San Diego Unified may not reopen classrooms for months under stricter standards, officials say

Superintendent Cindy Marten, board Vice President Richard Barrera, Dr. Howard Taras, SDEA President Kisha Borden
Clockwise from top left, San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten, board Vice President Richard Barrera, San Diego Education Association President Kisha Borden and district physician Dr. Howard Taras appear in an Aug. 10 news conference via Zoom.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

After consulting with UCSD experts, the school district is setting higher standards for reopening than the state requires.


Most San Diego Unified families will likely have to wait months before their children will be able to return to campus from coronavirus-driven closures, according to new, stricter reopening standards announced by the state’s second-largest school district Aug. 10.

“It will be a matter of months — not weeks, not days — that we can anticipate the majority of our students to be working at home in online learning,” San Diego Unified board Vice President Richard Barrera said during a news conference via Zoom.

Schools are facing pressure to reopen from parents who are frustrated with distance learning and need child care, as well as from advocates for vulnerable children who depend on in-person school for their academic, mental and physical health.

But the district is being more cautious in reopening than others after a panel of UC San Diego science and health experts recommended in a report this week that the district adopt more-stringent reopening standards than those being enforced by the state.

“We’ve seen the mistakes that have been made in other places with other venues where they suddenly open and then had to re-close because they made an arbitrary decision that wasn’t really based on science,” board President John Lee Evans said.

When San Diego Unified does reopen classrooms, it should start small by serving the neediest students in elementary schools only, said district in-house physician Dr. Howard Taras. Class sizes should shrink to less than a quarter of a typical classroom‘s capacity, he said.

Most of the UC San Diego experts whom the district consulted said the state’s criteria for reopening schools is not good enough, Taras said.

Under the state’s criteria, San Diego County would have to lower its coronavirus case rate to 100 or fewer cases per 100,000 people and keep it there for two consecutive weeks in order for all public and private schools to be allowed to reopen. As of Aug. 10 the case rate was 105.4.

Under that requirement alone, it would be at least another a month before schools in the county could reopen, according to county projections. That’s because it would take at least two weeks of 240 or fewer daily cases to lower the case rate to 100, according to a county health department presentation last week.

On Aug. 10 the county reported fewer than 240 new cases for the first time since June 22.

Not only will San Diego Unified follow the 100-case rate requirement, but it also won’t reopen until San Diego County is meeting its “trigger” criteria, officials said. That includes a requirement that there be fewer than seven community outbreaks over a week-long period. As of Aug. 10 there were 24.

Barrera said the district is “extremely aware and extremely concerned” about the consequences of students not being at school for such a long time.

But “what we need to be doing as a school district is our part to ... slow down the spread of this virus so that, in fact, we can return our students to school, where they need to be,” Barrera said. “Even though we’re setting very high standards … they are nowhere near the conditions, in terms of spread of the virus, that are in place in many countries that have begun to bring students back to school.”

Barrera was referring to the higher capacities for COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and other pandemic measures in other countries.

In the meantime, Evans said, the district needs to find a way to provide in-person services to vulnerable students, such as homeless children.

“There will be more to come on that this week when we sort through ways to actually do it,” Evans said.

Taras said one big revelation in the UCSD expert panel’s findings is that improving air circulation and preventing airborne COVID-19 spread is more important than sanitizing surfaces.

“Where we’re gonna be putting a lot of our resources and our very stringent rules is in changing what anybody ... is going to be breathing when they come onto a school site,” Taras said. “That means masks ... are more critical now than we’d ever thought before.”

When students return to campuses, San Diego Unified will require masks for all students and staff, not just staff and students in third grade and above, as the state is requiring. Students with certain physical, medical or behavioral conditions or who are developmentally under the age of 2 wouldn’t be required to wear a mask.

The district also says it will outfit classrooms that don’t have natural ventilation or a so-called MERV 13 filter with portable air cleaners. UCSD experts recommended MERV 13 filters in schools, but many district classrooms have MERV 8 filters, according to the report.

Higher MERV ratings mean better filtration of air pollutants.

It’s unclear whether the district will be financially able to carry out all of its new reopening standards, including improving air ventilation. The district has been calling for federal aid for reopening, but national leaders have stalled on providing new federal COVID-19 relief to schools since the passage of the CARES Act in March.

“We’re gonna do the best we can with whatever money we have, but we’re also realistic. If there’s not enough money to provide for all of these costs, then we’re gonna be limited with what we can do,” Evans said.

Many parents have been calling for classes to be held outdoors, which they say should not cost the district money. Taras said in the district report that teaching outdoors or in well-ventilated rooms “should be explored” as “temporary or permanent” alternatives to teaching in classrooms.

Several people watching the district’s news conference on Facebook said they wanted more answers about how distance learning will work. The new school year begins Aug. 31 for San Diego Unified.

“What are working parents supposed to do if they can’t afford to pay for some type of child care?” one Facebook user asked. Another wrote: “I’m still waiting for class assignments and supply lists!”

Late last month, the district announced that teachers will provide a six-hour school day after hearing comments from parents that they wanted more-rigorous and consistent distance learning for their children.