Recent local surge in cases prevents district from applying
The board of the Santa Barbara Unified School District was unable to move forward with an elementary school waiver application during a special meeting Tuesday night.
Prior to the meeting, district administrators had completed a waiver application but did not submit it. Superintendent Hilda Maldonado was not in attendance, for unidentified reasons.
Early in the meeting, Dr. Peggy Dodds, a pediatrician with the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, revealed that the health department will not be reviewing waivers to reopen elementary schools until the daily case rate drops. She was alerted of the department’s decision a “few hours” before the meeting.
The case rate must be below 14 cases per 100,000 residents when averaged over the past seven days. Currently, the county is just over that line. Purple tier begins at seven cases per 100,000.
Waivers were one of the only options for school districts in the purple tier. Only elementary schools were eligible for the process and had to be approved by local and state health departments.
The meeting was originally scheduled to decide whether to submit a waiver application to reopen elementary schools in January. But, because of the health department’s policy, the board had to table their decision.
For now, small cohorts on campus may continue, though SB Unified will not be increasing the number of cohorts on campus.
Other schools in the county that had reopened under waivers, or while the county was in the red tier, may remain open.
Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons, an infectious disease specialist at Cottage Health, alluded to possible statewide changes.
“I think it is more likely that Gov. Newsom and the state health department will be coming out with more strict public health recommendations, or perhaps even (more) restrictions and mandates,” she said.
Despite negative projections, she encouraged administrators to seek a balance between precaution and education.
“Even in the context of all this, even as a hospital-based health care worker, I would encourage you that in continuing to plan to safely resume in person learning for our schools would still be a top priority,” she said.
As many as 1,100 students have been on campus in small cohorts for varying lengths of time this semester. Of those, four have tested positive for COVID-19. All are high school students from separate cohorts.
“We have followed all the precautionary safety measures, and to our knowledge no one has contracted COVID at our school sites or in our district office,” said Ana Escobedo, assistant superintendent of elementary education.
Dr. Dodds said she hadn’t seen local outbreaks from schools reopening. She looked at worldwide studies and didn’t see frightening results.
“It really didn’t look like opening schools increase cases,” she said. “There have been several cases worldwide of big outbreaks in high schools, but, honestly, most of those were also when they weren’t following the public health guidelines with masking and distancing.”
In Santa Barbara County, 9% of cases occur in children ages 0-17, according to the health department’s COVID-19 dashboard. Comparatively, the age group comprises 23% of the population.
The next board meeting will be the regularly scheduled meeting Dec. 15, and there will be another special meeting of the board on Jan. 5 to revisit the district’s plan under the transmission rates at that time.