Less than half of San Diego Unified students show up to school on optional mental health day

More than half of students took Nov. 12 off during the San Diego Unified School District's optional mental health day.

Less than half of San Diego Unified students showed up to school Nov. 12 during a controversial optional mental health day off for students, according to preliminary attendance estimates from the school district.

One teacher reported that just 32 of 120 fourth-graders showed up at school, according to San Diego Unified’s teachers union.

At some schools, several staff members also were missing. At one high school, about a dozen teachers were out, with five substitutes to cover for them, the union said.

The district said 48.7 percent of its roughly 97,000 students attended school. It did not provide data about staff absences.

Overall, educators didn’t teach anything new during the day because they didn’t want students who stayed home to miss out on instruction, said Kisha Borden, president of the teachers union.

On Nov. 4, San Diego Unified interim Superintendent Lamont Jackson announced that he was planning for Nov. 12, the day after the Veterans Day holiday, to be a mental health day off for all students and staff.

But his announcement quickly drew backlash from some parents who said it was too last-minute for them to find child care for that day.

Reopen SDUSD, a community group that has been critical of the district, mocked Jackson’s idea in a Facebook post last week: “Dear parents, in the name of ‘mental health’ we at San Diego Unified School District are going to throw a schedule change at you last minute that might cause you tons of stress. Isn’t self-care wonderful?”

Jackson’s plan also generated speculation from staff and parents who suspected the district was using the mental health day as a cover for a potential severe staffing shortage because many staff members had made plans to take the day off.

A day after Jackson announced the mental health day, he changed his mind and said Nov. 12 would be an optional mental health day off for students.

At a school board meeting Nov. 9, he apologized for causing confusion and said he had recommended the mental health day “to focus on wellness for every person in our district.”

“Unfortunately, I recognize that these good intentions caused more harm than good,” Jackson said. “Our parents have a right to expect that our schools will be here for them when they need us.”

San Diego Unified is expected to take a small hit to its state funding because of the day’s absences because public schools receive funding based on student attendance.

Some teachers said they felt insulted that they were being called in for the day to essentially provide child care for families. Some said it wasn’t fair that students were given an optional mental health day off but staff members weren’t.

“Our educators were a little upset that their mental health was sort of secondary,” Borden said.

Borden said staff needed a mental health day off. San Diego Unified, like many other school systems, is enduring a nationwide hiring shortage that is causing more work and stress for staff members who are in schools, she said. ◆