The Santa Barbara Unified School District will be ready to reopen elementary schools once the county reaches the required five-day case rate of 25 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents.
The current state guidance does not require a waiver to reopen, but a safety plan is required. Over the past months, the district has studied safety measures and ventilation on its school sites.
“We do have to submit a plan to the state, which is being submitted tonight, in fact, after this meeting. So, we are ready,” Dr. Frann Wageneck, assistant superintendent, said. “When we get to that point where we’re at 25 cases per 100,000 people or lower, we will open our elementary schools in the hybrid plan. We’re ready to do it today.”
Susan Klein-Rothschild, Santa Barbara County Public Health Department school liaison, also expressed confidence in the district’s plans.
“All the planning that I’ve heard over the last couple months; I’ve heard of all those reviews and tours of schools and ventilation and steps with staff with students. I’ve talked to many of your nurses about steps taken when there’s a positive case,” she said. “I feel like I’ve heard the district take a lot of proactive steps to be ready.
“So when you hit that number, there’s nothing else that’s a barrier for you.”
Currently, the county’s case rate is 49.5 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents — a strong decline from the case rate at the last school board meeting.
“I can honestly say this is the first time, and really a couple months, that we’re headed in the right direction. We need to get to a case rate of 25 to be able to open for in-person learning, and that’s the goal for everyone,” Ms. Klein-Rothschild said. “We want students and staff back at school safely.”
Dr. John Becchio, assistant superintendent of human resources, had questions regarding the state’s guidance, which requires weekly COVID-19 testing of students and staff. While the district believes the state funding covers the cost of testing kits, he wondered about the time and staffing required to pull off weekly tests.
A total of 90 COVID-19 cases have been detected in small cohorts on campuses. Of those, 20 are students, and 70 are staff members.
Eight cases were transmitted at school. Only one student was infected on campus.
“We don’t expect to see high net transmission happening on our campuses now that this second wave of COVID seems to be declining,” Dr. Wageneck said.
When visiting seniors taking the SAT test at school Tuesday, Dr. Wageneck told the students not to give up on returning to class during this school year.
In order to open junior high and high schools, the county must reach the red tier for at least five days, or a case rate at or better than seven cases per 100,000 population.
District administrators surveyed students about their Wi-Fi connection. Over half of students with Cox internet experience slow connection speeds, and even more students on the district’s wireless hotspots experience the slow speeds and dropped connections.
Todd Ryckman, chief educational technology officer, and Superintendent Hilda Maldonado will be speaking with Cox soon to rectify the slow speeds.
Many public commenters had a question about a $50,000, six-month contract with Nichols Strategies, LLC, for public relations. The district already has a full-time public relations employee.
The timing comes after a lawsuit was filed against the district last fall. The lawsuit, as reported earlier this month by the News-Press, accuses the district of not adequately protecting students from an alleged sexual assailant, Matef Harmachis, who has since been banned from ever teaching again.
“I do want to say that the intent of this contract is to improve our communication, and crisis communication is just one aspect of it,” Superintendent Maldonado said.
“We also want to be clear that when we speak about public relations, it is not meant to hide or lie. It is actually quite the opposite,” she said.
Board members passed the resolution in the consent agenda.
Other consent agenda items included adding a student board member and construction projects.
The board will meet in open session next at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 9.