Roosevelt School
Roosevelt School, at 1990 Laguna St., is one of the Santa Barbara Unified School District’s elementary schools that could reopen in a hybrid format as early as Nov. 9. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Welcome back, kids?

The Santa Barbara Unified School District administration has proposed Nov. 9 for elementary students and Jan. 19 for junior and high school students to return to the classroom.

Students have not attended class in person since the eruption of the COVID-19 contagion in late March.

The district Board of Education is to vote on the return dates at its Tuesday meeting.

The proposal calls for in-person learning with a hybrid model at elementary campuses on Nov. 9, when the county is projected to be in the orange coronavirus transmission tier under California’s COVID-19 reopening scheme. The county currently is in the red tier, the second most-restrictive level, while the orange tier is the third most-restrictive level.

In addition, the proposal calls for in-person learning with a hybrid model at secondary campuses, beginning Jan. 19, when the county is projected to be in either the orange or gold COVID-19 transmission tiers. The gold level is the least restrictive of the state’s four tiers.

Board member Kate Ford said there are many factors to consider when deciding whether to reopen schools.

“I’m certain that none of us is sleeping very well these days, but I know that our decision must be guided by one thing: what is best for students and our community,” Ford, a former classroom teacher, told Noozhawk.

“And, no matter what we decide, I am determined to work hard to continually increase the in-person activities we offer, such as the arts, science labs and more sports.”

The decision of when to reopen schools comes amid a recent slowdown of positive COVID-19 cases in the county. The community, anecdotally and based on survey data, is split on when to reopen schools, with the issue at times driven by political perspectives.

The school district has already returned to small cohorts of in-class instruction, targeting students with disabilities, at-risk students and the children of district staff.

Now the district must decide whether to pull the trigger on a reopening to a hybrid format for everyone else. Rather than deciding on a random date, the district is tying a potential reopening to the state’s colored tiers.

With the county currently in the red tier, students already are allowed to return to in-person learning. But with nearly 13,000 students, testing and teacher unions, a reopening decision is not as easy as it would be in a smaller district or at an independent school.

Still, the board on Tuesday is charged with possibly reopening schools for some students in less than a month.

Ford said she has been struck by the number of letters she has received in the past few days describing the drawbacks of hybrid elementary education right now, even with the promise of smaller class sizes and in-person instruction.

“In particular, the concerns that most students will be still at home three days per week, the expenses of bus transportation, cleaning and hygiene, and the possibility of less instructional time, not more, have been stressed repeatedly,” she said.

“I remain also deeply worried about the de facto missed social development caused by distance learning as well as the overwhelming numbers of teachers who responded that they do not feel safe returning to in-person school.”

As of Oct. 8, the district had tested 1,250 employees, all of whom were negative for COVID-19.

According to a district survey, 51 percent of students in the three high schools said they are ready to return to in-person school. The number was 62 percent for junior high and 46 percent for the alternative high schools.

About 71 percent of staff at all levels of school, from kindergarten through 12th grade, said they preferred that students return to school on Jan. 19.

For junior high students, the student body would be divided into two groups. For each course each week, students will experience two 80-minute in-person learning sessions with a teacher on campus, and two 80-minute independent learning sessions via distance. There also would be one 80-minute virtual learning session with a teacher.

Students who select 100-percent distance learning will be enrolled in Independent Study.

For high school students, the proposal calls for two student groups.

Students would be enrolled in new courses with new teachers. During a two-week cycle, for each course, students will experience five, 80-minute in-person learning sessions with a teacher on campus and five 80-minute independent learning sessions via distance learning. Students who select 100-percent distance learning will be enrolled in Independent Study.

The elementary hybrid group would consist of two groups, and would be much more complex, with students in transitional kindergarten and kindergarten experiencing 180 minutes a day of instruction in class, and students in grades one through three having class in-person for 230 minutes, and grades four through six having class in-person for 240 minutes, Monday through Friday.

Karen McBride, president of the Santa Barbara Teachers Association, said “there are many unanswered questions.”

“As always, educators want to deliver the best programs they can in our schools in the safest manner, but there are big concerns about everyone’s safety when staff and students will be exposed to each other with the reopening,” she said.

McBride said smaller cohorts with approximately 14 or 15 students can be misunderstood because children and educators could be exposed to far more than that on a daily or weekly basis.

For example, she said, junior high school teachers may have 160 students on their rosters that they would see in the course of two days, but students will be mixing with far more than a cohort of 14 or 15 over the course of their on-site attendance days.

“We know that some families have children in both elementary and secondary schools,” McBride said. “How will that play out with elementary students returning in early November? And the upcoming holidays, both Thanksgiving and winter break, are also big risk factors, as is the upcoming flu season.”

School board president Laura Capps said she heard from interested parties all weekend leading up to the big vote.

“Every teacher, administrator and parent I’m in touch with all agree that kids belong in the classroom,” she said. “And thanks to the community, our infection rates are improving enough for small cohorts of students to already be back and more to follow imminently.

“There are well intentioned people pressing on either side of the decision of November versus January, each with valid perspectives and concerns for the safety and well-being of our children, teachers and staff. Our job is to do our best to find the right balance.”

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