Foothill Elementary School
A sign at Foothill Elementary School in the Goleta Union School District reminds visitors that face coverings are required. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

The Goleta Union School District fleshed out criteria and discussed options for the fall reopening plan during a virtual meeting this week.

Superintendent Donna Lewis recommended, in the event the district is required to open schools in a hybrid scenario amid the COVID-19 pandemic, that it implement a five-day-a-week, whole-class cohort model: reduce student numbers for social distancing and shorten the instructional day with about 20 hours per week of face-to-face instruction.

“There’s no winning in a pandemic,” Lewis said, mentioning the ever-changing host of conditions and measures.

District officials said it’s vital to return students to the school campus as soon as feasible while maintaining the safety of staff and students.

Lewis spoke of conditions for scenarios including partial reopening, full reopening, and the circumstances for independent studies and remote instruction.

The GUSD is basing plans off the various guidelines issued by the California Department of Education, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, according to Lewis.

“Everything we do is dependent on the health of the community,” she said.

At 10 p.m. Wednesday, the GUSD board voted unanimously to work toward a goal of Lewis’ recommendations with the student-to-teacher ratio at 19-to-1 and the district’s efforts of hiring new teachers.

The GUSD board supported hiring up to 21 temporary teachers to support students during the 2020-21 school year, which would cost roughly $2 million, according to Conrad Tedeschi, the district’s assistant superintendent of fiscal services.

To solidify plans for the upcoming year plagued by the pandemic, the GUSD called on Santa Barbara County public health officials to clearly lay out details about the safety of children at schools given the fluidity of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our broader school communities need more communication on either why he (county Dr. Henning Ansorg) believes it is safe for schools or hearing this kind of feedback that we would like to have better indications on what those community conditions would be in order for people to feel more comfortable,” GUSD board member Luz Reyes-Martin said.

Board president Sholeh Jahangir, who introduced the motion, said the district wants input from a parent survey about education preferences “to be reflective of the majority wanting to come back to the classroom, we want to see testing more available and downward cases — not the spiking going on right now.”

The district will again ask that families and staff complete a second survey on the GUSD reopening plan, and the participation is critical for planning.

Jahangir said the GUSD board members “are not taking this lightly.”

Goleta Union School District board

The Goleta Union School District board meets virtually this week to discuss options for the fall reopening plan. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

“Whatever decision we go with, know that I will be supporting that within my own home,” said Jahangir, who is a mother of two school-age kids. “I would never put your family in a position I wouldn’t put my family.”

The GUSD’s proposal calls for optimizing access to in-person instruction for all students with about 20 hours per week of in-person academic instruction, according to the reopening plan.

The reduced class size would remain in place throughout the 2020-21 academic year. If social distancing guidelines are lifted by the Public Health Department, students’ instructional day may be expanded, according to the plan.

“Students arrive, dismiss and go to recess on a staggered schedule to support social distancing,” the report said. “Teachers will provide supplemental instructional practice and feedback through asynchronous remote learning. Specialist time (art, music, technology and physical education) will be offered as a portion of the students’ asynchronous remote learning hours.”

The modified student day allows for the implementation of safety measures, the plan stated.

As part of its plan, GUSD officials emphasized there will be hygiene practices, cleaning and disinfection measures, health screening and temperature checks, physical distancing to maximize student separation, face coverings worn by staff and students, among other protocols.

“It will be a mask-wearing culture at our schools,” Lewis said.

The planning process included robust engagement with input from GUSD families, employees and labor groups, as well as a team comprised of teachers, classified staff, principals, nurses and district cabinet leaders.

The GUSD looked at two other options for instructional format: a hybrid two-day-a-week, half-class cohort and a hybrid every-other-week cohort.

“None of the options are great,” Reyes-Martin said. “They all have challenges and all have downsides … but I do still think the goal should be getting kids in our classrooms with their teachers as much as possible as soon as it is safe to do so.”

The Foothill Elementary School playground.

The Foothill Elementary School playground is closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

GUSD board vice president Susan Epstein said, “It’s hard for me to prioritize education over health and life itself.”

Wednesday’s meeting included nearly four hours of testimony, including a presentation from district staff, public comments, questions and deliberations by the GUSD board. Members of the GUSD administration read aloud comments that had been submitted by the public.  

The meeting consisted of more than one hour of public comment, and more than 35 comments in writing were read into the record during the virtual meeting.

The majority of commenters identified themselves as parents and voiced a variety of opinions on the reopening plan for the 2020-21 school year. Their ideas of the ideal scenario were all over the spectrum — some want to send their children back to school in the fall, and others are not comfortable yet.

Several parents acknowledged the importance of young learners attending school face to face with in-person instruction, but said it isn’t wise at this time because of COVID-19 conditions. For some working parents, there is concern about child-care options if their child stays home to do distance learning, and they said remote learning is challenging.

Some commenters advocated for in-person, full-time curriculum. Other parents want distance-learning options, support a flexible attendance policy and urge district officials to get creative with outside school spaces.

A handful of speakers were teachers in the school district. 

“I urge Goleta Union School District to consider a way to reopen schools with the recommendations from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), as well as the opportunity to for optimizing outdoor spaces on our campuses,” said Lesley Hetrick, who has been a teacher at Brandon Elementary School for 19 years.

Another GUSD employee said that “returning to school does not outweigh losing a life” and “there is no definite data that shows school is safe to return.”

At one point, about 300 attendees were watching the meeting via Zoom

GUSD schools have been closed since March 16 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The most important factor to GUSD board member Richard Mayer is safety.

“A lot of thought and energy has gone into this,” Mayer said of the reopening plan. “There’s a danger being in school, and there’s a danger not being in school.”

The prevalence of COVID-19 in the county in August will determine which instructional options will be employed when school begins on Aug. 19, according to district staff.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.