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Oceanside and San Marcos school boards will not be required to hasten their reopening plans. File photo
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Judge declines to compel Oceanside, San Marcos schools to speed reopening

CORRECTION: The Oceanside Unified School District board did not commit to a five-day schedule when it discussed in-person learning at its April 13 meeting. An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the board’s deliberations.

REGION — A court declined Monday to compel Oceanside Unified and San Marcos Unified school districts to speed their COVID-related reopening plans, on the basis that compulsion would unjustifiably inhibit the legitimate exercise of their legislative authority.

The decision represents the latest development in an ongoing lawsuit, filed in February by activist parents seeking eased COVID-19 restrictions and an accelerated return from virtual to physical classrooms.

In an initial hearing last month, Superior Court Judge Cynthia Freeland decided largely in the parents’ favor, as The Coast News reported at the time. Based on constitutional equal protection, she prohibited certain state restrictions and ordered defendant school districts “to reopen their schools for in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible at the earliest practicable time,” according to her temporary ruling.

Carlsbad Unified, Vista Unified and San Dieguito Union High school district boards subsequently voted to expand in-person secondary instruction by mid-April, or sooner.

Freeland heard arguments again on April 8, with the parents’ counsel saying Oceanside Unified and San Marcos Unified school districts were continuing to dally, citing the statutory requirement that districts “shall offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible.”

School lawyers argued the districts are moving as fast as they feel is safe and the court shouldn’t overstep its constitutional role, as The Coast News reported last week.

This go-around, Freeland decided largely in the schools’ favor.

“Plaintiffs argue that … the use of the word ‘shall,’ creates a mandatory duty” that is ministerial (i.e., nondiscretionary) in nature, Freeland wrote in her April 12 ruling, which parents’ counsel furnished to The Coast News. But the rest of the statuary language — “to the greatest extent possible” — means the mandatory duty “is mixed with discretionary power and/or the exercise of judgment by the local educational agency.”

“The court cannot conclude … that [San Marcos Unified School District] has abused its discretion in the creation and implementation of its reopening plan,” she wrote.

“To the extent that plaintiffs argue that the defendant school districts cannot take more time than is necessary to plan for and to return to full-time in-person instruction, plaintiffs offer no evidence to suggest what the time limits should be in light of all of the fluctuating issues that the school districts must assess/consider,” she wrote.

Though she rejected certain of Oceanside Unified’s arguments about legal procedure, she likewise found “insufficient evidence that [the district] is not complying with the law.”

“Anything short of full-time in-person instruction has harmful effects on a significant portion of the students affected,” Freeland wrote. At the same time, “school districts operate independently of one another and experience different impediments to a return to in-person instruction five days per week such that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to reopening.”

In other words, just because other North County districts have expanded their in-person offerings doesn’t necessarily mean Oceanside and San Marcos can or must do likewise.

“We thought the evidence was clear that neither of these school districts were planning to expand in-person instruction, despite their superintendents claiming otherwise in their declarations to the court,” parents’ co-counsel Scott Davison told The Coast News. “We will see if they actually attempt to expand their reopening plans. If they don’t, we might consider going back to court to demonstrate that they misrepresented their intentions to the judge.”

Oceanside Unified’s school board voted 3-2 at their April 13 meeting to maintain the “current in-person, elementary split-day hybrid schedules until the district had: consulted with San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency to ensure the safety of our classroom environments in an expanded model; continued negotiations with our labor groups; and could report back to the board to determine possible further action to expand in-person elementary learning.”

The board voted 4-1 against surveying parents on the matter. The board settled on no definite timeline regarding expanding in-person offerings for secondary students.

“We are evaluating our options for a new hearing to bring this evidence to the attention of the court,” Davison told The Coast News Wednesday, following Oceanside Unified’s meeting.

San Marcos Unified’s school board will meet Tuesday, April 20. While the agenda isn’t yet available, trustees are expected to discuss expanding reopening.