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‘Vaccination and testing are essential’: San Diego Unified official addresses lack of school reopening date

A sign seen Jan. 20 outside La Jolla Elementary School echoes some parents' concerns.
A sign seen Jan. 20 outside La Jolla Elementary School echoes some parents’ concerns that San Diego Unified schools remain mostly closed to in-person instruction.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Addressing the San Diego Unified School District’s decision this month to hold off on setting a date to reopen campuses, a district official spoke during the La Jolla Cluster Association’s Jan. 21 meeting about the need for coronavirus testing, vaccinations and a lower rate of infections before such a date can be identified.

San Diego Unified schools have been closed to in-person instruction since March because of the pandemic, except for limited support for eligible students who are struggling.

Andrew Sharp, chief public information officer for SDUSD, told the cluster, which is made up of the five La Jolla schools in the district, that “we could not reopen at this point based on the spread of the virus. The [county’s] positivity rate … would have to get below 28 [per 100,000 residents] … for schools to be able to take the next step as far as reopening.”

The state’s newest guidelines changed the required case rate to below 25 per 100,000 residents. San Diego County’s adjusted case rate as of the weekly report Jan. 19 is 60.6 per 100,000.

San Diego Unified School District officials again held off on setting a potential date for reopening schools because COVID-19 cases and deaths continue their relentless growth.

Sharp was unable to answer parents’ questions about whether meeting the required positivity rate would definitively trigger a reopening date, saying it also depends on whether “everybody is vaccinated and we have testing on all of our campuses.”

La Jolla High School Parent Teacher Association President Sharon Miller said “all anybody cares about is, are we getting back to school and when are we getting back to school and who’s going to help with the transition?”

Her comments elicited nods from some parents attending the online meeting.

“The only thing parents are concerned about ... is if back to school is a reality at this point and if not, say so,” Miller said. “What’s the reality for the fall, because people are trying to make decisions about their child’s education.”

Sharp said “vaccination and testing are essential to our being able to open and operate safely. We’ve not said that either one is a requirement to reopen, but … testing is going to be critical to our ability to continue operating safely for some time.”

The district is focusing on testing, Sharp said, as “there’s still no vaccine available for children. The best advice we’re getting from experts is that the COVID virus is going to be in our community for a while, so we think testing is going to be pretty critical for the next couple of months, if not longer.”

Sharp said the district has “not said that testing is mandatory. We think it’s essential; our hope is that as people get more comfortable with it, compliance will continue to go up and people will be more comfortable getting tested when they walk on campus.”

Vaccinations, when available, also will not be mandated by the district. “It’s typically the state that says people are required to get a particular vaccine,” Sharp said. “We will comply with whatever the requirement is from the state.”

He said the district is “working to get our teachers and every support person that we need to keep the schools open vaccinated as quickly as possible.” He said he is unsure of the timeline for that, but “we are in constant communication with the county health department as well as the state.”

Sharp said the increasing availability of vaccines will either signal to people “that they can let their guard down, stop wearing masks … that would lead to an increase in cases, or it could be ... that enough people get vaccinated quickly and the positive case rate drops that way.”

Cluster parent Jenn Beverage said the uncertainty and absence of a reopening date “is the hardest thing.”

Sharp replied that “it’s everybody’s frustration. We would like to have dates as well.”

SDUSD, the second-largest school district in California, is “fundamentally different from a much smaller district,” Sharp said, with teachers and students often attending or working from different areas. “That’s one of the reasons we wanted to have our own set of requirements that we felt like we could live with and are up to the task of keeping people safe.”

The Cluster Association next meets at 4:15 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 18. For more information, visit lajollacluster.com.