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

Kids in the Santa Barbara Unified School District will continue with full distance learning through January 19 of next year, the school board unanimously decided Tuesday night.

“So essentially, we really have a lot to do to really be prepared to move into a hybrid situation that’s with fidelity and a healthy, safe return for students,” Boardmember Jackie Reid said skeptically about the upcoming November 9 hybrid reopening date option. “… It sounds to me like we don’t have enough staff to move into a hybrid model. How many staff would we need, and how would we hire them before three weeks from now?”

The board had a choice between two options: Elementary schools could begin in-person hybrid models on November 9 and secondary schools on January 19, or all schools could continue distance-only learning and reopen in hybrid models January 19. November 9 is when the county is forecasted to be in the orange COVID-19 tier under California’s reopening metric, and January 19 is when the county is projected to be in either the orange or gold tiers, the least restrictive.

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The actual details of cohort sizes in the two-day-a-week in-person model were vague because the district would need to know exactly how many students will choose to return to an in-person cohort to do the math on how many teachers, cohorts, and staff would be necessary at each school. 

But the vagueness of the cohort descriptions wasn’t the only reason the board voted against hybrid reopening elementary schools on November 9. After sending out a few surveys, it was clear that the overwhelming majority of teachers are against reopening before January and most parents are, too. 

“Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve given a lot to teaching and to the students for 32 years,” said Barbara Barr, a 6th-grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary. “At the last board meeting, somebody said that because I don’t know anybody who’s died from COVID, we should return to in-person learning. Well, I know someone. My father died from COVID in July.” 

Barr’s emotional comment included that her brother had not practiced proper pandemic precautions and inadvertently infected their father. She warned that students may bring the virus home and infect their family members and experience the same guilt and pain that her brother suffers from. She was just one of several who shared their personal losses from the virus and one of many teachers who spoke out against reopening in November. 

Over 700 people watched the meeting. Roughly 71 percent of staff at all levels of school said they preferred that students return to school on January 19. In contrast, about 43 percent of parents with children across all school levels said they would prefer to begin in-person school on November 9. Seventy-five percent of staff and 71 percent of all district families responded to the survey.

“I was prepared to vote for [reopening on November 9], but now I’m with my sister boardmembers to give this more time and get more ready,” Board President Laura Capps said. “But we are going to push. This is concerning hiring. I want us to be as bullish as possible when it comes to hiring. I don’t like the fact that we are not ready in part because we don’t have staffing.”

But not everyone agreed with the board members. Several parents spoke out in frustration that the board hasn’t reopened faster.

“I can hear the sincerity in all of your voices that you’ve been pulling this together for the kids, but the bottom line is you really have failed in the job of getting children back to school,” said Rosanne Crawford, a frequent speaker. “All the private schools and several districts have been back for a month…. And offering only two days a week is not acceptable. It is not enough time, and kids are getting damaged.”

Despite many commenters’ pleas for reopening sooner, the lack of staffing and strong teacher disdain was enough to sway the board to vote for the later reopening unanimously. The full plan to be implemented in January is available here.

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