Santa Barbara Unified Takes Hard Look at Reopening Elementary Schools

District Officials Celebrate Successful First Week of Distance Learning

Dahlia Alvarez takes her 1st-grade class online during the first day of school. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

[Update 8/27 4:49 p.m:] Hours prior to the Santa Barbara Unified meeting on school re-opening waivers, the County Board of Supervisors received a report from the Department of Public Health stating it would be able to provide COVID-19 testing for at least some of district teachers. School boardmembers were unaware of the offering at the time of its meeting Tuesday evening.

Public Health Director Dr. Van Do-Reynoso said that the county’s three state-sponsored testing sites have not been fully utilized by the public, so they would be available for schools to use. In addition, she said her department’s own three testing sites would dedicate two hours of testing slots per day to test district staff should the district go forward with applying for a waiver.

[Original story:] Despite the County Public Health Department’s announcement last week that school districts may now apply to reopen elementary schools to in-person instruction, it was clear Tuesday night that Santa Barbara Unified might pass up the offer.

“I was really disappointed to hear the County Public Health’s decision through the grapevine,” Boardmember Kate Ford said. “I have no reason to be truly encouraged. They admitted their data is flawed. It’s clear that testing is less than optimal in this county, and receiving results is really slow if you do get a test, and contact tracing is clearly behind.

“I suppose it would be very interesting to apply for the waivers, and it gives us a feeling of hope for the future, but I want the board to think long and hard about that decision.”

Generally, the only chance for schools to reopen in-person is if the entire county remains off of the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list for two weeks or longer — Santa Barbara has remained on it for more than two months. However, transmission rates have dropped enough in recent weeks that some county districts may apply for and receive the state’s okay to reopen with additional safety protocols, though ultimately, it is the state’s decision.


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District superintendents would need to fill out the waiver, show there was consultation with parents and teachers and other stakeholders, and publish a comprehensive reopening plan online, and then County Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg can take the waiver to the state public health officer for approval.

It also requires that the district pay to test 25 percent of its staff every week, constantly rotating and re-testing to ensure everyone is tested monthly. This alone would cost the district upward of $180,000 that it would not be reimbursed.

“The Public Health Officer Susan Klein-Rothschild mentioned that most of the waivers they are expecting are from private schools,” said Superintendent Hilda Maldonado. “This is because private schools obviously have a lot smaller numbers of students, smaller numbers of staff, and the ability to do testing and pay for it and get the 24-hour results because they can afford to pay doctors or clinics to do the work for them.”

Since the pandemic’s onset, the district has spent approximately $7 million on distance-learning technologies, PPE, food services, in-person learning expenditures such as outdoor tents, and more. Meg Jetté, assistant superintendent of business services, explained that all of these costs will be reimbursed to the district through the federal CARES Act. The district is supposed to get $10.9 million in total, leaving it some cushion before the December spending deadline.

FIRST WEEK

The first week of online instruction showed a 98.5 percent attendance rate districtwide. And despite the 307 students who unenrolled since last July, district officials celebrated the high attendance and overall success of week one. 

Todd Ryckman, chief educational technology officer, said that every student enrolled in the district has internet access, whether that be via Wi-Fi or a wireless hotspot. And aside from the encouraging data, district officials said families are generally reporting positive experiences with distance-learning as compared to in the spring.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Harding Elementary 6th-grade teachers Megan Reed and Natalie Ramirez showed off their virtual classroom, in which they use Bitmoji avatars to represent themselves in the class.

Harding Elementary 6th-grade teachers Megan Reed and Natalie Ramirez showed off their virtual classroom, in which they use Bitmoji avatars to represent themselves in the class. Students can click on their avatars or other items in the room to interact and access learning activities. So far, it’s been a hit.

“We wanted to make a virtual space to create a sense of community and to make the online world a classroom for our students,” Reed said about her shared virtual classroom. “When students are in the physical classroom, they can usually interact with everything, so we wanted students to be able to do that in the virtual setting as well.”

But despite the successes, distance learning is still not a perfectly equitable solution.

“I do want to share anecdotally with you that the stories we heard during the spring are still occurring,” said Frann Wageneck, assistant superintendent of the district. “We had a boy who was doing his distance learning in a closet the other day, because that was the quiet space that he could find in his home.”

She said that the district is partnering up with community organizations to give students in need a place to work during the day. The organizations include the Boys & Girls Club, United Way, Girls Inc., and the YMCA. There are 350 scholarships available, but 3,500 students are eligible. 

The full report is available here. 


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