Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

Over a quarter of junior high and high school students in Santa Barbara Unified received at least one D or F on their most recent report cards this year, putting more pressure on the district to reopen as soon as the state allows.

“I’m sure everyone is as concerned as I am when we see those grades, the decline in math classes, and the Ds and Fs,” said School Boardmember Virginia Alvarez Tuesday night at her first meeting. “I know there are programs in place, but clearly we need to do more. What else are we going to do?”

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The grades were part of an overview update to the board about reopening in the COVID-19 pandemic. The County Public Health Department is not currently accepting waivers for reopening elementary schools until local case rates and positivity rates start to improve, so the board voted to consult with the public health department about the district waiver ahead of time and iron out any issues so it can submit the waiver as soon as local case rates improve again.

The secondary school grades weren’t the only indication that distance learning has been taking its toll. Signs of struggle with distance learning continued down to the elementary age, too. There was a 10 percent increase in elementary students receiving ones and twos out of five on their most recent trimester report cards as compared to last year, mostly in reading and writing. And although chronic absenteeism went down during distance learning, Harding and Cleveland elementary schools saw increases.

In secondary schools, 88 percent of students who received three or more Ds or Fs were Hispanic, and 79 percent were socioeconomically disadvantaged. Districtwide, Hispanic students make up just 55 percent of enrollment. Although special education students make up just 13 percent of enrollment, 28 percent of them earned three or more Ds or Fs during distance learning.

“I come to you with data that I didn’t know until this morning and I wouldn’t know until ahead of time,” said Susan Klein-Rothschild with the Public Health Department. Klein-Rothschild was referring to the unpredictable turns of the pandemic and that recent data shows it is safe to open schools and that students are more likely to follow guidelines in school than out of school with friends.

And from what little has played out in Santa Barbara Unified so far, it appears true. There has been no COVID-19 transmission on any campus since small cohorts and athletics have been allowed to resume in person. Ten cohorts/pods had to be closed due to positive cases in the group, but those 10 cohorts account for just 5 percent of all the students in cohorts.

Even though the board voted to push the waiver through as soon as the Public Health Department allows, the actual decision to reopen schools will be made by the board at a later time. Based on current conditions, that could be months.

The district’s reopening plans have continually been pushed back. First, the board pushed its hybrid reopening plan back in October when it decided it just wasn’t ready to reopen in November. Then, once the board voted on reopening in a hybrid model in January, county cases began to spike and the county stopped accepting applications.

The board will meet again January 5, 2021.

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