San Diego County schools will lose their chance to reopen if county falls to lowest tier

La Mesa-Spring Valley School District office
The La Mesa-Spring Valley School District announced it will postpone reopening from the week of Oct. 12 to Nov. 30, due to San Diego County’s worsening case rate.
(Karen Pearlman / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

California public health officials said Thursday that if a county falls to the lowest tier of its state reopening system, schools in the county that have not reopened will lose their chance to reopen.

“If a school did not open while the county was in the red tier, and the county subsequently moves to the purple tier, that school will not be able to open for in-person instruction, until the county has returned to the red tier and been in the red tier for two weeks,” the California Department of Public Health said in an email to the Union-Tribune Thursday.

That news is likely to devastate parents and schools in San Diego County, where a surge in COVID-19 cases among San Diego State University students is pushing the county closer to dropping from the state’s red tier to the lowest, purple tier.


In the purple tier, schools are not allowed to reopen, but elementary schools can apply for a reopening waiver.

K-12 schools in Los Angeles are not allowed to be open at the moment. Yet many schools have reopened anyway, either by outsourcing their facilities to established providers like the Y, or by rebranding as day camps, which are license-exempt and virtually unregulated in California.

Sept. 18, 2020

Schools that have already opened while the county was in the red tier, however, will be allowed to stay open, according to state guidance.

If San Diego County does fall to the purple tier next week, it will throw a wrench in the plans of several local school districts that have already announced plans to reopen schools in the coming weeks.

Also it will likely disappoint parents who have been waiting to send their children back to school and who have already been told by their school districts that they will be able to return.

Poway Unified, the county’s third-largest district, announced last week that it will begin opening its elementary schools on Oct. 1. Several districts including Vista Unified and Oceanside Unified also were planning to reopen for all students next month. And Grossmont Union High School District was planning to open on Sept. 28.

Only a handful of school districts — including Del Mar Union, Rancho Santa Fe and Cajon Valley Union — are already open. Many private schools are open; they were the first in line to apply to for waivers to reopen.


Many school districts have opted to reopen more slowly to avoid making mistakes, or to wait until COVID-19 levels decrease.

The virus has hit south county and south San Diego disproportionately, and school districts in those areas, including San Diego Unified, have said they must wait to reopen until it becomes safer for students and staff to return to school.

The county learned Tuesday that its state-determined daily new COVID case rate per 100,000 residents is 7.9. If the county’s daily new case rate again posts at above 7.0 on Tuesday, the county will fall to the purple tier.

Once a county qualifies for that more restrictive tier, the county has three days to implement closures or sector changes, according to state guidance.

Even if San Diego County falls to the purple tier, however, schools that have not reopened will still be able to bring students with high needs onto campus for limited, small, in-person support sessions, according to state guidance.

Districts like San Diego Unified, Poway, Chula Vista Elementary and Vista were already planning to bring high-needs students to campus for similar small, in-person support sessions before reopening for all students.


Contradictory guidance

For weeks there has been confusion among local school leaders about whether they would still be allowed to reopen if San Diego County falls to the purple tier.

Some written state guidance has said that schools that have already reopened can remain open, but should increase COVID-19 testing of staff if their county falls to the purple tier.

In a Sept. 9 webinar, California’s acting State Health Officer Dr. Erica Pan told educators that schools that have not yet reopened while in the red tier should not reopen if their county falls to the purple tier.

“That would concern us that the county is back to levels of transmission that we don’t necessarily want schools to reopen at that time,” Pan said.

San Diego County officials, meanwhile, have been telling school leaders for days that schools will still be allowed to reopen even if the county falls to the purple tier, even though some school leaders have referenced the Sept. 9 webinar to county officials.

“If we were to go back to tier one ... this is not going to affect your decision to go forward,” said Gary Johnston, the county’s chief resilience officer, to educators in a Zoom meeting on Tuesday.


San Diego County’s school reopening FAQs also claim that schools’ ability to reopen would not be affected if the county fell to the purple tier.

In an email Friday afternoon, San Diego County said the state had verified to county officials this week that schools could still reopen if the county falls to the purple tier.

“This is clearly a change in direction at the state level,” the county said. “There was no prior briefing or discussion with the state about this change.”

The county said it is seeking clarification from the state.

There has been little clarity about this issue partly because no California county has fallen from the red tier to the purple tier. San Diego County would be the first county to do so since the state debuted the tier reopening system at the end of August.

County officials have unsuccessfully tried to convince the state to exclude San Diego State’s coronavirus cases from its case rate calculation, arguing that the university is isolated from the community. But on Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom disagreed, saying a university campus is not separate from the larger community.

In light of San Diego County’s approach toward the purple tier, La Mesa-Spring Valley, a school district of about 12,000 students, announced this week it will postpone in-person schooling to the end of November because of San Diego County’s worsening case rate.


The district announced to parents Tuesday that it would postpone reopening from its original planned date of the week of Oct. 12 to the week of Nov. 30.

“SDSU is very much our community — many SDSU students work in our schools — and the newly reported outbreak has caused a heightened sense of fear for many of our staff members and families,” Superintendent David Feliciano said in an email.

“The reports that the county will likely go purple has greatly increased concerns over the prospect of schools reopening in less than a month.”

SDSU students work at La Mesa-Spring Valley as student teachers, aides and attendants in the district’s child care program.

Feliciano said regardless of which tier the county is in, the newly reported case rates in the community were concerning enough for the district to postpone reopening.

“The last thing we want to do is reopen and then turn around and have to close again,” Feliciano said.


La Mesa-Spring Valley officials said they have been wary that the state might keep schools from reopening if the county falls to the purple tier.

Feliciano said it wouldn’t make sense if schools are forced to stay closed in other purple counties but not in counties that go from red to purple.

“Why is it considered safe here, but not there? It’s all very confusing,” he said. “We would rather err on the side of caution.”

Some health experts at UC San Diego have similarly argued that schools shouldn’t reopen if their county reverts to the poorer COVID-19 conditions that previously kept them from reopening.

Paul Sisson contributed to this report.


3:11 p.m. Sept. 18, 2020: This article was updated with a statement from the county.