The outside of the San Diego Unified School District Education Center
The outside of the San Diego Unified School District Education Center, May 8, 2018. (Megan Wood/inewsource)

San Diego Unified students and teachers are headed for a masked return to summer school Monday and could face the same rule when school starts back in August.

As COVID-19 cases soar across the county, district officials notified families and staff late Friday of the decision to require indoor masking at all schools and district offices starting Monday, when thousands of students will return to summer school classrooms.

The district said it would reassess the situation and notify families if there are any changes to that policy in two weeks. 

“Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been intentional in implementing strategies to keep our community safe and reduce absences due to illness – all in service of our students, staff, and community,” the district said in the email. 

Why this matters

COVID cases are surging in San Diego County as tens of thousands of students attend summer school and many prepare to return to campus in the fall. 

If students or staff do not have a mask, one will be provided, the district emphasized.

Triggering the district’s mask policy was a Thursday decision by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that moved San Diego to a “high” level of COVID-19 transmission. The CDC bases its rating system on the number of cases and hospitalizations per 100,000 residents. 

The CDC’s “high” transmission rating for the county automatically triggers an indoor mask requirement for all schools in the district. 

For the nearly 25,000 students enrolled in San Diego Unified’s summer program, masks will be required next week and the following as they wrap up the summer session. If the transmission rate remains high for the next few weeks, students across San Diego Unified will be required to wear masks when they return to school on August 29, according to the district’s criteria.

The county’s most recent COVID-19 surge is also impacting other education business in the county. 

San Diego County Office of Education board members voted Wednesday for members to continue working hybrid as a result of the “high” COVID-19 community level.

“We’re in the middle of our third highest surge,” said SDCOE Superintendent Paul Gothold during the board meeting.

The board does not have the authority to require San Diego County’s public school districts to mandate masks or switch to remote learning when students and staff return to classrooms next year.  Local school districts, however, are bound to shape COVID-19 policies with guidance set by the California Department of Public Health and the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency, said Music Watson, chief of staff for the communications department at SDCOE. 

As of Friday morning, state and county public health departments had yet to issue a mask mandate health order.  County public health confirmed over email Friday that it would not be issuing an order to school districts.

Before San Diego Unified’s Friday announcement indicating that masks will be required indoors again, masks were optional for noninfected students and staff and had been so since April 4, when the district lifted its indoor mask rule. That decision followed Gov. Gavin Newsom’s March decision to lift a statewide mask mandate in schools.  

After the rules change, students who tested positive for COVID-19 were allowed to return to campus without wearing a mask six days later with a negative test  or 11 days later without testing again. 

Teachers who tested positive for COVID-19 were required to wear a mask indoors upon returning to campus six days later with proof of a negative antigen test. Or they could return to school 11 days later without a mask and no negative test result.

The district did not announce any changes Friday to its masking policies for anyone who tests positive for COVID-19. 

Since the mask mandate was lifted, COVID-19 cases in San Diego County have been on the rise. There were 12,982 confirmed cases in the county from July 7-13, up from 10,453 cases the prior week, according to county data. 

San Diego Unified’s summer school COVID-19 numbers paint a similar picture. The latest available data show that from July 3-9, there were 312 confirmed student cases in the district, up from 210 the prior week. Mira Mesa High School, San Diego High School, Henry High School and Hoover High School are among the campuses with the most confirmed cases. 

Mask mandates have been a source of much tension and debate in San Diego, including in education, where parents and health experts have weighed the risks.  

The district will continue to offer free COVID-19 testing at its summer school sites through the last week of summer session. Find the schedule here.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Andrea Figueroa Briseño is an investigative reporter at inewsource and a corps member for Report For America, a national service program that tasks journalists to report on undercovered communities and issues. She covers education and focuses her reporting on Latino students and families who are part...