Santa Barbara Unified Gearing Up for Reopening in Person

Top Four Takeaways from COVID Report Include Testing Costs, Internet Connectivity

From top left: Board President Kate Ford, American Sign Language interpreter Kelly Turner, Superintendent Hilda Maldonado, American Sign Language interpreter Julia Townsend, boardmember Rose Muñoz, Boardmember Laura Capps, Boardmember Wendy Sims-Moten, Boardmember Virginia Alvarez. | Credit: Courtesy

The Santa Barbara Unified School District is champing at the bit to reopen its schools in person, but it has one thing holding it back: the community case rate.

The adjusted case rate, currently at 49.5, is the number of new cases per day for every 100,000 residents of the county averaged over a week. In order for elementary schools to have a chance to open to in-person instruction again, the adjusted case rate must be down to 25 or less.

“We are ready,” said Frann Wageneck, assistant superintendent of student services, at the Tuesday board meeting. “When we get to that point where we’re at 25 cases per 100,000 or lower, we will open our elementary schools in hybrid. We’re ready to do it today. We welcome those numbers continuing to drop so we can open.”

Though the adjusted case rate is nearly double what it needs to be to reopen elementary schools, it is much improved from previous months. From January 11 to 25, Santa Barbara County has seen a 31 percent increase in cumulative recovered cases, a 23 percent decrease in active cases, and a 42 percent decrease in current hospitalized cases.

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School districts were originally required to submit a waiver in order to reopen elementary schools, but that is no longer required by the state. Now, all districts must submit safety plans. Santa Barbara Unified’s is already complete, and Wageneck said it would be submitted directly after the meeting. If approved, elementary schools will be able to open immediately upon hitting the 25 per 100,000 mark. 

The state moved the measure for reopening secondary schools. Now, they can reopen in person after the county moves into the red tier for at least five consecutive days. To move out of the purple tier and into the less-restrictive red tier, that rate must be between four and seven.

District staff gave a presentation on distance learning and reopening progress. The following are the top four takeaways from the report.  

Testing all students and staff is simply too expensive The state offers districts incentive funding (about $450/pupil) if they agree to regularly test students. Like other school districts across the state, Santa Barbara Unified estimated that it would cost the district more to provide frequent COVID testing of students than the incentive provides for. The testing of students is not mandatory for reopening.

Internet connectivity needed for distance learning is overall working okay. Todd Ryckman, the chief educational technology officer, surveyed 6th-12th grade students, though there was only a 10 percent response rate. Only 3 percent of them said they always experienced slow connectivity during classes, while the majority of respondents — 41 percent — said it’s sometimes slow. Thirty-five percent said it was rarely slow.

The small cohorts operating in-person are turning out to be a big success. There are 1,395 students (one in five district wide) in the cohorts, which are set up for students with the greatest needs who cannot utilize distance learning. As of Monday, the cohorts have seen 94 total positive COVID cases (20 students and 74 staff) onsite that required immediate isolation from campus. Wageneck attributed the low cases with the strict COVID protocols, such as mask wearing and social distancing.

Even though school cafeterias are closed to the vast majority of district students, lunch hasn’t stopped being served. Students and community members 18 and under have been able to pick up free meals from school campuses throughout the pandemic, and one million meals have officially been served as of this week.

Correction: This story has been updated from a previous version that incorrectly stated COVID-19 testing would be mandatory for all staff and students under reopening plans.

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