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San Diego Unified’s Phase 2 school reopening may happen in January

San Diego Unified board President John Lee Evans speaks about the timeline for Phase 2 of the district's reopening.
San Diego Unified School District board President John Lee Evans speaks at a news conference Oct. 27 about the timeline for Phase 2 of the district’s reopening of classrooms.
(Kristen Taketa / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The earliest all elementary school students could return to campuses is Jan. 4. For middle and high school students, it’s Jan. 25.

The earliest that all San Diego Unified School District students are likely to return to campuses is January, after the winter break, district officials announced Oct. 27.

The earliest that elementary school students will be allowed to return is Jan. 4, and the earliest that middle and high school students could return is Jan. 25. This is what is being called the district’s Phase 2 of reopening from coronavirus-related campus closures.

During Phase 2, students will be learning in person only part of the time.

Elementary students will attend school in person for a half day four days a week, while middle and high school students will attend two days a week for four hours a day.

During the other hours, students will continue distance learning.

Any parents will be able to keep their children home in distance learning if they wish, officials said.

The Phase 2 plan is dependent on San Diego County staying out of the purple tier, the most restrictive in the state’s coronavirus reopening system, said board Vice President Richard Barrera. The district will not move to Phase 2 if the county is in the purple tier.

San Diego County currently is in red, the second-lowest tier, and has been on the brink of slipping into purple. Health officials said Oct. 27 that the county was saved again from falling into the purple tier because of high coronavirus testing levels, although its raw case rate for the virus was high enough to be in the purple tier.

Currently, San Diego Unified is in Phase 1 of reopening, in which some elementary students who are experiencing learning loss or who have special needs meet teachers on campus for limited in-person support sessions. Some of the voluntary sessions are as short as a half hour or less.

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.

About 4,000 students at more than 100 schools are participating in Phase 1, out of the district’s roughly 100,000 students. So far there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus transmission and no outbreaks at Phase 1 schools, Superintendent Cindy Marten said.

If the county does fall to the purple tier, San Diego Unified will not cancel Phase 1, board President John Lee Evans said.

The district has said it will expand Phase 1 to include middle and high school students, but officials did not give a date for the expansion. That still needs to be negotiated with labor unions, Evans said, though he hopes it will happen soon.

The district also has not yet announced dates for Phases 3 and 4 of reopening, because Phase 4 means full-time in-person learning and “there’s much more that needs to be done,” such as figuring out a coronavirus testing program, Evans said.

Reopening and testing

With an anticipated January start date, San Diego Unified likely will be one of last school districts in the county to reopen for in-person instruction. Most of the county’s 42 school districts have reopened for at least part-time instruction.

San Diego Unified is following the lead of school districts in South County, where coronavirus levels are highest. Sweetwater Union High, Chula Vista Elementary, San Ysidro and South Bay Union are among districts that have announced they will stay closed to in-person instruction for the rest of 2020.

Some school districts have reported a few cases of the virus, and experts and officials say it’s inevitable that it will show up at schools. They say what matters is keeping it from spreading further once students or staff arrive.

County health officials have not been regularly publicizing coronavirus case data for K-12 schools, so it’s unknown to what extent it is surfacing in area schools.

In a county update this week, health officials reported a 6.6 percent increase in cases among children 9 and younger, which was twice the rate of increase for the county overall. There were a total of 2,016 cases in that age range from Oct. 19 to 25.

When asked if the small number of cases reported by districts so far means San Diego Unified is being overly cautious in delaying reopening — as some parents have argued — Barrera said it’s “way too early” to make claims about the virus’ spread within schools.

Barrera said that until school districts are testing all students and staff members on a regular basis, he doesn’t believe schools can say there is little to no coronavirus spread happening at schools, since many people can spread the virus without showing symptoms.

“I don’t think there’s a single district in this county — or, frankly, in this country — that can make the claim right now that they know that if somebody comes onto one of their campuses with the virus that they are able to prevent the spread, because we don’t have the testing that allows us to make that claim,” Barrera said.

A January start date for Phase 2 gives the district more time to try to establish a regular coronavirus testing program for students and staff who are not symptomatic. The district recently asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to give San Diego Unified 10,000 daily coronavirus tests to meet that goal, but it’s unknown whether the state will grant the request.

Several parents say they are desperate to return their children to school because their children are not learning well at home and are suffering socially.

Meanwhile, other parents have been happy with the district’s slow reopening pace, saying they are worried about the coronavirus spreading in schools and about their families’ safety. ◆