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Commentary: An open letter to the community from SDUHSD students

By Joy Ruppert, Aya Jaffer, Ella Sobhani, Shiva Kansagara, Frances Chai, Roxy Morris, Ema Nastic & Kylie Hayase

The week before winter break is normally a time to be focused on finishing assignments and looking forward to the holiday season.

However, in an already unusual year, this week was tumultuous in a different way. Following Tuesday’s school board meeting, we saw an unprecedented sense of unity among students districtwide as we all scrambled to make sense of the meeting’s events and outcomes—decisions that would drastically affect our lives, and the lives of our teachers.

On Tuesday, December 15, the San Dieguito Union High School District called for an illegal, indoor and in-person meeting — breaking San Diego County’s purple tier COVID-19 guidelines even though it was entirely possible to hold this meeting virtually — to discuss a variety of pressing topics regarding reopening plans. We’ve summarized the outcome of the meeting into four important segments:

Part One: Existing district reopening plan vs. Revised version 

The existing reopening plan surveyed district parents to choose between (1) continued distance learning until the end of the second and/or third quarter or (2) shift to in-person learning once a week and have the option to revert back to distance learning if desired.

Newly elected Board Trustee, Michael Allman, presented a revised version on Dec. 15. In addition to a return to in-person learning one day per week beginning January 4, he proposed that all SDUHSD schools return to a five day per week in-person learning model for the third quarter (starting January 27).

Although students have a choice on whether or not to return, the only option for teachers is to return or be placed on unpaid leave. There was no input from students, teachers, or parents before he proposed this motion.

Ultimately, Trustees Muir, Mossy, and Allman voted ‘yes’ to move forward with Trustee Allman’s plan while Trustees Young and Gibson, and two student representatives, voted no, rejecting the plan due to various reasons.

Part Two: District’s reopening plan and its impact on our teachers

The Board gave teachers two options. Again, note that there was no teacher, student, or parent input: (1) Return to school to teach in-person while simultaneously teaching distance learning students who remain home or (2) Surrender their income and health benefits, and transfer their classes to a substitute teacher for the remainder of the year.

It is important to keep in mind that there is currently a shortage of substitute teachers. Those who have pre-existing health conditions and present a doctor’s note are allowed to teach from home.

Cindy Frazee, associate superintendent of Human Resources, predicts that up to 60 to 80 teachers will be taking leave throughout the district. This prediction takes into account the number of teachers who must take leave to care for their unsupervised, distanced-learning children.

Part Three: Healthcare professionals (invited by the district ) comment on proposed reopening plans

Dr. Shakha Gillin, a pediatrician; Dr. Keri Carstairs, an emergency medicine specialist; Dr. Paul Grossfeld, a pediatric cardiologist, and Dr. Peter Zage, an oncologist, served as this meeting’s panel of doctors. The absence of public health doctors specializing in COVID-19 matters was glaring.

Carstairs and Gillin called the school district’s reopening plan “very safe” and expressed that they were “extremely impressed.” These words did little to quell our fears, and the uneasiness only grew when @opensandieguitosafely (an Instagram account providing information on reopening) posted a comment by Dr. Kimberly Prather, a world-recognized expert in aerosolized spread.

Dr. Prather referred to our reopening plan as “not good” and “disappointing,” stating “they are mostly focused on cleaning surfaces when they should be focused on cleaning the air…I am deeply concerned about their [students and staff] health.”

Prather has been assisting the San Diego Unified School District with a safe reopening by checking ventilation, establishing a plan for outdoor eating, etc. Furthermore, their schools will not open until community spread decreases.

We find it alarming that these two districts are in the same county yet have two different responses to COVID-19. One is looking out for the safety of all their constituents and abiding by laws, and the other does not.

During the discussion, Dr. Zage mentioned that his son would be “happy to stay at home and continue distance learning” due to fears of catching COVID. In response, Trustee Allman asked “why would a teenager be scared of catching Coronavirus? I’m wondering why they’re afraid when kids don’t get sick.”

Many watching at home, as well as the student representatives attending the meeting virtually, were shocked at this comment. Carrie Su, the elected representative from Canyon Crest Academy, and Cassie Miller, San Dieguito High School Academy’s representative, conveyed the feelings of the greater student body, saying that we have a “complete right to be scared about returning to school.”

While we are resilient, we can be vectors for the virus and put our parents, grandparents, and community members in danger. Miller emphasized that a return to in-person learning on the first day of school after the holiday break would be especially unnerving for students as many others might be traveling during the two weeks.

As there is no requirement for testing or screening in the status quo, there is no way of knowing if someone has COVID before returning to campus. Poway Unified School District is continuing with virtual learning until January 15th in order to mitigate the potential spread from students who might have traveled or attended large gatherings. Why aren’t we taking these same precautions?

Part Four: The value of student voices and what we have learned

One of the most inflammatory statements from Tuesday’s meeting was made by Trustee Allman when he said that student opinions have “near-zero value” when deciding district policy and matters decided by the Board. Less than 24 hours after Trustee Allman’s statement, a student-led protest was organized in response, which took place right outside of the School Board meeting on Thursday, December 17th.

At the meeting on Thursday, Trustee Allman read from a piece of paper and asked for forgiveness for his “misstatement.” He failed to offer a sincere apology to the greater student body, but did express regret.

Although our protest that evening did get the Board’s attention, it did not directly impact their decision. However, we will continue standing up for our teachers and fellow students.

Before sending this letter, we sent out a Google Form asking for input from students, teachers, and parents in SDUHSD. After an analysis of the responses, we found that 257 people stated that they prefer distance learning and 58 people prefer a combination of in-person and distance learning.

In contrast, only 31 people stated that they would prefer in-person learning. This letter reflects the opinions of SDUHSD constituents that the Board has been blatantly ignoring.

We write this letter to raise awareness of recent events. Students make up an important constituency in any school district and Board decisions most directly affect us as well as our beloved teachers. We are nothing without them, and it is devastating that some had their last classes with their students on Friday because of the difficult position the Board put them in.

Trustee Allman’s comment about the value of student opinions caused us to reflect on the role we play in these meetings. We have just recently started watching these meetings and sending public comments; there are still so many things we are left in the dark about.

Until the Board becomes more transparent and accepting of our opinions, we have to do all that we can. Be aware of the events happening around you and act on that awareness. Our voices are powerful, no matter what anyone tells us.


Joy Ruppert, Aya Jaffer, Ella Sobhani, Shiva Kansagara, Frances Chai, Roxy Morris, Ema Nastic & Kylie Hayase

1 comment

Ryan Woldt December 23, 2020 at 4:52 pm

Impressive students. Well written. Well thought out. Two thumbs up.

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