La Jolla public schools battle to overcome rising coronavirus cases

La Jolla Elementary School is one of the La Jolla Cluster schools managing the current coronavirus surge.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Amid the regional surge of the COVID-19 coronavirus, the five public schools that make up the La Jolla Cluster in the San Diego Unified School District are managing rising case numbers by following protocols set by local health officials and relying on their school communities to weather the strain on resources.

The principals who responded to the La Jolla Light’s inquiries about how they’re handling the surge indicated they are keeping “safety the priority.”

The district released a letter to families stating that schools are using “every available option” to stay open, including assigning “non-school site staff to schools when we have a shortage” of teachers at a campus.

The letter says schools also may choose to move classrooms into a “learning lab” or outdoors or assign independent work.

“If after exhausting all available options, a principal — working with his/her district support team — determines it is unsafe to continue with in-person instruction due to severe staffing shortages, she/he may ask [that] a COVID Impact Day (similar to a heat day) be declared at their school,” the letter reads.

Torrey Pines Elementary School Principal Nona Richard said that “so far, those measures have not been needed [in La Jolla], even on the days with big staffing challenges.” She added that “none of us can predict ahead; it’s day by day.”

Reflecting San Diego city and county increases in coronavirus cases due to the highly contagious Omicron variant, La Jolla schools reported 18 active cases from Jan. 2-8. Twelve of those were staff members.

According to the SDUSD COVID-19 Dashboard, of the 18 cases, six were at Bird Rock Elementary School, two at La Jolla Elementary, six at La Jolla High School, three at Muirlands Middle School and one at Torrey Pines Elementary.

But Richard stated in a Jan. 11 letter to TPES parents that the school is “experiencing positive cases almost daily,” with about 16 percent of the students absent Jan. 10-11.

SDUSD spokesman Mike Murad told the Light that “with the recent surge, the district is experiencing a lag in the number of positive student tests reported.”

Students and staff are asked to stay home if they have any symptoms of illness; thus, an absence does not necessarily indicate a coronavirus case.

If a child or staff member does test positive for the virus, his or her return to school is determined by the San Diego County Office of Education’s four-page COVID-19 Decision Tree for schools, which is updated regularly.

The decision tree also is used to determine quarantine days for staff and students identified as close contacts of someone who tested positive — meaning they have been within six feet of the person for more than 15 minutes.

This is part of the San Diego County Office of Education's four-page COVID-19 Decision Tree.
(Courtesy of San Diego County Office of Education)

One parent at La Jolla Elementary School expressed concern after his child was asked to quarantine following a possible exposure during lunchtime, when children are allowed to remove their masks to eat. The parent — who is not being named so as to not identify his child — indicated he didn’t understand why the child was asked to stay home for eight days.

LJES Principal Stephanie Hasselbrink didn’t address the parent’s concerns to the Light but did say that she is “absolutely following” the decision tree and guiding parents through the flow charts “to explain their child’s options and possible return dates.”

SDUSD does not have a distancing requirement outside, and “when other mitigating factors are in place indoors, such as mask wearing and ventilation, physical distancing limits are no longer necessary,” according to its Back to School Guide and guidance from the California Department of Public Health.

“If there’s a gray area when it comes to close contact, the district errs on the side of quarantine,” Murad said.

Richard said that “with frequent updates to the decision tree, everyone does their best to make the right decision at any point in time. It’s appreciated when parents, teachers [and the] attendance and/or health office work as a team to keep safety the priority.”

Muirlands Middle School Principal Jeff Luna said his campus experienced understaffing in the days following the district’s Jan. 3 return from winter break, but “our teaching staff has volunteered to work during their prep periods to ensure a qualified and quality instructor covers all classes.”

“Throughout this pandemic, we have done a tremendous job of continuing the outstanding educational integrity our community has grown to expect from Muirlands,” he said.

La Jolla High School Principal Chuck Podhorsky echoed the other principals’ pride in their campus communities. “I continue to be inspired each day by our amazing Viking staff,” he said. “Not only do they bring their best each day for students, but their willingness to help make sure our classrooms are covered during challenging times is exceptional.”

He also expressed gratitude “for our regular substitute teachers who have been with us for years as they continue to make a difference for us each and every day.”

“It is hard right now,” Richard said. “But I am so proud of our community and district in keeping onsite learning available for our kids.”

Bird Rock Elementary School Principal Andi Frost did not respond to a request for comment. ◆