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SDUSD ‘eager’ to reopen but is focused on safety, trustee says, as several parents support continued closures

The La Jolla Cluster Association of public schools discussed campus reopening during its Feb. 18 meeting.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

“We are eager to open the schools,” San Diego Unified School District board member Mike McQuary told the La Jolla Cluster Association at its Feb. 18 meeting as many parents voice differing opinions on how soon that should happen.

The association is composed of parent and staff representatives from the five La Jolla public schools in San Diego Unified.

The district remains closed to regular in-person instruction as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with small groups of at-risk students invited to campuses for appointment-based learning or supervised learning labs.

San Diego Unified has said it will not reopen until coronavirus case rates in its school communities fall and vaccines are made available to all its school staff.

As the closures continue, some parents have expressed frustration that the district has not widened its reopening plans as many San Diego County schools have, and they have sought firm dates or criteria for reopening fully.

The day of the cluster meeting, about 100 La Jolla parents and students gathered outside Bird Rock Elementary School to protest the continued school closures.

La Jolla parents and students gather outside Bird Rock Elementary School to protest ongoing school closures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. (Includes video)

McQuary said “the district is committed to implementing the highest standards for safety for our students and staff as well as establishing the most optimal learning environment for our students.” He cited months-long efforts to outfit classrooms with proper ventilation, ensure technological devices for students, build turf or comfortable outdoor areas at all district schools and improve coronavirus testing capabilities at school sites.

“You can trust us,” McQuary said. “We are acting on the best information that we have for the best outcomes possible and to make the best decision. These are difficult, complex times. We are dealing with a difficult issue, but I want you to know that our hearts are with you.”

Once classrooms reopen fully, “we want parents to continue to have the option to continue virtual learning and we want our teachers and school staff to have accommodations that address their specific conditions,” he said. “This is a collaborative effort … we want to deal with the needs and desires of our community.”

Sharon Miller, president of the La Jolla High School PTSA, said “there are families ready to go back tomorrow and families that won’t feel safe enough to go back” for some time. She referred to the meeting’s chat box on Zoom, where many parents were arguing for and against full reopening of district schools.

Miller asked if there is a way for teachers and families who are willing to return to be able to under safety protocols within the cluster, given that “infection rates are different throughout San Diego,” while still providing online learning for those who aren’t comfortable with returning to the classroom.

Nona Richard, principal of Torrey Pines Elementary School, said the cluster does “not have the autonomy” to open independently of the district.

McQuary said the cluster “doesn’t allow for” Miller’s suggestion. The issue, he said, is that La Jolla schools aren’t attended only by people who live in the cluster. “Our teachers and school employees live in other parts of the district. They travel on buses and across multiple ZIP codes and they entertain and they shop in multiple areas outside the ZIP code.”

Several parents contacted the La Jolla Light during and after the meeting to voice their support for keeping schools closed until pandemic conditions improve.

“There are many of us who are not in favor of an unsafe reopening,” said Judith Lihosit, who attended the meeting and whose fifth-grader attends Torrey Pines Elementary. “We support the district’s efforts to help ensure that teachers have the opportunity to be fully vaccinated before returning to the classrooms and we are at a minimum out of the purple tier. Reopening now with high rates of transmissions and health experts expecting an April surge with the new variants would do nothing more than disrupt the distance learning that is occurring and put the lives of our teachers, kids and families at risk.”

Alexis Wiktorowicz, another parent from TPES who attended the meeting, said “we have a deadly pandemic that is still not under control. … We win by being patient, not by protesting or pretending COVID doesn’t spread through schoolchildren.”

“SDUSD has always had a plan for reopening,” Wiktorowicz said. “They also had and implemented plans to bring the truly in-need, vulnerable students to school. Finally, SDUSD developed and implemented a very decent online education which many parents and students are happy about.”

Maryana Bhak, who has two sons at La Jolla High, said after the meeting that “distance learning is not perfect, but it’s so much better than last spring, and we appreciate what the teachers and administrators are doing. It would be really stressful and disruptive to go back to the classrooms, have someone get COVID-19, and go back to distance learning. I believe our education system should reflect critical thinking, continue to support all students with the various resources they’ve developed, and model good decision making.”

Dawniel Stewart, a cluster parent who helped organize a “Science-Based School Reopening Forum” in November, said: “Public health is not a personal choice. The community caseload level determines across the board the safety of kids in schools and ultimately the community at large.

“It is true that online learning has been difficult for many students and families. However, it is also true that a majority of students are succeeding academically during online learning. … Our kids deserve a quality return to school. To me, that is not one with more quantity of days but one where we can hit a home run and ensure they stay in school once they return.”

The La Jolla Cluster Association next meets at 4:15 p.m. Thursday, March 18. Learn more at lajollacluster.com.