Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Students in the Santa Barbara Unified School District are attending classes without mandatory masking for the first time in nearly two years, as California joins a small group of states beginning to lift restrictions due to a steep drop in COVID-19 cases.

The district has moved from required masking to recommended masking, and the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department continues to strongly recommend masking indoors for any student or staff with high risk factors, including living with family members over the age of 85, or with chronic illnesses. Dr. Van Do-Reynoso, Public Director of County Health, said vaccinations are also highly recommended, due to the low vaccination rate among school-age children. Less than 50 percent of children ages 5-11, and less than 70 percent of students ages 12-15, are fully vaccinated. 

In the most recent data provided by the district, about 2 percent of students tested positive between February 7 and 13, about 57 out of 3,600 students. Between February 28 and March 6, less than one percent of students tested positive, with only four out of 1,300 testing positive. Among staff members, six out of 283 tested positive between February 7 and 13, and two out of 154 tested positive between February 28 and March 6. 

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Santa Barbara School Board Member Virginia Alvarez said she is “cautiously optimistic” about the mandate lifting, and she felt the drop in cases allowed the district to make an informed decision. “We’re gonna take it slow,” Alvarez said. “We’re not just throwing caution to the wind; we still have all of our mitigation protocols in place.” 

Those mitigations include continued use of air filtration systems, sanitizing surfaces, and encouraging teachers to keep windows open. 

The district has also elected to continue testing 10 percent of the school population, including reentry students and staff with positive test results, students and staff in extra curricular activities, athletics, anyone symptomatic, students or staff who volunteer for testing, and random and group testing. 

Alvarez also said all students will be sent home with at-home COVID-19 tests at the end of this week, to allow students to test themselves before returning to school after spring break. Once students return, the district will increase its testing pool to 20 percent of the school populations. 

Since students returned from winter break on January 7, a total of 1,813 students have tested positive for COVID-19, out of more than 12,000. Out of about 1,600 staff members, 237 have tested positive. 

County-wide, the positive COVID-19 case rate per 100,000 people is about five. This time last year, Do-Reynoso said the case rate was “significantly greater” with 428 cases per 100,000. Do-Reynoso said the decision to not wear masks is greatly personal, and individuals should evaluate their situation if they are unsure of what to do. “There’s always going to be some level of risk,” she said. “If you are uncertain, evaluate your family circumstances.”

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