Drive-by protest planned for today
Santa Barbara Unified seeks to reopen its campuses, but state law prohibits schools from reopening until the county’s case rate decreases.
Schools Superintendent Hilda Maldonado and board President Kate Ford released an article to local media last week, expressing their desire to reopen school, arguing that districts with a lower socioeconomic status are harmed by the state’s policy. Their op-ed was published Sunday in the News-Press’ Voices section.
And now a physician in a local group is encouraging parents to drive by their children’s schools and Santa Barbara City Hall today and honk in support of schools reopening for in-person instruction.
Parents and community members have been advocating for the return to in-person learning for months.
Santa Barbara Parent Leadership Action Network formed this summer in response to COVID-19’s effect on education.
Dr. Sunita Beall, an SB PLAN member and parent of two students, organized a drive-by protest from noon to 1 p.m. today. The physician encouraged parents to drive by their children’s school and Santa Barbara City Hall and honk three times.
“I’m hoping that the principals in the school, the staff in the school, the teachers who are actually teaching these students over Zoom in their classrooms will hear that there is a sizable amount of people who would like their students to be back in person,” she told the News-Press.
She picked today, the day of the Santa Barbara Unified board meeting, to get board members’ attention. Because board meetings are held over Zoom, she doesn’t think the district sees the number of concerned parents and community members.
In response to news of today’s parade, Superintendent Maldonado said in an email to the News-Press, “We see you … We hear you … And we support your requests to reopen our school. We want to be sure that our teachers and administrators get vaccinated as soon as possible, so we are working to advocate for this at all levels.”
Other parents called into the Santa Barbara County Board of Education meeting Thursday to express their frustration with the county education office’s inaction.
“What has the county done to negotiate with the governor to get our kids back to school?” asked Caroline Harrah, SB PLAN organizer and district parent.
Friday, Dr. Susan Salcido, the Santa Barbara County superintendent of schools, and Maggi Daane, the county school board president, sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom.
They asked him to continue prioritizing education and childcare workers for the COVID-19 vaccine (who are not yet eligible for the vaccine but are one of few work groups prioritized in the state’s age-based distribution strategy).
The superintendent and board president asked for opportunities for local districts to reopen.
“In some areas of Santa Barbara County, we have adjacent districts, where one district is open and the other is not. It is difficult to justify how students in neighboring districts are not afforded the benefit of in-person instruction,” they wrote.
SB Unified’s board wrote a letter to Gov. Newsom and Dr. Mark Ghaly, the California Health and Human Services secretary, in December but did not receive a reply.
The board intended to submit an elementary-school reopening waiver application Dec. 1 but was denied because the county’s case rate rose above 14 daily cases per 100,000 population, a threshold state health officials set that closes waiver applications.
“It really didn’t look like opening schools increases cases,” Dr. Peggy Dodds, a pediatrician with the Santa Barbara Public Health Department, said at the Dec. 1 meeting. “There have been several cases worldwide of big outbreaks in high schools, but, honestly, most of those were also when they weren’t following the public health guidelines with masking and distancing.”
Dr. Beall, an internal medicine physician at UCSB’s student health center, understood the district’s hesitation when the virus was new. But the low rates of transmission in the county’s open schools and SB Unified’s on-campus cohorts make her feel more confident.
“A lot of people feel that since we had this plan in the fall and now we’re changing it that we’re being more aggressive, or just ignoring the safety issues,” she said. “The fact of the matter is what we understand now is that there are many measures that are very safe. So we can change our parameters.”
The Santa Barbara Unified School District has detected nine transmissions of COVID-19 among on-campus staff and no transmission among students on campus.
“(Students in school are) not out socializing. They have a place where their energy is directed,” Dr. Beall said. “They’re going to be going to school, coming home and studying, so they have more of a focus.”
Dr. Beall said campuses — with safety measures in place — are safe for students whose families choose the option. She made clear that distance learning can be the best option for other families.
Santa Barbara Unified is ready and waiting for case numbers to drop to 25 daily cases per 100,000 population so it can open its elementary campuses.
It reports successful negotiations with its teachers unions regarding working conditions for reopening.
“Will there be challenges? New problems to solve? Yes. But I have the utmost confidence in our teachers and staff to anticipate any issues and provide a safe learning environment for students,” Superintendent Maldonado said.
Officials from the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department could not return a request for comment in time for the News-Press’ deadline.
Schools have become national news as President Joe Biden described schools closing and women leaving the workforce as “a national emergency” in an interview Sunday with “CBS Evening News” anchor and managing editor Norah McDonnell.
The CDC is expected to release its guidance for reopening schools this week.