Approximately two dozen adults and children gathered in Santa Maria on Sept. 8 for a rally to call for reopening schools and ending remote learning.
Approximately two dozen adults and children gathered in Santa Maria on Sept. 8 for a rally to call for reopening schools and ending remote learning. The Orcutt Union School District board discussed the topic Wednesday. Most members favored waiting until after winter break for students to return to campuses. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

A majority of Orcutt Union School District board members favor waiting until after winter break for students to return to campuses, acknowledging that the topic sparks strong emotions among teachers, students and parents.

During a special study session Tuesday night, board members debated the various challenges and benefits of returning students to campus for some in-person learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There is no easy answer,” Superintendent Holly Edds said.

Options ranged from continuing distance learning, offering blended learning with some in-person and some remote education, or completely in-person.

Improving data for Santa Barbara County’s COVID-19 cases allowed a move from the purple tier to the less restrictive red tier on the state’s four-level reopening scale. Under the red tier, schools can reopen, but still with precautions, as soon as next Tuesday, prompting debates in communities across the county.

“It’s a tough decision, but it’s not really a tough decision,” board president Liz Phillips said, explaining that she was looking at the various factors as a board member. “We all want to go back to normal.”

She added that it was important to give families and staff something to look forward to and for planning purposes. 

“As we move forward with blended learning, we need to have optimism and thoughtful planning,” board member Melanie Waffle said. “That takes, I think, a little bit more time that we might need to try to figure that out.”

She said that a delay would allow the district to keep current classroom communities intact and allow for a reassessment in December, ahead of a January opening.

“We’ve got to pick a date,” board member Mark Steller said, adding that he was concerned about future delays pushing the return well into 2021.

A district survey revealed that families support a return to classrooms, board member Shaun Henderson said, calling for in-person learning.

“I’ve seen firsthand my daughter cry at not being able to go back to school,” Henderson said. “I know other kids as well. They want to be able to learn, they want to be able to see their teachers for support, they want to see friends. They want to have some type of normalcy back in their lives.”

Board member Lisa Morinini said her first instinct involved returning students to campus, but said she reconsidered and wanted to wait before reopening.

“The goal is to provide the least disruptive path with the least restrictive atmosphere, and I honestly feel that with the mandates in place at the state that we’re not going to provide consistency for our students if we go back and all of a sudden we’re faced with being in quarantine again,” Morinini said. “I just don’t think that’s a great situation for our students.”

A return to school won’t look the same as parents and students might envision, school administrators have said.

District officials said that moving to blended learning, with some in-person and some remote lessons, most likely would mean that some students may be assigned to new classes and different teachers, a factor likely not reflected in the parent survey, according to some speakers.

Playgrounds will be off-limits, and recesses will be restricted. Because of social distancing rules, district-provided buses may not be available to students who typically received transportation.

Campus Connection would not resume for after-school care because of space limitations and requirements to avoid mixing cohorts, Orcutt officials said. 

Reopening means the staff would need to undergo COVID-19 testing, with 50 percent of staff undergoing testing every month.

Liability issues also remain a concern with no clear answer of who would cover any claims related to COVID-19, district officials said.

Teachers and parents offered various opinions at the start of the meeting. 

Monique Segura of the Orcutt Educators Association said her 240 members have different visions about reopening plans. She said the hybrid plan is “nowhere near ready to be implemented at this time,” and she suggested a January reopening.

“We as teachers want our children in our classrooms, but we need to do this in the right way,” she said.

One parent noted that if an outbreak can occur at the White House, then she can’t, in good faith, believe her children would be safe in a classroom.

Janell Provost, a teacher at Alice Shaw Elementary School, asked for the board to approve reopening soon with the blended program. Socialization is a key skill taught to students but is lacking with remote learning, she added.

“I worry about them. We worry about them,” she said. “Also, I challenge the powers that be to teach first-graders how to write on Zoom.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.