The Santa Barbara Unified School District’s Board of Education held a special-study session Tuesday night to discuss the options for the fall semester, which is quickly approaching.
Three weeks ago, the board approved a hybrid model the schools could adopt in order to reopen schools on time. The hybrid model would separate the student body into two cohorts, and from there, students attend classes two days a week, learn from home two other days, and all students learn from home on a fifth day.
The recent spikes in coronavirus cases in the county, as well as many parts of California, could result in a change of plans — including the possibility of starting the school year with complete remote learning, following suit behind the Los Angeles Unified and the San Diego Unified school districts.
On Tuesday, six local experts from the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, the United Way of Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara County Behavioral Wellness, and the Santa Barbara Education Foundation gave their thoughts on the situation and answered questions from the board.
Ellen Barger, the assistant superintendent at the Santa Barbara County Education Office, served as the facilitator.
Susan Klein-Rothschild, who works at the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, gave important clarification Tuesday night as to what the district would do in certain situations when a student or teacher is sick.
Ms. Klein-Rothschild said if someone tests positive with COVID-19, student or teacher, that entire class would be closed for 14 days. If there was someone in another class who was in close contact with said individual that is COVID-19 positive, then they would be removed and quarantined for 14 days as well — but the classroom would remain open and the isolated person will be monitored closely.
Ms. Klein-Rothschild also said the most important thing the board could do was “remain flexible.”
“We don’t have the depth of knowledge and research about this new virus. We have different communities and they have different episodes of COVID-19 over time, which means we have to be able to change as the conditions change,” Ms. Klein-Rothschild said.
She added that changes in positive cases, hospitalizations and even those in the Intensive Care Unit would likely mean change in guidance from the county or Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“COVID-19 depends among all of us in the community. We all have to work together. It is the behavior of all of us that will make the disease decrease and go down. It can’t just be some organizations, some people, it has to be us together,” Ms. Klein-Rothschild said.
Dr. Dan Brennan, a local pediatrician, had a similar sentiment, adding that safety should be the number one priority and that the decision to open schools should be tied to the current rate of community spread.
“Nobody is ever going to fault you for being extra careful with our kids and taking the abundance of caution approach,” Dr. Brennan said.
Suzanne Grimmesey from Santa Barbara County Behavioral Wellness spoke about the importance of students attending school and the benefits it would provide for their mental health.
“I don’t need to say how critically important going to school is for a child’s emotional health — not online, but the actual importance of attending school,” Ms. Grimmesey said.
She added that no matter the direction the school board goes, the messaging will be important.
“School mental health staff may even be asked to assist in communications. There is much fear-based messaging about schools reopening already swirling around in the community. Explaining the decision-making process regarding schools… and the decisions taken to keep students safe is important and will help build trust,” Ms. Grimmesey said.
Melinda Cabrera of United Way of Santa Barbara and Margie Yahyavi from Santa Barbara Education Foundation both talked about the ways their organizations and other nonprofits could help build a network of support for students to learn remotely, and for parents to have childcare if they need to go to work.
Nearly 900 people were in attendance of the online meeting, said Board President Laura Capps, and there were about 80 people who weighed during public comment at the end of the meeting.
The majority of the public comment was dominated by district teachers who said they would not feel safe if school was to reopen and urged the board to focus all their time, money and resources to remote learning.
“Those who know me know I love my job and I love teaching my students. I too want to return to school as soon possible but it must be done safely. At this time, with all the reasons we heard, including rising case numbers… we simply cannot do this without endangering our students,” Kimberly Tilton, a biology teacher at San Marcos said.
“Why not spend our time and money preparing to have the most robust remote learning possible?”
any community members, including local students, spoke in favor of reopening schools.
The district is expected to vote on how it will proceed in the fall during next week’s meeting.