Libbon Elementary School
Students head back to class at Libbon Elementary School in Santa Maria. A Santa Maria Joint Union High School District spokesman says the pandemic has been an “increasingly daily challenge” since the return of students and staff. (Serena Guentz / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara County school districts have spent a month navigating the return to in-person instruction amid the ever-developing COVID-19 pandemic, mitigating virus transmission and adapting to changing safety protocols.

Earlier this summer, the state announced two COVID-19 mitigation protocols for K-12 schools: a universal indoor mask mandate for all students and school staff, and a staff vaccine verification or testing requirement. While the mask mandate is already in full effect, districts have until Oct. 15 to come into compliance with the vaccine verification or testing requirement, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Both requirements are aimed at keeping students, a majority of whom are too young to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, safe and at school. While local school districts are doing their best to implement the safety protocols, the Public Health Department reported that there were 25 active outbreaks in schools across the county as of Tuesday.

According to the CDPH, an outbreak is defined by three or more COVID-19-positive people within a 14-day period who had identifiable connections to one another. 

No information about where those outbreaks occurred was immediately available.

Some local school districts have implemented other safety protocols, such as surveillance testing for students, while some are still toying with the idea and working out logistics as the state and nation face a shortage of COVID-19 tests.

As Noozhawk previously reported, the Santa Barbara Unified School District began testing elementary school students on Monday, and as of Tuesday, the district had tested 129 students, resulting in one positive case.

The district needs parental consent to test students, and about 36% of parents have not yet given consent.

Of the district’s 12,701 student population and 1,679 staff population, 39 students and 14 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 since the school year began on Aug. 17. Elementary school students make up about 30% of the district’s cases.

About 88% of Santa Barbara district staff have reported that they are fully or partially vaccinated. The district is awaiting responses from about 8% of employees, and 4% of employees have declined to get the vaccine.

In the Goleta Union School District, only 11 certified staff members are unvaccinated, and “well over” 95% of the entire employee pool of more than 600 employees have verified their vaccination status, according to Superintendent Diana Roybal. For the unvaccinated employees, the district partners with a company called Aptitude to provide COVID-19 testing on school sites weekly, Roybal said.

“That system has been working really well. It has been in place before school started, even though it is not required to be fully implemented until Oct. 15,” Roybal told Noozhawk

The district is planning to expand its partnership with Aptitude to provide an additional three layers of safety, including surveillance testing for vaccinated employees who opt-in, surveillance testing for students whose families choose to opt-in, and testing options for students who are sent home for COVID-19-like symptoms and cannot return to school until symptoms subside or they receive a negative test result.

“What happens is that little 4- or 5-year-olds have a runny nose, and then we have to send them home because that is on the COVID-19 symptom list,” Roybal said. “We’re sending a lot of kids home with symptoms, and then they either have to get a doctor’s appointment, which could take days, or get a COVID-19 test, which also could take a long time. So then the kiddo will end up missing four or five days of school.” 

The district is working on a contract with Aptitude that will provide free or low-cost testing options for those kinds of scenarios.

For the two weeks that ended Wednesday, the district reported 14 positive student cases and three positive staff cases. Roybal said that being able to hire more temporary teachers to keep class sizes smaller has been critical in keeping COVID-19 cases low, and added that the majority of students at most schools continue to wear masks outside even though it is not required.

The Hope Elementary School District plans to begin weekly surveillance testing of students on Tuesday through a program funded by the state and at no cost to the district, according to a superintendent’s report from Tuesday’s Board of Trustees meeting. The district has about a 90% opt-in rate for student surveillance testing, the report said.

For students who opted into the program, the district will be able to provide all of the testing on campus. 

As of Sept. 10, the district has had seven COVID-19 exposures — all among students — since the school year began on Aug. 19.

The nationwide shortage of COVID-19 testing kits has created a bump in the road for some school districts trying to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Orcutt Union School District Superintendent Holly Edds said the district received testing supplies last week, and has had two days of student contact tracing testing on site so far, testing a total of 15 students.

“Our biggest challenge with testing in house is the lack of testing supplies due to the nationwide shortage of COVID-19 tests,” Edds told Noozhawk. “We have enough testing supplies for about four to six weeks, and we are hopeful additional supplies will arrive soon.”

Edds reported that the district has had 56 total positive cases since the start of the year on Aug. 13, and as of Tuesday morning, 15 students and three staff members were in quarantine because of a positive test result.

About 76% of the district’s staff are vaccinated, while certified staff members have a higher vaccination rate at 85% than the classified staff at 70%, Edds said.

Guadalupe Union School District Superintendent Emilio Handall said contact tracing has been incredibly difficult and time-consuming, resulting in increased staffing.

“Our ability to begin COVID testing for unvaccinated and unverified staff has been hampered by the lack of testing kits, as well as agencies who can conduct the testing,” Handall told Noozhawk. “Overall, COVID continues to wreak havoc on school districts, and we are doing all we can to mitigate the spread in our schools.”

About 65% of district staff are fully vaccinated, and the district has had “a low percentage of positive cases,” Handall said. “The challenge is contact tracing, quarantining and availability of COVID testing.”

Handall said the “myriad of changes” to quarantine and isolation protocols have made it difficult to ensure that schools are following the latest guidelines.

Santa Maria Joint Union High School District spokesman Kenny Klein said the pandemic has been an “increasingly daily challenge” since the return of students and staff.

“Like all school districts in the county, and maybe the state, we are doing our best to keep up with the ever-changing mandates and guidance,” Klein told Noozhawk.

Klein said that if a teacher, staff member or student tests positive, the group and/or classroom members are notified, and if someone is identified as a close contact, they are given the opportunity to be tested.

Klein did not disclose the number of cases districtwide since the year began on Aug. 11, but said that cases among students and staff have been “relatively low in relation to the total population.”

Klein told Noozhawk that the exact number of positive cases and vaccination rates among staff are confidential, but added that the district is working on a COVID-19 dashboard that will be updated weekly with the total number of tests and cases.

The Lompoc Unified School District has met with various labor groups to discuss the impact and effects of the testing plan it is working on, according to Deputy Superintendent Bree Valla. Valla said the testing plan should be up and going by Oct. 15.

Since July 1, the district has had 71 students and 18 staff members test positive, and about 45% of staff are vaccinated, according to Valla.

In the Carpinteria Unified School District, 90% of employees are vaccinated, and weekly testing in unvaccinated employees has resulted in all negative results, Superintendent Diana Rigby told Noozhawk. During the first three weeks of school, there have been two positive cases among students, and one vaccinated staff breakthrough case was reported.

The Santa Maria-Bonita School District has reported 142 positive student cases and 33 positive staff cases as of Sept. 7, Superintendent Luke Ontiveros reported at a board meeting on Sept. 8.

Santa Ynez Valley High School District reported 25 positive student cases and four positive employee cases since the start of the school year, according to Terry Westfall, assistant to the superintendent. The district has an 82% vaccination rate among employees, Westfall said. 

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