The Santa Maria-Bonita School District has not yet submitted its reopening plan to the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, but it’s preparing one to be presented at next week’s board meeting, Superintendent Luke Ontiveros told the News-Press.
He is waiting for the California legislature to pass, reject or edit Assembly Bill 10, often referred to as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “Safe Schools for All” plan. It would permit schools to reopen with approved safety plans when case rates reach 25 daily cases per 100,000 people for at least five consecutive days.
The legislation would require schools to make an effort to reopen after a county has been in California’s red tier for two weeks.
Despite Gov. Newsom’s prediction that the legislation would pass last week, the legislature is still reviewing the bill.
Superintendent Ontiveros has a main objection with AB 10: the legislation’s weekly asymptomatic testing of teachers and students. Currently, the district tests 2,000 employees in two-month cycles.
“That’s been a pretty daunting task, so coordinating testing of all staff members and students every week is not something we’d like to take on,” he said.
The funds provided in AB 10 would not cover the full cost of asymptomatic testing, but Superintendent Ontiveros is much more concerned with the logistics than the price tag.
“To just have the capacity to administer, catalog and ship those tests would be pretty daunting for our current school health staff,” he said.
The district has tracked COVID-19 cases in adults on campus, and Superintendent Ontiveros anticipates successful contact tracing even when students are back in classrooms. Currently only high-risk small cohorts are meeting.
According to the interactive school reopening map on the Safe Schools for All hub, most urban public school districts have not yet reopened elementary schools.
“We’re the biggest district in the county,” Superintendent Ontiveros said. “Most of the schools that have been able to reopen have been smaller in size.”
Ballard, Blochman Union, Carpinteria Unified, Cold Spring, Los Olivos, Montecito Union and Solvang elementary schools are open for either hybrid or full in-person learning.
Santa Barbara Unified School District advocated for an exception from the state to reopen its elementary campuses on a hybrid schedule but has not reported a response.
At the next board meeting, Santa Maria-Bonita will discuss whether it could reopen for hybrid or full in-person when the case rate decreases.
“Right now with distance learning, students are getting daily synchronous education. But in the hybrid schedule, they don’t have that every day,” Superintendent Ontiveros said. “At least with distance learning, there’s some synchronous learning going on. Of course, nothing beats learning at school five days a week.”
He is sending surveys to families this week to see what they prefer. The results will guide the district’s reopening plan.
“Our focus has just been rather than create more instability, just focus on getting better at distance learning and follow the science,” he said.
The CDC released guidance for reopening schools last Friday, and Superintendent Ontiveros spent the weekend scouring the advice. It wasn’t different than he expected, but he took careful note that the guidance emphasizes physical distancing.
He’s not sure how the district could pull off transporting all its students while maintaining six feet of distance between them.
The guidance lists vaccination as a layer of protection, although not required.
Vaccines have not been added to the district’s agreements with labor organizations. Teachers are prioritized by the state in Phase 1B, which will begin vaccinations after residents 65 and older receive their doses.
The district recently updated a memorandum of understanding with classified staff members but hasn’t yet reoriented its agreement with the teachers association.
“This is true for anywhere but our school staff classified and certificated have responded very well to the challenges,” Superintendent Ontiveros said. “And our parents deserve all the credit for taking on responsibility.”
He is hopeful that case rates will continue to decrease, allowing the district’s 21 schools to open doors once again.