OCEANSIDE — The Oceanside Unified school board voted 3-2 on April 13 to consider “possible further action to expand in-person elementary learning,” though what that means remains murky.
The Coast News has been following an ongoing lawsuit, filed in February by activist parents seeking eased COVID-19 restrictions and an accelerated return from virtual to physical classrooms.
A Superior Court judge last month ordered certain North County districts “to reopen their schools for in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible at the earliest practicable time.” She subsequently declined to set any particular deadline, saying school boards, which are elected legislative bodies, have legitimate discretionary authority.
While several North County districts called special board meetings shortly after the court’s initial ruling, moving to expand their in-person offerings, Oceanside Unified didn’t consider the issue until April 13. San Marcos Unified School District is expected to take up the matter at their regularly scheduled April 20 meeting.
In Oceanside, the board voted “to maintain our 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,” according to district spokesman Matthew Jennings, citing the specific wording of the approved motion.
During the meeting, staff recommended expanding in-person instruction to five days a week, Jennings said. However, after discussion, “the board did not include a vote on the five-day modified schedule specifically in their motion.”
Asked to clarify what the vote meant, if it made no particular commitment to the five-day model discussed, Jennings said: “The board directed staff to work closely with the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency and our labor partners, to make sure we can provide the safest and healthiest learning environments possible prior to moving forward with bringing students back in a larger capacity.”
Asked again to clarify what the vote obligated the district to do that it wasn’t already doing — for example, consulting with health officials and negotiating with labor groups — Jennings repeated the same statement.
School board member Mike Blessing declined to comment. The other school board members — Stacy Begin, Eric Joyce, Raquel Alvarez and Eleanor Juanita Evans — did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
While Oceanside Unified has taken certain steps toward reopening, the district has at times proceeded much more cautiously than other North County districts. For example, Oceanside Unified’s board voted in January against returning elementary students to in-person instruction, even though health restrictions wouldn’t have precluded doing so.
“We dropped into the red [tier] and then we precipitously dropped into the orange [tier],” Joyce, one of the two no votes, said at the April 13 meeting. Since San Diego County dropped out of the purple tier — the most restrictive of four state-defined COVID risk categories — restrictions on reopening are more relaxed.
All Oceanside Unified grade levels remain in their respective hybrid schedules — that is, part of the week on campus, part virtual.
For comparison, Carlsbad Unified resumed in-person instruction five days a week for elementary students on Jan. 25, and then for middle and high school students on March 29.
“The [Oceanside Unified] board’s decision to vote against their own staff’s recommendation for full-time instruction does not appear to comply with their legal obligation to ‘offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible,’” Scott Davison, the plaintiff parents’ co-counsel, told The Coast News is a statement Friday, April 16. “If it was not possible, the staff would not have recommended it.”
“We will be reviewing options for requesting a new hearing if [the district] continues to delay implementation of plans which appear to be already prepared and entirely possible,” he said.
The Coast News’ attempts to clarify the legislative significance of the April 13 vote reflect “the kind of frustration parents have felt this whole year,” said Ginny Merrifield of the Parent Association of North County, an advocacy group sponsoring the parents’ lawsuit. The district shows “no commitment to the students’ needs for a full reopening and no straight talk about when it will happen. … It’s a shameful situation when so many students are suffering learning loss, depression, anxiety and worse.”