Superintendents of four Santa Maria Valley school districts representing 32,000 students expect to finalize COVID-19-related plans for the new year by next week, but they also warned that the learning model is likely to change as the public health crisis evolves.
Leaders of the Santa Maria-Bonita, Orcutt, Guadalupe and Santa Maria Joint Union High School districts united on Zoom to share their plans with options ranging from a full return to campus, complete remote learning or some hybrid option that sees limited numbers of students on campus a couple of days a week to keep class sizes small.
As they craft plans, they also have been dealing again with a rapidly changing situation, which saw the state reimplement some restrictions as COVID-19 cases climbed in the county.
“We know that children need to be in school. We know our teachers need to be in contact with their students on more than just an electronic basis,” Superintendent Luke Ontiveros of the Santa Maria-Bonita School District said. “This can’t be a long-term solution to delivering education to kids, but it’s a response that we’re going to need to acquiesce to during this time.”
He said he recently notified staff members that “where we start is not necessarily where we intend to end,” noting that last summer the thought of switching to distance learning with no warning midyear would have been unthinkable.
Superintendent Antonio Garcia said the high school district was trending toward the full distance-learning option, although the hybrid option has supporters.
“At some point, we’re going to have to transition from one to the other regardless of where we start, just given the dynamics and the changing situation with this pandemic,” Garcia said.
Boards for the Orcutt and the high school districts delayed decisions until next week, when the Santa Maria-Bonita and Guadalupe boards also are expected to choose their plans for the school year.
Orcutt Superintendent Holly Edds said the assessment has been similar.
“It’s really keeping students at the center of any decisions that we are making, and always looking through the lens of student safety and staff safety as well as how do we meet the needs of our students instructionally,” Edds said.
Her comments came shortly after the Orcutt school board approved the 2020-21 plan with three options, but no decision about which approach to take on the first day of school.
“The board approved the plan, realizing that we will probably move in between those three models thoughout the next year and for the foreseeable future,” she said.
Parents will have the option for students to continue distance learning if the hybrid option is implemented.
Districts also have surveyed staff members and students’ families about which option they prefer, with more assessments expected.
Superintendent Emilio Handall from the Guadalupe district said his review process involved staff in trying to determine the best way to serve students.
Like the other districts, he said, they are looking at being able to switch among the various models — in-class learning, remote learning only or the blended option — but face a challenge other communities don’t.
“Guadlupe’s unique because we can’t fully gauge our rates of COVID simply because they’re not segregated into Guadalupe-specific data,” he said.
Instead, the city’s numbers are included in a broader North County tally with Sisquoc, Casmalia, Garey, Cuyama and New Cuyama. As of Wednesday, 172 cases were reported for that category with 157 recovered.
Even before the public health crises, Ontiveros said educators across the world were constantly working to improve how how they served their communities.
“That’s really what we’re all tasked with in this unprecedented time,” Ontiveros said. “How do we get better at what we learn so that we ensure moving forward we’re being more effective, regardless of the changing nature of this public health crisis that isn’t getting any better today in our community as it was on March 13?”