Oak Valley Elementary School in Buellton will open its doors to its youngest pupils Monday.
Students will have four hours on campus five days per week with additional online instruction.
District staff are finalizing class lists this week, but the number of families comfortable with in-person instruction continues to grow.
Just under 20% of families initially opted to stay in distance learning, but the final tally will be lower.
Transitional kindergarten, kindergarten, first and second grades will enter campus Monday, and the rest will join March 22.
In the Buellton Union School District, sixth grade is at Jonata Middle School and will return to campus March 15. Seventh and eighth grades must wait until Santa Barbara County reaches the red tier.
“I was really hoping that on the same day that we are able to open for sixth grade, we can open for seventh and eighth grade that week. We really want to be able to do that. That would open our whole middle school,” Dr. Randal Haggard, superintendent of the Buellton Union School District, told the News-Press Wednesday.
He has alerted middle school staff of the district’s intentions to open the entire school once the county’s case rate dips low enough.
“Everyone is ready and excited to go forward,” he said, noting there was a “little trepidation” at first. “As we see vaccination really ramping up, I think that’s really reassuring some of our staff members.”
Districts must choose which staff members should get the first doses of their allocated vaccines. Currently 10% of the state’s supply is dedicated to K-12 educators.
Dr. Haggard describes the task as “one of the hardest things (he has) ever had to do.”
The Santa Barbara County Education Office has outlined four tiers to districts to help them prioritize staff.
First, those who work with medically fragile students who often can’t wear masks will receive their vaccine.
“I am still hopeful that we can see the local system really ramping up to meet the demand for vaccination among our educators,” Dr. Haggard said.
President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that there will be enough vaccines for every adult in the U.S. by the end of May. He also pushed for greater vaccination of teachers within the next month.
“One of the things that’s really exciting right now is just how excited teachers are for vaccines. It’s just been this outpouring of gratitude and, you know, we’re at a different point now than we were before and it allows people to get excited about having kids back,” Dr. Haggard said.
Dr. Haggard is thankful for additional CDC and California Department of Public Health guidance that allowed him to feel safe and craft a plan.
“That research has been a real help to me to be able to see that we know more; we know more about how it spread. We’ve taken all the mitigation efforts,” he said. “Our safety plan was used as a model and recommended to other districts in the county.”
Small cohorts have been on campus since November. Some students have become sick with COVID-19, but no incidents of on-campus transmission were detected during contact tracing.
“I always say there’s nothing worse than a school without children. And we’ve been a year with small groups, but still it would be great to have them all back,” Dr. Haggard said.
Staff members are putting finishing touches on classrooms and adding welcome signs to campus in an effort to greet returning students and those who have not yet set foot on the school site
“Remember that our little kindergarten students, they’ve never been on a school site yet. So, that same high anxiety moment for our kindergarten parents is going to happen Monday,” he said. “I can tell you several of our students are really excited about getting to be back in school.”
Buellton’s neighbor, Solvang School District, has been open since Oct. 26 for transitional kindergarten through eighth grade. It has a hybrid model, but Superintendent Dr. Steve Seaford will re-evaluate the plan when the county reaches the orange tier.
Solvang Elementary School opened when the county was in the red tier, so it was allowed to stay open even as case numbers climbed after the holidays.
Dr. Seaford told board members during the Jan. 13 board meeting that he considered sending classes to distance learning but ultimately did not close the school.
Santa Ynez Valley Union High School closed after a case of COVID-19 on campus at the time and reopened for hybrid learning Feb. 2.
Around 16% of Solvang School students are currently enrolled in distance learning.
“Vaccinations are definitely giving everyone additional hope to get more and more kids back sooner than later,” Dr. Seaford said.
He said the students are adhering to health and safety protocols well.
“The most helpful thing is seeing kids on campus. Every day with their smiles, their great attention to being socially distanced, wearing their masks and washing their hands, they are joyful,” he said.
Santa Barbara Unified School District reopened this week, and Goleta Union will open its campuses Monday.