,” SDUSD Chief Operations Officer Drew Rowlands said during the Oct. 15 meeting of the La Jolla Cluster Association.

Rowlands told representatives of the cluster, which is composed of La Jolla’s five public schools, that district leaders and the team of experts “have learned over time [that the virus] is transmitted by aerosols and smaller airborne particles. With that, ventilation takes on a higher interest.”

“The mask is your first line of defense,” Kimberly Prather, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said during an Oct. 5 news conference about the need for clearer public health guidelines to combat the coronavirus.

Classroom ventilation is key, Rowlands said, adding that the district has mapped out a plan to “have five air exchanges per hour. We want to turn over the air as much as we can. “

To achieve the desired number of hourly air exchanges, Rowlands said the district has directed elementary school teachers currently working with small groups of students in classrooms to “run the air conditioning system as it is, open doors and windows to bring in more fresh air and also [use] air purifiers. With those three pieces, we want to get to those five air exchanges per hour.”

Local elementary schools welcomed a small number of students back to campus Oct. 13, exactly seven months after they closed their doors to in-person instruction.

The district has obtained the purifiers, he said. “We [also] have gone through all our air conditioning systems across the district to make sure they’re operating correctly. Then we have changed out filters.”

Rowlands said the district is considering how the ventilation plan would be affected by a higher number of people in a room.

In concert with Kimberly Prather, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, “we have put monitoring systems into place” to check for particles “the size of a smoke particle, which coincidentally is somewhere around the same size of an aerosolized COVID particle,” Rowlands said.

The district also is monitoring carbon dioxide levels, which will indicate “the amount of fresh air coming into a room,” he said.

The monitoring systems are not a “COVID detector,” Rowlands said, “but they are a good proxy to tell if our ventilation systems are working well.”

Responding to a proposal previously submitted by Bird Rock Elementary School parent Kelsey Martin that would create outdoor classrooms, Rowlands said that while “ventilation and outdoor classrooms complement each other, we feel we have a good handle on ventilation. We haven’t pursued this concept of a broader rebuilding of [classrooms] in an outdoor setting.”

Citing resource limitations and “requirements beyond what one might imagine,” Rowlands said the district is only considering “informal use of outdoor space,” such as for breaks. “The district’s intent is not to build a larger complex of outdoor spaces.”

Martin said at the meeting that the ventilation tools and equipment seem to be replicating the fresh-air conditions of outdoor classrooms and asked again why outdoor classrooms aren’t being used. “What’s the problem?” she said.

Rowlands said “the devil’s in the details. We’re a school district of 180-plus school campuses. … There’s things you don’t think about,” like the need for electricity outside to charge laptops.

When asked why schools aren’t open if they’re ready, Rowlands said: “The district has said we’re going to follow the science very closely. We’re looking out for the safety of staff and students as we go through this. It’s not a matter of ‘Do we have the right supplies?’ It’s more about ‘Is the time right to do it?’”

“We feel our facilities are ready to go,” he said. “We’re taking advantage of this time to learn as things play out.”

Susan Barndollar, SDUSD program manager for nursing and wellness, addressed questions about plans and availability for coronavirus testing for district staff and students, saying San Diego County “has the capacity for testing every staff member and every student. The recommendation [for testing] is every two weeks.”

She said the county has the capacity to test anybody as often as needed, with four dedicated testing sites for school staff and 47 testing facilities for students.

Coronavirus testing is done through the county, Barndollar said, and is a PCR — or polymerase chain reaction — nasal swab, which she said is “the most accurate right now” and has a 48-hour turnaround time for results.

She recommended that those who are ill or showing symptoms of the virus be tested at their primary care doctor’s office if possible, since it would better facilitate symptom tracking, care and follow-up.

“There’s not one single fix to this,” Rowlands said. “Our first line of defense” is requiring face masks for everyone on campus, he said. “It’s hand-washing — it’s all of those things coming together to protect us.”

Other cluster news

SDUSD Area 5 Superintendent Mitzi Merino addressed declining student enrollment and the effect it could have on school staffing, as district funding is tied to enrollment.

“We expect minimal movement in terms of staffing,” Merino said, adding that the district only is filling staff positions this year in the few places where enrollment has gone up.

San Diego Unified School District Area 5 Superintendent Mitzi Merino gave the La Jolla Cluster Association details of plans to eventually reopen classrooms “as soon as it’s safe to do so.”

The entire district, which has 6,000 teachers, has only 23 open positions, she said.

SDUSD announced in September that its enrollment had dropped 2.4 percent below what was expected before the pandemic forced campuses to close in March.

Bird Rock Elementary reported earlier this month that it has lost 7.5 percent of its students this year.

The La Jolla Cluster Association next meets at 4:15 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 19. To learn more, visit lajollacluster.com.