Amid Unsteady Pandemic Times, Santa Barbara Unified Moves Forward with Plans for Fall

School Board Approves Potential Models for In-Person Classroom Learning

Harding University Partnership School, above, is one of 21 district schools that closed campuses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the district is exploring options to at least partially reopen campuses for the upcoming fall 2020 year. | Credit: Paul Wellman

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The uncertainty of the pandemic compounded with increased pressure from parents and teachers for a plan to get students back in classrooms this fall has put the Santa Barbara Unified School District in a tight spot in recent weeks — with a limited budget, a rise in local COVID-19 cases, and varying degrees of comfort being on campus, choosing the right plan appears impossible.

But with just a few months left before school begins in the fall, the district has to begin work on building a hybrid in-person and remote learning model immediately. If schools are able to be open entirely in the fall or must revert to full remote education, the hybrid model will not be used.

“We’re living during a pandemic, and the pandemic has brought with it varying levels of unsafety for folks,” Assistant Superintendent Frann Wageneck said. “In our district, we work under the idea that students, staff, and parents are only as safe as they feel. It’s our job first and foremost that when students return in August, that when staff return, they feel safe.”

The board unanimously voted to approve Wageneck and staff’s hybrid model recommendations for elementary, junior high, and high schools. Although the district may wind up continuing full remote-only or full in-person instruction if the pandemic allows, the unanimous vote on the hybrid models gives district staff the green light to begin working on the middle-ground instruction models in case they are needed in August. Students and teachers can still choose to attend remote-only classes in the fall if they are unable to attend in person.

For the elementary model, students would be divided into two cohorts. Cohort A would attend on Mondays and Thursdays all day in person with social distancing, and Cohort B would attend Tuesdays and Fridays all day in person with social distancing. On days not attending in person, students supplement with remote learning. This was the less-popular elementary model based on a previous survey, but it was recommended because it is easier to sanitize in between cohorts.

“Two out of five days of in-person instruction is not enough,” said Jon Toung, a parent of three kids at Monroe Elementary and the school’s PTA president. “Our children need to be together; our parents need to be together; our community needs to be together. The less normal this fall’s school year is, the more likely we will be to move to a home-school model.”

Tuong shared sentiments with the majority of elementary parents who have answered survey questions or spoken at meetings about their desire for the children to be back in school full-time. For many, they feel their young students cannot learn without a teacher or parent with them constantly, making it impossible for some parents to work. Because elementary class sizes are smaller, its cohort models are more simple than secondary school models.

For junior high and high schools, the board approved modifications to class period schedules to reduce the size of student cohorts.

Rather than students taking seven classes at once, junior highs would run three classes during the first quarter and three classes during the second quarter, with an option for “zero period” in the mornings. A cohort would go to school on Mondays and Thursdays and another on Tuesdays and Fridays, with remote learning held for both cohorts on Wednesdays. 

The plan also calls for a four-period block schedule for high schools, with the fourth period being “flexible” for athletics or other expanded courses. Similar to junior high, the students would take four classes in the fall and four classes in the spring instead of eight classes simultaneously through the year. Cohort A would attend in-person classes on Mondays and Thursdays, and Cohort B would attend in-person classes Tuesdays and Fridays, with Zoom classes on Wednesdays. 

“I do have concerns about the high-school model, because in my reality that would mean 15-18 students per class, which would be very difficult to create social distance,” said Vicki Hanes, a teacher at San Marcos High School. “The current time devoted for teachers to work on planning online one day a week does not seem realistic to me. I was working pretty much 12 hours on the online curriculum on Mondays and Tuesdays.”

In surveys, teachers have repeatedly expressed more concerns over their health than students and families did, though a sizable chunk of parents reported they were still uncomfortable sending their student to school. About one in five secondary students said they prefer remote learning, and close to 25 percent of teachers said they were interested in teaching remotely. The district is working to strengthen its remote learning strategies for the fall.

Wageneck said the trickier part of hybrid models is matching up the teachers who can teach on campus with students who can attend class on campus and matching up the students and teachers that require remote-only instruction. For example, there may be more families in secondary schools that can’t attend in person than teachers willing to teach remote-only classes or vice versa.

Childcare was another major issue, particularly for teachers that worry they won’t be able to secure childcare for their child whose school schedule is opposite their teaching schedule. The staff said that utilizing community partnerships will be the only way to make childcare work around the models, and that over the summer during workgroups it will focus on pulling together a network of childcare resources.

Boardmembers had their own creative ideas to add, too.

“I envision setting up learning centers around the community,” Board President Laura Capps said. “Kids could go when their cohort isn’t in school and they could get help with AOK instructors, with Boys and Girls Club staff.

“I appreciate today’s report,” Capps continued, “but there are still more questions than answers. I believe by acknowledging the work you’ve done and basically giving a green light with this vote that we can start answering those questions.”

In the same seven-hour meeting with more than 300 in virtual attendance, the board also unanimously voted to accept the demands issued to the district by Black Student Youth S.B., a small group of district high school students who led a 3,000-person protest in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement earlier this month.

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