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Area elementary schools could soon apply to reopen, but SDUSD is not expected to; Point Loma parents object

Kindergartners walk to class at Sunset Hills Elementary School in Poway on Oct. 1.
(File / Sandy Huffaker)

San Diego Unified has said it will not reopen until coronavirus case rates in its school communities fall and vaccines are made available to all its school staff.

San Diego County’s elementary schools could start getting the go-ahead to reopen soon, now that the county has fallen below a key coronavirus case rate threshold. But it may take more time for schools to begin opening in droves.

The county’s case rate dipped this week to about 22 cases per 100,000 — below the 25 per 100,000 threshold that prohibits elementary schools from reopening.

If the case rate stays below 25 for five consecutive days, schools serving kindergarten through sixth grade would be allowed to reopen if they get their reopening plans approved by county and state officials.

San Diego County is not yet accepting applications to reopen, said Music Watson, spokeswoman for the county Office of Education, which provides support to schools but does not enforce state or local COVID-19 guidance.

The county’s online portal for accepting school reopening applications is expected to be ready by Friday, Feb. 19, she said. Once a school or district’s application is submitted, county and state public health officials have seven business days to identify any problems with the reopening plan. If they find none, the school can reopen.

But some closed districts are not expected to try to reopen immediately, despite the county’s lower case rate.

Several districts — including San Diego Unified — have remained closed largely because their communities are among the hardest hit by the coronavirus. Higher rates of community spread there mean a higher risk of cases showing up in schools, school officials have said.

San Diego Unified, the county’s largest district, said last week that it will not reopen until case rates in its school communities fall and vaccines are made available to all its school staff. The district did not release details of how low case rates need to be or if staff members need to have both vaccine doses and full vaccine effectiveness before the district will reopen schools.

The district said it is committed to reopening for in-person instruction next fall. Whether it reopens sooner, during the current school year, will depend on case rates and the speed of the vaccine rollout.

But a group of parents in the Point Loma Cluster of nine SDUSD schools in the Point Loma-Ocean Beach area gathered the morning of Feb. 18 at Sunset View Elementary School in Point Loma to protest the continued school closures. Similar protests were held at schools in Pacific Beach and La Jolla.

Courtney Duthie, a parent from Sunset View Elementary, provided a statement saying: “As a community ... we’ve seen our frustrations grow over the last 11 months and ... more and more families are ready to take a stand and say enough is enough. Enough screen time, enough ignoring glaring problems with distance learning and definitely enough of ... calling what our kids are receiving a ‘quality education.’ ... We’re here to ask for more transparency and a competent plan with actual timelines from SDUSD to reopen our schools. ... Countless other schools, public and private, have opened for in-person learning all across San Diego. So why not us?”

The district said in a recent statement that “administration is doing everything possible to vaccinate our workforce and provide the necessary resources for schools to operate safely.”

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said last week that school employees could begin getting vaccinations in two to three weeks, depending on vaccine supplies. But that was before the county learned this week that vaccine shipments would be delayed due to the winter storms disrupting much of the country.

County Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten can block elementary schools from reopening if she believes the case rate will not remain stable or if COVID conditions are too poor in some parts of the county, said Bob Mueller, special projects coordinator for the county education office.

The county case rate has been on a gradual decline since January. However, because the rate is still high, the county has remained in the most restrictive purple tier since mid-November.

That’s why middle and high schools will have a longer wait to reopen. They can only open when the county returns to the less-restrictive red tier. In other words, the county’s case rate needs to fall below seven per 100,000 residents before middle and high schools can reopen.

Once the county reaches the red tier and stays there for five days, all schools will be allowed to reopen without having to get approval from the county or state.

Schools and districts that had reopened before San Diego County fell to the purple tier are able to remain open.


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