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The San Dieguito Union High School District voted to settle a lawsuit with a teachers union regarding a return to in-person instruction. Photo by Caitlin Steinberg
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San Dieguito Union High School District cancels January reopening plans

ENCINITAS – After weeks of public disagreement and controversy, San Dieguito Union High School District students, teachers and faculty will not return to campuses in January.

The district’s Board of Trustees voted on Monday afternoon to settle a lawsuit with the California Teachers Association and San Dieguito Faculty Association, rescinding a previously approved plan which invited all 13,000 students to return to campuses as early as January 26, 2021.

Trustees Maureen “Mo” Muir, Melisse Mossy, Kristin Gibson and Katrina Young voted to ratify the settlement agreement, with newly-elected Mike Allman voting against it.

As a consequence of the settlement, all five trustees voted to rescind the recently approved Dec. 15 “Expanded School Reopening” resolution and schools will maintain current distance learning and in-person small cohort instruction through Jan. 26.

Following a Dec. 22 closed session, the board released the agenda for the Dec. 28 meeting on Christmas Eve, announcing the proposed settlement agreement.

“I feel like something’s changed since we wrote this resolution, including a letter from Dr. Wooten… and what we’re seeing in terms of ICU room capacity,” Gibson said. “There is a valid argument that perhaps we should have always considered the (January) 27th rather than  (January) 4th.”

Allman voted against the settlement stating his concern is it sends the wrong “legal signal” to the teachers union.  ”

“…Despite all of the accommodations… since the union doesn’t like it, just file a lawsuit,” Allman said. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea to reinforce that behavior.”

As further agreed upon in the settlement, the district pledged to implement zero changes to general in-person instruction on its campuses until Jan. 27. Accordingly, any small cohort learning already taking place, including in-person instruction for English language learners, special education and assistance students, will continue as normal.

The settlement does not, however, prevent the district from expanding small cohort instruction under the County Department of Public Health Cohort Guidance.

Additionally, upon the ratification of the settlement, the San Dieguito Faculty Association agreed to cancel the previously scheduled Dec. 30 hearing requesting a temporary restraining order against the district and will not seek future litigation based on claims outlined in the Dec. 18 lawsuit.

However, there still remains the possibility of future litigation between the local teachers union and the school district.

In the final minutes of the meeting, Superintendent Robert Haley was asked whether the school district was considered “open” to legally returning students to campus after Jan. 27

“There is clearly a disagreement at this time between the State of California Department of Public Health and the San Diego County Public Health,” Haley said.

Kendall Swanson, attorney for the district, said “moving forward, the district’s position that its plans were legally compliant… obviously, there is a different legal position that [Faculty Association] has taken, which may eventually be litigated in court depending upon the next steps.”

“My opinion is that the district is legally operating within the guidance that it received from our local county,” Swanson said. “Dr. Wilma Wooten did send a letter to the district [but] in that letter it did not state the district’s [Dec. 15] plan to reopen was a violation of the law.”

However, Wooten, the county’s public health officer, expressed concerns with the original reopening plan.

“I would be very concerned about returning to your proposed level of in-class instruction unless your staff is able to provide you with detailed information explaining how the requirements — the CDPH guidance and County Order — will be met,” Wooten said.

More than 160 public comments were submitted during the meeting — both in support of and vehemently against — the agreement returning students to campuses after the New Year.

Ginny Merrifield, president of the Parent Association of North County San Diego and who represents families in San Dieguito Union High, Carlsbad Unified, San Marcos Unified, Vista Unified and Oceanside Unified school districts, spoke to the Coast News after the meeting.

“We strongly advocate for the board to have the courage to make that argument in court if the (San Dieguito Faculty Association) continues to press forward with litigation that prevents our children from the choice to attend school in person on January 27th, in spite of extraordinary accommodations being made for teachers with valid health concerns and child care issues,” Merrifield said.