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SDUSD plans to keep schools open Nov. 12, with optional mental health day, after parents resist initial idea

Torrey Pines Elementary School in La Jolla in the San Diego Unified School District
Torrey Pines Elementary in La Jolla and other schools in the San Diego Unified School District will be open Friday, Nov. 12, though students can opt to take a mental health day off, according to interim Superintendent Lamont Jackson.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The San Diego Unified School District says it plans to make school attendance optional on Friday, Nov. 12, allowing anyone who wants to take a mental health day to do so.

The announcement the evening of Nov. 5 came a day after interim Superintendent Lamont Jackson said district staff planned to ask the school board at its meeting Tuesday, Nov. 9, to approve Nov. 12 as a day off for all. The news prompted a wave of concern and criticism from parents, some of whom said trying to find affordable last-minute child care would do more harm than good for their family’s mental health.

“We’ve heard from many families that appreciated the opportunity to focus on mental health and wellness. Others expressed concerns about their ability to find adequate child care solutions on such short notice,” Jackson wrote in an email to parents Nov. 5. “After careful consideration, we have decided to keep our classrooms open next Friday. All students will be welcome at school on Nov. 12.”

For those who choose to take it, the day off will create a four-day weekend, as schools are already closed for Veterans Day on Thursday, Nov. 11. Any students who take the day will have their absence marked as excused, Jackson stated.

San Diego Unified officials described the recommended day off as an acknowledgement of the stress families and teachers have been under as they navigate the return to in-person learning amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“The last 20 months of the pandemic have challenged all of us in different ways,” Lamont wrote in the original announcement sent Nov. 4. “We have heard from many parents and students that their mental health has suffered. Staff has worked tirelessly to provide the best learning environment for all students while continuing to operate in the middle of a pandemic. That is why we have decided to take the extraordinary step of providing every family with additional recovery time next week.”

The original recommendation was to include finding “child care options for families who need support,” as well as making available a reduced version of the district’s school-day meal service.

But many parents balked at the notion of having to quickly change plans — and questioned the motivation behind the proposal.

“I trust you know that a great deal of the mental stress for parents and students during the pandemic has been the lack of in-person instruction,” Katie Kirby, a parent of a 6-year-old SDUSD student, wrote in a letter to the superintendent that she shared with The San Diego Union-Tribune. “To conclude that keeping kids out of school an additional day at this time to alleviate that stress is counterintuitive and nonsensical.

“If you want to assist us with our mental health, do everything you can to maintain a consistent in-person school schedule.”

Other parents took to social media to question the district’s stated reasons for the recommended day off.

One person posted what appeared to be an excerpt from a message from an SDUSD elementary school principal saying the biggest reason for the proposed day off was a districtwide staffing shortage caused by instructors calling out of work. The principal could not be reached for comment.

SDUSD’s updated announcement Nov. 5 did not address staff shortages.

Other people who posted about the issue on social media said unexpected days off, such as “snow days” for kids who live in cold climates, are a surprise treat that brings joy to students — a good thing for their mental health.

Kisha Borden, president of the San Diego Education Association teachers union, said returning to in-person learning has been a tough adjustment for both teachers and students.

“While we don’t have access to data on how many students or staff might be absent on the 12th, I do hear from educators and parents on a regular basis as to how challenging the beginning of this school year has been and how difficult it has been to return to anything like normal after the stress of last school year,” Borden said. ◆