The board of the Santa Barbara Unified School District met Tuesday night to tackle year-end tasks and strategize how to better serve students in response to the pandemic.
Santa Barbara County Public Health Department school liaison Susan Klein-Rothschild answered questions related to a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, as well as the vaccine recently approved by the FDA.
The new case rate for Santa Barbara County is 24.4 cases per 100,000 population. The state’s guidance does not allow schools to reopen under a waiver when the case rate is above 14.
The case positivity rate, which has not been an issue this fall, has now escalated into purple-tier level with more than 6% of tests coming back positive.
Ms. Klein-Rothschild offered to consult with SB Unified on its reopening plan now, so it will be ready to reopen when metrics allow.
SB Unified has had a total of 25 cases among students and staff that have been on campus in the small cohort system. Over 2,500 students and 300 staff members have been on campus.
Dr. Frann Wageneck, assistant superintendent, pointed out that 68% of the positive cases occurred after Thanksgiving.
In a poll to high school principals, she learned that on-campus cohort participation has declined since Thanksgiving with families worried about the increase of COVID-19 in the community.
On-campus transmission has not been detected, Dr. Wageneck said.
Ms. Klein-Rothschild said she hasn’t seen evidence of schools creating much transmission of the virus, mentioning a recent study showing a small risk of transmission on campus.
“We haven’t had those 25 individuals transmit the virus to any other individuals on campus or in our district office, to our knowledge.
“That is very encouraging,” Dr. Wageneck said. “There is no other way to say it than that we worked so hard to create safe schools in the last few months.
“We believe our schools are some of the safest in the community right now.”
District administrators reported negative student success, which they attributed to the pandemic and the challenges of distance learning.
When the county moved into the purple tier, students in multiple cohorts had to choose one, sometimes making a decision between athletics and academics.
Fine arts cohorts were in the process of being established but weren’t ready in time.
“This was only a pause, not a cancellation of those experiences for those kids,” Bill Woodard, Dos Pueblos High School principal, said.
Santa Barbara Community Academy principal Anna Scharfeld said her campus has struggled with staffing.
“A challenge has definitely been having enough staff to run our cohorts, but people get sick. There are family emergencies even in a normal year, and there are close contacts where people have to stay home in a COVID year,” she said.
The challenges have shown on students’ report cards.
In secondary schools, 27% of students have at least one D or F grade, and 9.2% have three or more Ds and/or Fs.
Those students are obligated to meet with a counselor and explain their challenges. The data will allow administrators to make decisions districtwide.
Elementary schools reported a 10% increase in the number of students receiving low marks, with writing and reading being the greatest challenges.
Shawn Carey, assistant superintendent of secondary education, expressed the need to adapt new grading policies. She likes the idea of providing a way for students to repair their grade rather than having to retake a whole course.
“It may just be that one unit of study was a problem,” she said. “So what we’re trying to do is be more specific in the skills and standards the students are struggling with.”
Even during the pandemic’s challenges, 15 students were able to graduate and receive a diploma this semester.
Chronic absenteeism has decreased this year, showing that many students are logging into their online schoolwork.
Three elementary schools saw an increase in absenteeism, but secondary schools showed a dramatic decrease.
Dr. Wageneck hopes to learn more about the causes of these rates in future discussions with principals.
The school system will be serving grab-and-go breakfast and lunch during its winter break.
Families can pick up food from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday to Wednesday on the campuses of Dos Pueblos High School, La Colina Junior High, La Cumbre Junior High and Franklin Elementary.
The next school board meeting is scheduled for Jan. 5.