A sign at Santa Barbara High School is ready to welcome students and staff back to campus when the school year starts on Aug. 17.
A sign at Santa Barbara High School is ready to welcome students and staff back to campus when the school year starts on Aug. 17.  (Jade Martinez-Pogue / Noozhawk photo)

The new school year marks a return to normalcy that was lacking for students and parents in the past year and a half as schools abruptly transitioned to full-time distance learning, hybrid learning, and everything in between.

While students are gearing up to return to classrooms for full-time, five-days-a-week in-person instruction, COVID-19 cases are rising locally and statewide.

Public health departments and school districts are approving and implementing safety measures for K-12 students, most of whom are too young to be eligible for COVID-19 vaccination. 

The California Department of Public Health issued COVID-19-related guidelines for K-12 schools that include a universal masking requirement for staff and students indoors. The state also dismissed the remote and hybrid learning models that characterized the 2020-21 school year, and introduced a mandated independent study program for families that are concerned about sending their students back to school in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday announced that all employees at public and private K-12 schools will have to submit their COVID-19 vaccination verification or be tested weekly. The order will apply to all school staff, including teachers, custodial staff and bus drivers, he said. Districts will have until Oct. 15 to comply with the order. 

At the end of July, Noozhawk asked readers about their thoughts and plans for the upcoming school year. Nearly 200 people — both parents and students — shared their opinions, which ranged from excitement to worry to frustration to relief.

Many parents expressed frustration around the lack of clear plans for the upcoming school year, and said districts have not communicated adequately with parents.

“If we learned anything from last year, it’s that we can’t wait for others to tell us what we need to do,” Caroline Harrah, a Santa Barbara Junior High School parent, told Noozhawk. “We need to create a best, middle, and worst-case scenario, because unfortunately that caused a lot of delays returning students to school last year.”

Harrah said that the school has the universal masking requirement and the vaccine verification requirement for staff, but that there has never been “a clear plan to educate our children.”

“That’s what the district’s job is, their job is to minimize the risk for our children and our stakeholders. So where’s the plan? I want to know,” she said.

One Roosevelt Elementary School parent responded to the Noozhawk survey to say they are concerned about the lack of consistency from the schools, and are nervous that the schools will start in-person, “get pulled into remote, then hybrid.”

Other parents said that they did not trust other families to take the precautions necessary to keep students safe at school, and many were worried about unvaccinated teachers.

The survey responses were written before the state announced its vaccine verification requirement for teachers, and while the new announcement may evoke a sense of ease for those worried parents, some said that they still feel like they have to rely on everyone else to keep their children safe.

“I’m definitely getting more nervous as I see so many families with young, unvaccinated kids traveling this summer. It’s really hard to have trust that everyone is taking precautions so that they don’t bring the virus back to our schools,” Pamela Powers, a Mountain View Elementary School parent, told Noozhawk.

“We would hear about these other families that are making different choices than ours; It is scary that we are placing all our trust in other families.”

The novel coronavirus is spread person-to-person when an infected person breathes out respiratory droplets containing the virus, Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg explained recently. 

“This happens with talking, laughing, singing and of course coughing or sneezing. These droplets can be breathed in by other people. Wearing a mask over your mouth and nose lowers the number of respiratory droplets and particles that you release into the air when you breathe, talk, laugh or cough.” 

Many parents said that they had faith in the COVID-19 safety protocols that are in place, while some think universal masking and vaccine requirements are harmful to students’ learning and social experience.

Aubree Poffenroth, a Harding University Partnership School parent, said that her daughter came home with a headache each day last year after wearing a mask during the school day.

Jennifer Hulme, a Mountain View Elementary School parent, said that families should have a choice to mask their child. She also said that the sickness “does not affect children in any statistically relevant way.”

Santa Barbara County Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso told the Board of Supervisors in July that, “while children are at lower risk of getting infected, they are not immune,” and that the universal masking requirement is a way to “increase the protection for the children so every one of them can feel safe going back to school and they can remain in school if they are exposed.”

Public Health officials have said that, aside from vaccination, masks are the most effective way of stopping the virus from spreading. 

No local K-12 school districts have proposed or adopted a vaccination verification requirement for students, but colleges have. 

Some parents were appalled at the notion of a potential vaccination mandate for students, while others longed to see one.

Zinnia Dwyer, an Ernest Righetti High School parent, told Noozhawk that she works in the medical field, so she knows first-hand how essential vaccines are. While Dwyer felt like she “can’t force it on them,” as a parent in the medical profession, she felt like it would be the best protection for her kids.

“I explained to my son that I gave him (the HPV) vaccine, which is almost an optional vaccine for boys,” she said. “I told him that there are some vaccines that are done optionally, but we still give them to our children. This COVID-19 vaccine is almost necessary.”

Aside from the concerns about learning plans, student safety, and masking or vaccine requirements, the general consensus from readers was a wave of excitement to return to the sense of normalcy and balance that comes with attending school in-person five days a week.

Victoria Chow, a San Marcos High School student, told Noozhawk that going into her sophomore year, this is the first time she has actually been able to attend a class in-person.

“I’m looking forward to connecting with teachers and being able to go back to a ‘normal’ school routine,” she said. “I haven’t been able to form relationships with most of my classmates or experience any of the regular extracurricular activities.”

Chow said that she is most excited to start the upcoming tennis season as a San Marcos Royal.

Powers, the Mountain View Elementary parent, said that her daughter had a “really long period” where there was no sense of structure or consistency.

“Every time something changed, whether it was moving from virtual to a classroom, or even little things like drop-off or pick-up time changes, that always caused a disturbance for her,” she told Noozhawk.

“I’m really hopeful that this year we’ll really get to have set times and she’ll start to develop a routine, and hopefully that will lead to greater learning and emotional stability. That’s what she really needs”

A Dos Pueblos High School parent said that it is “absolutely essential that our kids go back to in-person learning.”

Many parents said that the quality of education is a lot better with in-person learning than it is from a computer screen, and are excited to get their kids back in the classroom.

As schools return to in-person learning, Santa Barbara High School parent Clare Carey said that it is really important for schools to remember the emotional learning loss from remote or distance learning.

“Whether or not you remember what year the Huns invaded China, that doesn’t matter,” she said. “What matters out there is that you feel confident in yourself, that you have a little bit of knowledge of your sense of self, that you have people who you can confide in, and that you can express yourself.”

“That’s what I’m talking about when I say emotional learning loss, students didn’t even get the chance.”

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at jmartinez-pogue@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Jade Martinez-Pogue

Jade Martinez-Pogue, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at jmartinez-pogue@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.