Who’s learning on campus and who isn’t? Data show private-public school divide in San Diego County

A student at the private San Diego French-American School in La Jolla undergoes a temperature screening.
A student at the private San Diego French-American School in La Jolla undergoes temperature screening as part of the school’s in-person reopening, which began Aug. 28.

Private school students in San Diego County are much more likely than public school students to be attending school in person during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new data published by the San Diego County Office of Education.

Out of 462,752 public and private school students reporting, about two-thirds are learning online only while 6 percent are attending school in person full time. The remainder are in hybrid learning, in which students learn in person part time and online part time.

The county data show that 148,435 students are attending school in person to some degree and 30,666 school staff members are working onsite.

The rates of in-person vs. online learning become more skewed when looking at the type of school.

About 84 percent of private school students are attending school in person to some degree, compared with 32 percent of district public school students and 16 percent of charter school students. Charter schools are public schools run independently of school districts.

In the San Diego Unified School District, about 3,000 students — or 3 percent of the district’s total enrollment — are going to campuses for partial in-person services as part of Phase 1 of the district’s reopening plan. District officials previously said up to 12,000 elementary students would qualify for Phase 1 because they have high needs.

The district, which includes five schools in La Jolla, does not intend to reopen campuses for other students until January at the earliest.

Meanwhile, eight private schools in La Jolla reopened for in-person instruction in August or September.

It’s a new school year across San Diego County, and schools in La Jolla are resuming classes after summer vacation. But they’re not all doing it the same way.

But not all students who are distance learning are staying home because their school is closed. Schools that have reopened are offering families the choice to stay in distance learning if they wish. Many families are choosing to keep their kids home; the percentages vary significantly by school and district.

The statistics do not represent all schools in the county. The Sweetwater Union High School District and 100 of the county’s 221 private schools did not report even though the county health order required the data by Nov. 9. Some districts did not report data for all their schools.

The information provides the first comprehensive picture of K-12 school reopenings in the 11 weeks since schools were allowed to reopen. Until this month, no such information was being collected from public or private schools countywide.

At least 561 schools have reopened to some students, while at least 282 reported they had not yet reopened for any students. Only three of those 282 closed schools are private.

The county’s fall Nov. 10 to the purple tier, the most restrictive level of the state’s COVID-19 monitoring system, means schools that have not reopened must remain closed for in-person instruction. Elementary schools can apply for a county waiver to reopen while the county is in the purple tier.

Schools already open for in-person instruction do not have to close.

It will take until at least mid-December for the county to exit and stay out of the purple tier long enough to reopen closed schools, depending on how long it takes the county to improve its coronavirus case rates.

Private advantage

While private school students had the highest rates of in-person learning among K-12 students, they make up 5 percent of the students represented in the data.

Several private school leaders have said they were determined to reopen as soon as possible, largely because reopening was what their parents wanted.

Private school leaders have said it was easier for them to reopen because their schools are autonomous and generally smaller than public schools, allowing greater flexibility and speed to work out logistics.

Meanwhile, many public school districts have taken longer to coordinate reopening dozens of schools serving tens of thousands of students and staff members.

Leaders of large districts have tended to be more cautious and said they have to worry about the potential of the virus spreading to a larger community if they reopen. A single private or charter school likely would have less community impact.

What’s more, three of the four school districts that enroll the most students in San Diego County — San Diego Unified, Sweetwater Union High School District and Chula Vista Elementary School District — include areas where coronavirus rates are disproportionately high.

Unlike district schools, private schools and most charter schools do not have employee unions they must negotiate with before reopening campuses. Some unions, which have older members and members with preexisting medical conditions, are pushing school districts to implement extensive safety precautions before reopening.

Charter schools likely have a lower percentage of students learning in person because several charter schools are geared toward online learning, home school or independent study.

All public and private schools are required by the county’s health order to report reopening data by the second and fourth Mondays of every month. The county education office will publish the data the following day.

You can look up your school in the county education office’s reopening data dashboard.

— Kristen Taketa writes for The San Diego Union-Tribune. La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.