We at Santa Barbara Unified felt a shock wave through our school system when we learned Monday morning that our county had reached the Purple Tier.
I was planning to see my family and friends and personally felt a huge sense of loss. I realized that this year I will be missing my parents, who are 80 and 84, my father-in-law who is 86 — all of whom are thankfully healthy. I will continue to miss my nephews and nieces who range in ages from 1-39. I will miss my two sisters and brother and my close knit-friend group who have a tradition of getting together for Friendsgiving. This year I can choose to forego these experiences and celebrate with my husband and sons as we await the promise of a vaccine.
We are back in the Purple Tier and facing a statewide mandatory curfew. The question we all want the answers to is: How did this happen when we all are doing our part? We saw the Isla Vista residents hold off on the annual Halloween party. Our most impacted group in the agricultural fields have lowered their rates significantly due to information outreach and support. Perhaps the question we are asking is the wrong one because we are dealing with an insidious virus that we are still learning about.
The guidance for school reopening has shifted dramatically since March. The criteria metrics have changed. There are conflicting opinions at every level about how to respond, including a national political rhetoric about the handling of this pandemic.
Who are school staff supposed to believe when it comes to opening schools safely? As superintendent, I have worked closely with our Public Health Department, executive staff, and school principals to ensure that our facilities are ready and our health/safety protocols are in place so that our students and teachers can return to school safely.
Our conversations have jumped from plexiglass as a virus-stopper to ventilation systems as protection and lastly to monitoring our behaviors and our students’ behaviors to maintain safety. Can we trust ourselves to follow every precaution at all times? Can we trust that our students will do the same?
Over Zoom, I have convened a student advisory group, a teacher advisory group, and a re-entry advisory group composed of teachers, principals, parents, and community members, and I have listened to their views and competing opinions on many topics including plexiglass, ventilation, whether or not children are virus spreaders, or whether campuses are potential sites for superspreader events.
There have been many questions raised, and we have done our very best to tap every resource at our disposal to provide the answers. But the truth is, we don’t always have all the answers. The best we can do is take care of ourselves and each other even when we don’t agree. I believe our Public Health Department and our governor have our best interest at heart. I know we — the leaders of S.B. Unified — also have the best interest of our children and all staff at the center of our decision making.
I am hopeful that a vaccine is coming soon and am clear that our purpose is now clearer than ever: Schools and education are the heart of our community. We must protect our children from the negative impacts of a health pandemic while also maintaining a firm commitment to educating them. Schools provide support to meet the mind, heart, body, and soul of students. We are the social safety net for many.
As we head into the holidays, the question I believe we should be asking is how can we all do our part in this pandemic to ensure we keep ourselves and each other safe?
Can we all sacrifice our holiday gatherings in the spirit of staying healthy and safe? Can we all be role models for our children of all ages so that they inherit lessons on community, compassion, and collaboration? I believe we can, and I am committed to safely reopening our schools and need everyone to join me in achieving this goal so that we can teach our children through our actions that we value education and also value them as the future caretakers and leaders of our community. We must all continue to do our part by avoiding travel and large gatherings, wearing a mask, washing our hands, and practicing social distancing. Please join me in keeping Santa Barbara safe.
May your Thanksgiving holiday be safe, healthy, and peaceful.
Hilda Maldonado is superintendent of the Santa Barbara Unified School District.