Santa Barbara Unified Grapples with Instruction Models for Fall

Amid COVID-19 Pandemic, District Must Plan for Continued Student Learning

Frann Wageneck is leading the charge for Santa Barbara Unified Schools mental-health campaign. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

As the third month of remote education comes to a close in the Santa Barbara Unified School District, teachers and parents are still left wondering if classes will return to in-person instruction this fall. The answer is yes, probably, but it will not be anywhere near pre-pandemic learning.

“I am a single parent with a rising 4th grader at Adams Elementary, and elementary kids are not learning with remote learning. If the board directs the district to engage in remote learning in the fall, please know that it’s a vote against students and their learning,” said Sarah Gorman at public comment. 

“As an essential worker, I just finished working, and I cannot tutor my 9-year-old child and simultaneously work,” she continued. “Tutoring and sitting with my kid for almost every moment of the school day is what it takes for remote learning to work.”

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Every person who spoke on the topic focused on elementary students, who have generally struggled more with retaining information in remote classrooms than older students. Most parents directly echoed Gorman’s sentiments, imploring the district to bring back traditional school in the fall both to allow them to get back to work, but also because they fear their children are not getting a quality education and are falling behind.

But full in-person learning is highly unlikely this fall. The district instead is planning for a hybrid model and surveyed teachers and parents alike for feedback on the potential models. For elementary schools, there are two options. The most popular one that is supported by elementary principals and preferred by 55 percent of survey participants is the a.m./p.m. model that splits the students into two cohorts like preschools already do — one group attends five days a week in the daytime and the other group in the evening. 

The other, less popular model also breaks students into two cohorts. One cohort attends school all day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, and the other attends school all day on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoons. This one was less popular because students can’t see their teachers every day, but the main advantage is that it is easier to disinfect classrooms between cohorts when the same students are there all day.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a board meeting that simultaneously had such important issues that we’re facing,” said Frann Wageneck, assistant superintendent of Student Services. 

Wageneck was referring to both the desperate and anxious cries from parents to reestablish in-person learning and to the over 90 people who spoke earlier in the evening regarding mandatory ethnic studies courses and the six demands brought by high school Black Student Union members to the district to dismantle racism in schools. 

“It’s a gestalt of what we’re going through as a country. It’s a time of great ambiguity and great uncertainty. It is our commitment to get students back to school full-time as quickly as possible, but I have to acknowledge the anxiety, the depression that people worldwide are experiencing because of this,” Wageneck said after listening to the worried parents about school in the fall. 

According to the parent survey conducted by EMC Research, 67 percent of the more than 3,366 parents that responded said the school closures are “challenging or somewhat challenging,” but the vast majority of respondents also said they were satisfied with how the district handled the pandemic.

“I can hear it in the parents’ voices, you know, it’s a very challenging time,” said Boardmember Dr. Jackie Reid. “My heart goes out to the families during this process where we don’t really know what we are going to do at this moment in time. I talk to parents who are afraid that their child isn’t learning.” 

The survey results, though enlightening on many fronts, did not include a large number of responses from Latino families, Superintendent Cary Matsuoka said. More than two-thirds of the district’s student population are Latino.

“You mentioned, Mr. Matsuoka, that there was a smaller population of Latinx families that were involved in this survey,” Reid said to the outgoing superintendent. “My concern is that over 60 percent of our district is Latinx and we’re missing a large percentage of that, so should we be thinking about resurveying prior to taking the next step?”

Reid’s concerns were shared by some of the boardmembers, including Kate Ford, who also asked about disseminating the information again in a new way to reach the Latino community. But Andie Morhous with EMC Research, who conducted the survey, said that the responses should be viewed as a “snapshot in time” and that if another survey is conducted, it should include new questions.

There are three different options on the table for junior high and high schools, though one model was particularly unpopular with both groups and will likely not be recommended for a vote later this month. The most popular model with high schools is the final one, which divides semesters into two nine-week sessions — in the first session, students only take classes for periods 1-3 and in the second, periods 4-6. This was the most popular because fewer classes at one time relieves stress on students and teachers.

For parents and teachers of junior high students, the most popular model was the first one, which divides students into three cohorts that rotate in-class instruction on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. On Mondays, all three cohorts learn together on Zoom, and Fridays are set aside for on-campus help and additional support as needed. This model was preferred by junior high schools because the schedule closely mirrors the pre-COVID schedule.

Although most parents are eager for their children to go back to school, the survey found that a significant portion of the teachers who responded were worried about health and safety in an in-person learning environment. Many cited their own preexisting health conditions or ill loved ones at home who are susceptible to contracting COVID-19 as reasons why they are resistant to on-campus instruction on top of worries that childcare for their children won’t align with their new teaching schedule.

“The vast, vast majority of our teachers are very concerned about their own health in terms of returning,” Wageneck said. “The logistics around disinfecting is huge, and I think it’s incumbent upon us to start answering those questions of how that will work in order to assuage their concerns.”

The full survey can be accessed here. The board will reconvene Tuesday, June 23, at 6:30 p.m. to vote on the final hybrid model recommendations. 

At the Santa Barbara Independent, our staff is working around the clock to cover every aspect of this crisis — sorting truth from rumor.  Our reporters and editors are asking the tough questions of our public health officials and spreading the word about how we can all help one another. The community needs us — now more than ever — and we need you  in order to keep doing the important work we do. Support the Independent by making a direct contribution or with a subscription to Indy+.


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