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A student puts on hand sanitizer before entering Ada Harris Elementary School in Encinitas. On April 8, a Vista Superior Court judge will decide whether to confirm her previous order allowing schools to reopen “to the greatest extent possible at the earliest practicable time.” File photo
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Activist parents hope judge will speed school reopening

REGION — The Parent Association of North County, an activist group sponsoring a February lawsuit against Gov. Gavin Newsom and six local school districts, hopes a judge will further speed school reopening at an upcoming April 8 hearing.

Following a court order last week, some North County school districts moved to expand in-person instruction, though districts in San Marcos and Oceanside are reticent by comparison.

“[Some] districts interpret [public health officials’ guidelines] as law,” said David Schneider, a San Marcos Unified parent. When parents express their concerns about curtailed in-person learning, district officials “don’t necessarily react,” he said.

Superior Court Judge Cynthia Freeland, who’s presiding over the ongoing lawsuit, issued an order March 17 prohibiting the state’s enforcement of certain COVID-related restrictions. She also compelled districts listed as defendants “to reopen their schools for in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible at the earliest practicable time.”

Named defendants include San Dieguito Union High, Carlsbad Unified, Oceanside Unified, San Marcos Unified, Vista Unified, and Poway Unified school districts.

If Freeland confirms her order on April 8 — pending arguments from defendants’ attorneys — it would become a so-called preliminary injunction, in effect until a trial.

State defendants have already complied with the court order, according to Scott Davison, a Carlsbad Unified parent and plaintiffs’ co-counsel.

But “for the school districts that don’t implement a plan for full-time instruction, we will be arguing that her order should specify that they must expand their plan to full-time and ask for a specific date for that to happen,” he said.

Vista Unified’s school board voted unanimously Tuesday to return secondary students, whose parents so desire, to campus five days per week starting April 5. Carlsbad Unified’s board voted 3-2 Wednesday — Trustees Kathy Rallings and Veronica Williams dissenting — to return secondary students five days per week starting March 29.

San Dieguito Union High’s board voted unanimously Wednesday to draft a formal resolution to return secondary students four days per week starting April 12; they’ll take final action on that resolution at another special board meeting on March 29.

Administrations in San Marcos and Oceanside have been more reserved.

“The [school] board has asked for a review of conditions that may allow for expanded opening on our campuses in the current school year and district staff has begun working on this,” San Marcos Unified’s administration said in a statement.

“The ruling does not change [Oceanside Unified’s] plans” to reopen secondary schools beginning next week for “hybrid” instruction (half the week in-person, half online), the district said in a statement. “We do have those plans [to reopen for in-person instruction five days per week] in motion and will present them at the appropriate time.”

“The prevailing statewide standard is in-person learning,” Freeland wrote in her ruling. “Remote learning has led to alarming rates of depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, and substance abuse among children.”

Regulations that “perpetuate remote learning for some students while not for others” create “an impermissible divide in access to education as otherwise guaranteed by the California Constitution,” she wrote. “If it is possible for some schools to continue to offer in-person instruction, … it must be possible, with the appropriate precautions and adherence to standardized safety protocols, for all schools to offer at least some in-person instruction.”

Disparate access to in-person education has stemmed from state regulations, which in past months permitted certain secondary schools to reopen, but not others; allowed elementary schools to open before middle and high schools; and required four feet between students in the classroom — more than the CDC’s current guidance of three feet — thereby precluding some schools’ classrooms from filling to full-time capacity.