Coronado reopens middle and high schools with San Diego County in purple tier

Coronado’s middle school and high school reopened for in-person instruction this week while San Diego County remains in the most restrictive coronavirus status.

The California Teachers Association accused the Coronado Unified School District of opening the two schools unlawfully. State rules “explicitly prohibit” schools from opening during the purple tier, the union said in a cease-and-desist letter last week.

San Diego County has been in the purple tier for about three months.

County and district officials deny the district is breaking the rules.

State rules say that elementary schools cannot reopen until their county’s daily COVID-19 case rate falls below 25 cases per 100,000 residents. Middle and high schools must wait longer, until the county’s case rate falls below 7 per 100,000 — which is also the threshold for leaving the purple tier.

San Diego County’s overall case rate is 50 per 100,000.

But San Diego County officials say Coronado is following state rules by reopening.

“They have followed the state guidance and can open at the proposed level without the county (case rate) being at 7,” said Michael Workman, a county spokesman, in an email. He did not respond to questions about how Coronado is following state guidance to reopen.

San Diego County’s high case rate is preventing dozens of other schools from reopening, including in several districts that are following state rules and waiting for the case rate to drop below the thresholds.

There is an exception to the state’s rules on reopening: Schools that reopened for in-person instruction before San Diego County fell to the purple tier on Nov. 10 can stay open and expand their reopening, no matter how bad the case rate is. That rule applies to individual schools, not to school districts, so a school district that opened only some of its schools before the purple tier still is barred from opening the rest of its schools until case rates drop enough.

Coronado Unified maintains that it “opened” all four of its schools before the purple tier and is simply expanding the opening of its middle and high schools this week by bringing students back for “hybrid” instruction, where students learn in-person part of the time and online the rest of the time.

Three weeks ago the state clarified its definitions, saying a school has “reopened” when it is offering all students in at least one grade level the option of in-person instruction for at least part of each week.

Schools that were offering only small, in-person group supports for students — which the state allows during the purple tier — do not count as reopened schools.

While Coronado Unified opened its two elementary schools for hybrid instruction in October, its middle and high schools have offered in-person “enrichment” and “intervention supports,” according to district communications.

No more than 16 percent of the high school’s students have been on campus at a time since November, according to data from the San Diego County Office of Education.

The California Teachers Association said that means Coronado’s middle and high schools should not count as “reopened.”

“Prior to this week, (Coronado High) had only very limited in-person instruction available for small groups of special needs students, weightlifting, math tutoring, and ROTC,” wrote Jean Shin, a CTA staff attorney, in the cease-and-desist letter.

Coronado Middle “had offered in-person instruction to students for only a single elective and small groups of special needs students. These conditions do not qualify the schools for reopening under the CDPH guidance,” Shin wrote.

Superintendent Karl Mueller said Coronado Unified met the definition of reopening before the county fell to the purple tier.

He said in an email that the opening of the middle and high schools is one of multiple phases in the district’s reopening plan that began before the purple tier. He did not answer a question about whether Coronado’s middle and high schools offered in-person instruction to all students in a grade level.

He said the district has taken steps to be safe, including starting its own COVID-19 asymptomatic testing program, which has tested almost 1,000 students and staff. He said the district has not found any evidence of COVID-19 transmission in Coronado schools.

The question of whether a school has officially “reopened” has led to confusion across the state, including a legal clash in December between the San Dieguito Union High School District and its teachers union.

San Dieguito had claimed its middle and high schools had reopened because the schools were offering limited, in-person support to some students.

But the teachers union sued, saying the district had misinterpreted state rules and limited in-person supports don’t count as reopening for instruction.

The district eventually settled in late December with the union and backed off on reopening.