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San Marcos Unified has recently returned middle and high school students back to campus just two days a week. File photo
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San Marcos Unified faces backlash over refusal to fully reopen

SAN MARCOS – The San Marcos Unified School District (SMUSD) is facing criticism from hundreds of parents, community members and members of the Parent Association of North County over its noncompliance with a judge’s order to reopen schools.

Last month, a group of North County parents, with the help of the Parent Association of North County, sued the state to overturn COVID-19 restrictions that prevented school districts from fully reopening for in-person learning.

Superior Court Judge Cynthia Freeland, who’s presiding over the lawsuit, sided largely with the parents and compelled districts “to reopen their schools for in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible at the earliest practicable time.”

SMUSD and Oceanside Unified are the only two named defendants who have not fully resumed in-person learning since the order.

SMUSD has recently returned middle and high school students back to campus just two days a week, but has not shown any indication of reopening fully this school year.

Hundreds of parents and community members have taken to social media to demand a return to in-person learning full time, including a Facebook group called San Marcos Families for Opening Schools, which has 745 members and is growing by the day.

Freeland on Thursday heard from SMUSD’s attorney who maintains that it is up to the district to decide when and how to return students to campus.

“The statute — 43504(b) [of the state’s Education Code] — does not say, ‘Districts shall offer full-time, five-day-a-week in-person instruction,’” San Marcos Unified’s attorney Amy Estrada said. “The statute says, ‘[A local educational agency shall offer in-person instruction] to the greatest extent possible,’ and therefore it still involves an exercise of discretion.”

“Each district is very different. They’re different in terms of their facilities, they’re different in terms of their staff capacities in terms of when they conducted recruitment or what problems they’re having in human resources with getting people to apply for a job,” Estrada continued, “Currently, the assessments are showing that it’s currently too unsafe to expand beyond two days a week, at least at the secondary level.”

Lee Andelin, one of the attorney’s representing the parents, argued during Thursday’s proceedings that reopening to the “greatest extent possible” means reopening fully because that is the standard for learning.

“The standard is in-person learning. The school shall offer in-person learning, they may offer distance learning, but only in certain narrow circumstances. But the school districts, they simply have been in this situation so long. Schools have lost sight of that and have sort of inverted that,” Andelin said. “Listening to counsel’s arguments, it’s almost as though that’s inverted, and the standard has become distance learning.”

SMUSD Interim Superintendent Dr. Tiffany Campbell told The Coast News via email that the district’s large student population poses challenges when it comes to fully reopening.

“Larger student populations mean more teachers and support staff on campus,” Campbell said. “The large number of students we have will likely require us to hire more teachers and staff to adequately supervise students and meet capacity limitations in classrooms in a very short amount of time.”

The district also said that it is scheduled to receive approximately $40 million in new state/federal COVID-19 relief funds.

“While the spending plan for the new stimulus funding is still a work in progress, the funding will support in-person instruction, accelerated learning to address learning gaps, supplemental learning supports, logistics support, and offset any general fund expenditures attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Campbell said.

Kimberly Imhoff, a SMUSD parent and member of the Parents Association, told The Coast News that parents haven’t received a clear answer on why those funds aren’t being used to reopen schools as soon as possible.

“They were saying it’s too expensive, that[they] would have to hire more teachers, and to me, the big question is, the school district got over $40 million in COVID relief money from the government, so where’s that money going?” Imhoff said. “The point of that money was to provide all of the things that are needed to get kids back on campus, PPE hand-washing stations, things like that. So, to us, it seems like it’s now an excuse.”

Dr. Campbell told The Coast News that while cost is a factor, it is not the district’s primary concern; recruiting and hiring credentialed teachers and qualified staff is a far greater concern.

SMUSD’s next scheduled board meeting is April 20, but it is unclear if this issue will be on the agenda.

Imhoff told The Coast News that almost 200 parents signed a letter to the board requesting a special board meeting before April 20, but have not received a response.

“We have a fear that if they don’t reopen fully during this current school year, that there’s a chance they won’t open fully,” Imhoff said. “The real question is why not do it now? We have about eight weeks left of the school year and we just think it’s important that we move now and not just sit and wait on it because there doesn’t seem to be a logical reason why.”

Superior Court Judge Cynthia Freeland, who’s presiding over the case, didn’t specify when she’d rule following a hearing Thursday, April 8, but said she “recognize[s] the urgency.”