With the United States reporting the highest number of deaths so far during the COVID-19 pandemic, and California reaching its highest rate of hospitalizations, the Goleta Union School District Board of Trustees decided Wednesday night not to apply for a waiver to reopen schools in the purple tier of the state’s reopening framework.
It appeared that the board might approve a waiver request in the purple tier just to have it ready to go, until board president Sholeh Jahangir steered the discussion with a passionate plea to put people’s lives ahead of anything else.
“I can’t put you, or your babies, or your grandparents at risk,” Jahangir said. “We know it’s serious and lives are being lost daily. It’s not a joke. I can’t bring them back from that.”
The board took no formal action, which means it will continue with its current model of remote instruction. If the COVID-19 numbers dramatically change anytime soon, it will hold a special board meeting and tackle the issue again.
All signs, however, indicate that Santa Barbara County will remain in the purple tier for a while.
“What a world of difference it is now than it was a month ago, honestly,” said Susan Klein-Rothschild, deputy director of the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department.
The district also is wrestling with a potential exodus of teachers if it returns to in-person instruction under the purple tier.
Up to 15 teachers in the Goleta district might resign or retire if they are forced to return to the classroom in the purple tier, according to Goleta Union Superintendent Donna Lewis.
“We know some teachers are going to bail if they are asked to come back to work in purple,” Lewis said. “It is going to happen. We will have no recourse if that happens.”
The pool of teachers from which to hire is running dry. Lewis said the teachers who were in the pool have taken jobs with other districts in the past few weeks.
The board in the fall had voted to open schools to in-person instruction only when the county reached the orange tier. When the county was at the bottom of the red tier, and on the verge of moving into orange, the board voted to reopen schools five days a week on Jan. 11.
Then, COVID-19 cases skyrocketed.
Santa Barbara County is now in the purple tier — the most dangerous and restrictive. The California Department of Public Health won’t even review waiver requests to reopen in the purple tier because the case count is so high.
The Goleta board considered preparing a waiver request just in case. However, a majority of the board indicated that it would be unwise to do so under the purple tier.
Jahangir spoke emotionally about not risking the lives of children. Even if the data suggest that schools themselves are not the sources of COVID-19 spread, students and teachers are part of the community, she said, and it is possible for children to contract COVID-19 outside of schools, then pass it on to other students, who might spread it outside of the classroom.
“We are interconnected whether we like it or not,” Jahangir said. “We may not be the spread, but we are interconnected. And I never believed going in that when you have to beg for a waiver that it was always the best choice for education. I am not comfortable going to school in purple on a waiver. I do not want to put anyone’s life at risk.”
As of Wednesday, Santa Barbara County had a weekly average of 14.1 new COVID-19 cases per day, per 100,000 residents. The state won’t review any waivers when the average case count is above 14.
Board member Carin Ezal agreed that with so many indicators pointing to COVID-19 worsening, that it is the wrong move to support a waiver — particularly when the state isn’t even reviewing waivers at this moment.
“I feel like we are on the precipice of another stay-at-home-order,” Ezal said.
The district still must consult with the teachers union and survey parents again before formally applying for the waiver.
Only board member Luz Reyes-Martin was in support of opening in the purple tier and preparing a waiver at this time. She said she doesn’t want to lose time, and she wants to be ready to submit the waiver when the state will accept them. She said the district should make it a top priority to reopen schools to in-person learning.
“I could go on and on about the concerns I have about prolonged, 100% remote learning,” Reyes-Martin said. “I know that we have some families that, and it’s wonderful, that have been able to form pods with neighbors, with other kids so the other kids have that social interaction and play, but many of our children do not have that. Many of our children are isolated in many ways.”
Still, Jahangir said that it’s just not safe yet to return large numbers of kids to in-person instruction.
“We don’t have staff buy-in at this point to go in for a purple waiver,” Jahangir said. “And if we can’t convince them that their working environment is something that they should be excited for, we are going to really struggle, and parents are going to feel the consequences of that. I am not comfortable applying for a waiver in purple.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.