A group of around 40 students met in front of the Santa Barbara Unified School District’s office, at 720 Santa Barbara St., around noon on Tuesday. They held signs protesting the school board’s decision to delay in-person learning until second semester for secondary schools.
Students held signs painted in school colors that said: “We don’t feel heard,” “We miss school,” “Stop putting yourself before the students,” and other short messages.
A semicircle of approximately 25 people surrounded the student protest. Parents, community members and a couple political candidates took photos of the students and clapped for them.
District employees listened, and Board President Laura Capps approached students and chatted.
The students were otherwise quiet, not chanting unless provoked by a parent.
A group of three San Marcos High School freshmen girls said parents had a role spreading the word, but students organized the protest.
One of the girls, Hope Campbell, heard about the protest from her dad, Brian Campbell, who’s a candidate for the district’s school board.
Mr. Campbell said the official announcement of the protest wasn’t sent until the day before to avoid district employees from stopping it, but a few people planned it earlier.
“I’m proud of my kid for coming out and voicing their concerns,” he said. “It’s a lot harder to protest than check a box on a survey.”
In a survey sent by the district prior to the Oct. 13 board meeting, 54% of students responded that they were ready to return to campus.
“We’re missing a lot that you don’t think about,” Nicole Parker said. Her friends Hope and Kiera Kinsella agreed, saying they aren’t getting a high-school experience.
They had their own homecoming party with two other friends and even dressed up before meeting at Kiera’s house.
“I’m confused as to why we’re not able to go to school but we can go to the mall or go see a movie,” Kiera said. “Why is that more important than our learning?”
They were still worried about COVID-19, but said mental health is important as well.
“We have to try to get through COVID-19 or else it’ll be a roadblock in our lives for many years,” Hope said.
Santa Barbara High School senior Lily Bienstock said she has been nervous as she applies for college.
“I’m worried for college that I’m not going to be prepared,” she said.
She heard about the protest Monday in a group chat of senior girls. She said people argued in the chat about returning to campus.
Her friend, junior Ronin Suzuki, also got pushback for wanting to participate in the protest.
“Just getting back on campus with hybrid learning would be better than Zoom,” he said. “I’d prefer to be in-person full time, but it’s not possible at this stage.”
At the Oct. 13 board meeting, Dr. Frann Wageneck, assistant superintendent, explained why a full in-person plan wasn’t being pursued.
Even though an order by Dr. Henning Ansorg, health officer for the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, allows secondary schools to reopen in the red tier, schools need to maintain guidelines.
In order to keep six feet apart, SB Unified schools would fill more classrooms and need approximately eight additional teachers per school. And there’s not that many teachers for hire, Dr. Wageneck said.
“As a district, we also have many things to learn from our students,” Superintendent Hilda Maldonado said in a statement to the News-Press. “I heard from students today that they are eager to see their teachers and peers in person, a goal that we all share.”
SB Unified Staff met with Sierra Chesluk, the student who organized the protest, afterward. Members of the media and community were not allowed inside, as capacity was limited.
Ms. Capps said district employees were able to discuss the hybrid-learning planning process with students, led by Superintendent Maldonado.
“I was glad to meet with students (Tuesday) who are justifiably anxious for (in-person learning) to happen and grateful that they took the initiative. And I’ve heard from many who share concerns about returning too soon,” Ms. Capps said.
Students left their signs at the office doors and went home, though a few community members lingered.
School board candidate Elrawd MacLearn came to the protest on his lunch break to talk to parents.
A few community members had signs with Mr. MacLearn’s and Mr. Campbell’s pictures and walked around downtown campaigning for the two candidates.
Charles Cole, a Republican candidate for the State Assembly, heard about the protest from Mr. Campbell a few days beforehand. He said he came to support the kids, though added he would like to see new board members elected.
The community involvement had political leaning, but the students were focused on their academic and social lives.
They weren’t smiling under their masks or soaking in attention. They didn’t energetically chant like one expects at protests.
Most of the time, they just stood with signs raised.