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La Jolla schools in San Diego Unified report big attendance drops on district’s optional mental health day

Students go to Muirlands Middle School in La Jolla earlier this school year.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

La Jolla campuses in the San Diego Unified School District reported steep drops in attendance Nov. 12 during the district’s optional mental health day off for students, echoing figures districtwide.

Jeff Luna, principal of Muirlands Middle School, told the La Jolla Light that only 122 of the 729 students were present, or 16.7 percent.

La Jolla Elementary School Principal Stephanie Hasselbrink said 201 of the 442 students (45.5 percent) attended.

At Torrey Pines Elementary School, Principal Nona Richard said there were 237 excused absences, or 50.7 percent of students. Those taking advantage of the optional day off were asked to use “district-approved mental health day” as the reason for their absence.

Principals Chuck Podhorsky of La Jolla High School and Andi Frost of Bird Rock Elementary School did not respond to requests for information.

Districtwide, San Diego Unified estimated that 48.7 percent of its roughly 97,000 students showed up to school that day.

District officials described the day off as an acknowledgement of the stress of navigating the return to in-person learning amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

At some SDUSD campuses, several staff members also were missing. At one high school, about a dozen teachers were out, with five substitutes to cover for them, according to San Diego Unified’s teachers union.

The district 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.

Hasselbrink agreed, saying: “Knowing that a large number of our students would stay home from school on Friday, our teachers didn’t plan to teach new content that day. Many teachers planned mindfulness/yoga/physical activities ... community-building events, pajama day and other fun and/or wellness-related activities for their students.”

“I heard that some students who stayed out of school got vaccinated, rested, enjoyed extra time with family or took a brief trip away,” Hasselbrink added.

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.

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 for all, he changed his mind and said Nov. 12 would be an optional 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.”

Richard said the optional students’ day off “went very smoothly for all staff and students” at Torrey Pines Elementary. “The flexibility of the day ensured everyone’s needs were met.”

Luna said he was “appreciative that our students and their families had the option to take a mental health day. Our students and staff that were on campus had a wonderful day.”

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