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Parents and students left handmade signs on the front steps of the San Dieguito Union High School District office following a Sept. 24 protest regarding the school board’s virtual and in-person instruction plans. Photo by Caitlin Steinberg
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San Dieguito Union High School District, teachers union clash over reopening

ENCINITAS — In the midst of a school board election, a North County high school district and teachers’ union have publicly clashed over reopening guidelines and in-person instructional models, causing frustration among families concerned with students’ return to campuses.

During an Oct. 14 board meeting, the San Dieguito Union High School District (SDUHSD) Board of Directors reversed a recent decision to maintain virtual learning through January 2021. The board adopted a resolution requiring all teachers to return to campus on Oct. 29 with newly established guidelines such as requiring six feet of distance between educators and students and only a meter of distance between student desks.

Superintendent Dr. Robert Haley proposed middle school students gradually return to campuses one day a week starting Nov. 9, and increase to two days by Nov. 30. He also suggested high school students begin returning to campuses one day a week by Nov. 16 and increase to two days on or before Dec. 7.

Under the proposal, distance learning would remain an option for those interested. However, the San Dieguito Faculty Association (SDFA disagrees.

“[The faculty association] did not agree to this,” Duncan Brown, president of the SDFA, wrote to membership following the Oct. 14 meeting. “[Dr. Haley] made it appear that SDFA agreed to teachers returning to teach on-site on Oct. 29th on his proposed timeline for students coming back.”

Brown said historically the Association has had a positive relationship with the district, collaborating on a level uncommon in other districts. Unfortunately, this relationship has deteriorated in recent months.

According to Brown, a full spectrum of details had yet to be established before the Oct. 14 board meeting, including who is responsible for sanitizing desks and materials used by students or how could a teacher with pre-existing health conditions safely continue in a classroom environment.

“Lie after lie [and] misrepresentation after misrepresentation… was presented to the school board in yesterday’s meeting,” Brown said.

In the aftermath of the recent disagreements between the SDFA and the District, families both in support and against returning to in-person instruction have expressed confusion and frustration with the situation.

Ginny Merrifield, a former SDUHSD parent, told the Coast News, “We want to know why the School Board Trustees aren’t engaged in making sure these negotiations are being done in good faith and requiring that parents are kept informed with clear and transparent communication.”

“We don’t want our district to be in conflict with the union as a result of bad faith negotiations. That is not in the interest of our students,” Merrifield said.

Seema Burke, a current SDUHSD parent, challenged the district and association to set aside their disagreements and reach a solution benefitting the mental health of students.

“Any number of days back in school would help lift students’ spirits and give them hope for on-campus learning in the future, even under concurrent teaching circumstances, which would allow small in-person classes… they can still look up at the teacher, they ask questions in class and have live breakout groups for projects.”

Haley wrote to The Coast News addressing the issue and acknowledging a break in communication.

“We believe in our teaching faculty and have praised all of them for the amazing teaching and learning that is taking place in our Distance Learning Model,” Haley said.  “Not working physically together has, at times, made things difficult for us to come together with a common message. We always ask that everyone exhibit some flexibility, thoughtfulness, and compassion. It is my hope that we can always continue to work on ways to come together and keep the focus on educating our students in this complex pandemic environment in which we find ourselves.”

Haley said the Nov. 9 start date would only be executed “if there was an agreement [between the district and SDFA] and the date would improve educational outcomes for students.”

The district is continually receiving new guidelines from the State of California, which impacts decisions and requires flexibility.

Both the district and association have stated they will continue to meet to improve communication to work out an agreement.

The SDUHSD’s current Safe Reopening Plan, as well as further information on the Distance Learning Model, are available on the district’s website.

The issue has spilled over into SDUHSD school board elections for Districts 2 and 4. Parents have been expressing their frustrations over the “politicization” of the elections on various social media platforms.

Four total candidates are currently campaigning for seats on the board, including candidates for District 2, Leslie Schneider and Katrina Young, and candidates for District 4, Michael Allman and Jane Lea Smith.

Of the four candidates running for the two seats, Young (District 2) and Smith (District 4) have been openly endorsed by the SDFA, who believes the two candidates will represent the association’s membership.

Allman publicly disagreed with Brown’s recent SDFA letter saying, “our children are not doing well in distance learning. I’ve heard of many terrible stories and we need to get our kids back into school. It’s time to give them the education they deserve.”

The SDUHSD’s current Safe Reopening Plan, as well as further information on the Distance Learning Model, are available on the district’s website.