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Mental health, staffing, later start times: Here’s what Pacific Beach, other San Diego schools face this year

Dozens of teen students wearing backpacks stream toward a school building against a cloudy morning sky.
Students head to the first day of school at the Logan Memorial Education Campus on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, in San Diego.
(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Students at San Diego Unified started a new school year on Monday, their first of the pandemic to begin with no districtwide mask mandate

The new school year kicked off Monday for San Diego Unified School District’s roughly 95,000 students as schools still grapple with problems posed by the pandemic, from their own struggles to hire enough staff to students’ struggles with their mental health.

It’s the second school year of full-time, in-person learning after the closures, and now, even the last two years’ strict pandemic rules, like the statewide school mask mandate and COVID-19 exposure quarantine requirements, are a thing of the past.

But the many challenges the pandemic exacerbated are far from gone.

Schools are still working to help students recover from the academic and emotional toll of the closures and other traumas. At the same time, districts like San Diego Unified have seen not only declining enrollment but also higher student absenteeism.

A man in a suit is seen in between two onlookers' blurred heads.
Lamont Jackson, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, speaks during the first day of school.
(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego Unified Superintendent Lamont Jackson said the district’s biggest priorities this year will be improving students’ mental health, expanding transitional kindergarten, extending students’ learning time via extracurriculars and summer school, honing standards-based learning and boosting staffing levels and professional development.

“The feelings from educators are just very excited. It’s certainly a different year than we’ve experienced over the past two years,” Jackson said.

Some other new developments this year: A brand new school in Mission Valley, Nipaquay Elementary, opened its doors for students up until second grade.

And public school students statewide now get two free school meals a day, regardless of their family income, thanks to a new state law. Previously the state guaranteed free meals only to student from low-income families.

Here are some other big issues that schools in San Diego Unified and around the county are tackling this year.

Mental health

San Diego Unified’s biggest priority this year will be addressing students’ mental health, Jackson said.

Last year, about 44 percent of high school students nationwide reported in a survey that they felt persistently sad or hopeless, up from 37 percent in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

San Diego Unified says it has a three-year, $30 million plan to expand student mental health services. There is now a mental health clinician at every middle and high school, and schools get a counselor for more days per week than they used to, Jackson said.

“We all have our needs socially, emotionally, physically and mentally, and we need to be able to have the ability to really work with children to meet their needs on that level from a health and safety perspective,” Jackson said.

Staffing

Staffing has always been a challenge for public schools, but schools were especially hard-pressed to find enough staff last school year, when a winter COVID surge caused high numbers of staff absences amid a competitive labor market.

San Diego Unified officials said they can’t provide details on how many staff they’re short for this new school year until a few weeks from now, once they have a better idea of exact enrollment numbers.

The district said it added dozens of new elementary teaching positions and boosted counselor staffing last school year. But it has struggled to hire enough nurses and special education teachers, and in June, it started offering $10,000 hiring incentives to recruit them.

San Diego Unified is also working on “growing its own” educators by recruiting high school students and special education aides to become teachers, Jackson said.

Two little girls, one in a pink mask drooping below her nose, sit facing each other at a table reading picture books.
Emma Bustos-Cortez, 4, left, and Alia Davenport, 5, read during the first day of school at the Logan Memorial Education Campus.
(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Later start times

This school year is the first to begin under California’s new later start times law, which requires middle schools to start no earlier than 8 a.m. and high schools no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

The law, which San Diego Unified had pushed for, was meant to improve adolescent students’ health by giving them more time to sleep.

But it has also introduced some logistical challenges: Bus transportation has been crunched, after-school activities have been pushed back and some parents who drive their kids to school may have to adjust commutes while juggling work schedules.

San Diego Unified high schools already transitioned to the later times last school year; this year middle schools must start later, too.

At Wangenheim Middle School in Mira Mesa, some parents expressed relief at the later start, now 8 a.m. instead of 7:30.

“Later is better, because it was too early that they had to get up,” said Mai Nguyen, whose son is in seventh grade at Wangenheim.

Transitional kindergarten

Transitional kindergarten, the optional grade level for 4-year-olds that precedes kindergarten, is now offered at every elementary school in San Diego Unified; last year, it was offered at only a few dozen.

San Diego Unified is gradually expanding its transitional kindergarten program in advance of a state law that will require all school districts to offer it to all 4-year-olds by 2025.

That law has been hailed by educators who say it will provide a valuable early childhood experience for kids — and has the added bonus of helping districts mitigate drops in enrollment by adding students in a new grade level.

But the law has also been criticized for not incorporating child care providers, who fear they may lose many 4-year-old students to public schools. Many providers depend on those children to stay financially afloat.

This year San Diego Unified is serving about 4,500 transitional kindergarten students in 185 classrooms, up from 70 classrooms last school year. About 200 students are on a wait list for a spot, district officials said.

Three little girls wearing pigtails and school uniforms lie on a colorful rug reading books in a classroom
Fe Stamper, 4, left, Lucia Guzman, 5, and Irys Reyes, 4, read during their first day of school at the Logan Memorial Education Campus.
(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Relaxed COVID-19 measures

This is the first school year since the onset of COVID-19 in which San Diego Unified has started off with no districtwide mask mandate. The district has been one of the last in the region to scale back COVID-19 mitigation measures as public alarm over the coronavirus has subsided.

There’s still a possibility that individual San Diego Unified schools may require masks if a school gets at least three COVID-19 outbreaks within two weeks and more than 5 percent of students and staff are infected.

District leaders may also bring back a districtwide mandate depending on how many schools have triggered the masking rules, how many students are absent and what COVID-19 researchers say.

Some parents, like Nguyen, said they were concerned about the lack of mask requirements. “It’s a concern, but my child always wears a mask and never takes off a mask — that’s why I’m comfortable,” she said.

Others, like Mira Mesa High parent Stephanie Sy, welcomed the end of mask mandates and another year of full in-person learning. She said masks had hindered learning for her sophomore daughter, who is in special education, by limiting her ability to interact in person and see teachers’ faces.

“We’re really happy now that she’s able to go back to school, instead of Zoom at home,” Sy said.


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