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Group wants more COVID-19 safety measures as San Diego Unified prepares to start school year

La Jollan Dawniel Carlock Stewart, left, and UC San Diego professor Kimberly Prather called for universal masking at schools
La Jollan Dawniel Carlock Stewart (left) and UC San Diego professor Kimberly Prather called for universal masking at schools both indoors and out during an Aug. 17 news conference online.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

As the San Diego Unified School District prepares for a new school year to begin Monday, Aug. 30 — the first in which campuses will be open to students full time since the COVID-19 pandemic began — a group of parents and scientists is asking for more measures to help prevent the disease’s spread.

The group, co-founded by La Jolla parent Dawniel Carlock Stewart and called San Diegans for Safe Schools, is asking the district to require face-masking in crowded outdoor settings and activities; implement social distancing at lunch; provide universal coronavirus testing weekly at each district site; and extend the deadline to sign up for the district’s online-only Virtual Academy to Aug. 25 from the current deadline of Aug. 20.

The requests, which Stewart voiced at an Aug. 17 news conference online, followed an Aug. 16 letter that the group sent to the district, which operates five public schools in La Jolla.

Currently, the district is mandating universal masking indoors per California Department of Public Health guidelines, requiring school staff to be vaccinated or test weekly for the virus per Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Aug. 11 mandate and has upgraded air filters or placed portable purifiers at each site, district spokesman Mike Murad told the La Jolla Light.

The district “is doing the right things,” Stewart said at the news conference, “but what we’re asking is for San Diego Unified to keep focused on the best practices … so that we don’t lose sight of the progress we’ve made.”

She said the group is “sounding the alarm” as coronavirus cases across San Diego County increase due to the highly contagious Delta variant.

For the second year, local schools are welcoming students with protocols in place to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and promote excitement for a new academic year.

A China study of the Delta variant concluded that people infected with it had, on average, a viral load 1,000 times greater than those who had earlier versions of the virus, resulting in the variant being much more transmissible.

The COVID-19 vaccine still significantly decreases the chances of someone getting the illness. The coronavirus case rate for people who are not fully vaccinated is 41.1 per 100,000 residents in San Diego County; for the fully vaccinated, it is 4.5 per 100,000.

“We want to really make sure that we’re implementing the proper safety mitigation factors in our school system as we open up with our under-12 population,” which does not yet have access to the vaccine, Stewart said.

Kimberly Prather, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, reiterated previous conclusions that coronavirus particles travel like cigarette smoke.

Trust in science and how scientists can help preserve it through communication was among the topics of an Oct. 22 webinar focusing on issues surrounding the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

“If we want our schools to safely open and stay open, wearing masks is absolutely critical,” Prather said. “This virus travels in the air.”

“Delta makes school reopening extra challenging,” she added. “There’s 1,000 times more virus that is released into the air by infected individuals than the original virus.” That means, she said, that one can inhale the same amount of virus in one second that used to be inhaled in 15 minutes.

“There’s now evidence that this virus can also be spread in crowded outdoor environments,” Prather said. “Masks reduce risk of infection.”

“Kids get sick,” she added. “Most will not get symptoms, [but] brain and lung damage can be present for many months, well after the infection.”

Kaia Woods, an incoming fifth-grader in San Diego, pleaded with the district to heed San Diegans for Safe Schools’ requests, as she is not old enough to be vaccinated.

“Public health is never a private choice,” Kaia said.

Matthew Schneck, a teacher at SDUSD’s East Village High School, said there is a need for required coronavirus testing for staff and students. “Providing access is not enough,” he said, noting that the Los Angeles Unified School District is requiring testing of students and staff members.

Parent Adam Fischer said coronavirus case rates among children up to age 9 are nine times greater than a year ago.
Data analyst and San Diego Unified parent Adam Fischer said coronavirus case rates among children up to age 9 are nine times greater than a year ago.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Data analyst and SDUSD parent Adam Fischer said coronavirus case rates among children up to age 9 are nine times greater than a year ago.

Fischer also said “San Diego is now the largest California county without a universal indoor mask mandate or vaccination requirements. This is going to perpetuate the problem.”

Lisa Delano-Wood, an SDUSD parent and co-founder of San Diegans for Safe Schools, said, “We know that mitigation, when taken seriously and done right, can severely reduce community transmission case rates, hospitalizations and deaths.”

“To San Diego Unified leaders, please do the things that you know give us the best chance of both keeping our kids safe and keeping our schools open,” said Delano-Wood, who also is an associate professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego. “You’ve been a model district throughout this pandemic, but we really need a stronger Plan A, and any kind of Plan B” as schools prepare to open.

SDUSD board President Richard Barrera said the district agrees with the spirit of San Diegans for Safe Schools’ requests to keep students and staff safe and that he respects the group’s advocacy of science-based safety measures.

He said the district is gathering advice from UCSD experts about safety measures and levels of virus testing the district should implement. He also said the district is “very open” to extending the Virtual Academy deadline.

— San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Kristen Taketa contributed to this report.