“Families are having to make decisions on what’s best for their children,” said Assistant Superintendent Frann Wageneck at Tuesday’s school board meeting, referring to the school district’s dip in enrollment prior to reopening. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

In the past month, Santa Barbara Unified lost 125 students — reflecting the growing number of families who are opting for a new form of schooling and those who have had to leave town due to financial pressure under the pandemic.

“Families are having to make decisions on what’s best for their children,” said Assistant Superintendent Frann Wageneck on Tuesday night. “That’s something we completely understand, whether it be because of economic distress or because they want a different kind of learning and not distance learning.”

She said that although elementary schools make up just 22 percent of district enrollment, they account for 65 percent of the enrollment decline. Elementary students tended to struggle with distance learning the most last spring, so some parents opted for an in-person option to teach their children this fall, but Wageneck assured the families of the more than 13,000 students still enrolled that the distance-learning plan is “excellent.”

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“The preparation for distance learning has been, in my opinion, excellent,” Wageneck said. “That’s what we want our families to know. They are going to be pleased with the learning that their children engage in.”

The enrollment update was one segment of the district’s fourth and final report on schools reopening before the new academic year kicks off next week. Wageneck and other cabinet members also highlighted new efforts made to adapt to the new reality, even after schools can reopen campuses in a hybrid or fully open model.

The iPass screening app, for example, will be utilized by every student, teacher, staff, and visitor once campuses are open. It requires them to answer questions about their health from home before generating a QR code confirming they can come to campus. Wageneck said that this kind of screening technology will be used for the duration of the 2020-21 school year and likely next year, too.

Mental-health services were also a key part of the report. Though the district has strongly embraced mental and emotional wellness in recent years, Wageneck reported that the district is putting an additional $600,000 toward services for students, parents, and teachers because of the pandemic’s negative effects on mental health.

“Mental health is the pandemic within the pandemic,” Wageneck said. “We have funding through the CARES Act to spend on COVID-related response within the schools, and we allocated $600,000 of that.”

Of that, $500,000 went to the district’s contract with the Family Service Agency, which provides mental-health services to secondary students, as well as parents and staff. The other $100,000 went to Child Abuse Listening Mediation (CALM), which the district contracts with for elementary mental-health services. CALM is also offering groups for parents and staff during the stressful time, too.

Wageneck also touched on childcare services, a hot issue and particularly for teachers with young children of their own. The After School Education & Safety (ASES) Program for children of Santa Barbara Unified staff is being held on school campuses across the district, with 170 children already enrolled. The reason this is allowed but on-campus learning is not is because the state deemed childcare essential.

Director of Elementary Education Sierra Loughridge also provided a new update to the school reopenings — tangible, old-fashioned materials.

“We recognize that students are going to need materials that they normally would be provided at school, in their homes,” Loughridge said. “Your principals are actively preparing packages to go home that have all of the materials that they may need, from Post-Its to pencils to crayons and all the little goodies that make elementary students thrive.”

She said one of the largest purchases was for book kits so that elementary students can join a book club and have a shared experience reading the same book.

To see the rest of the board updates on topics like online tutoring, food services operations, and more, click here.

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