Back-to-school season has arrived for most students in Santa Barbara County, and for many schools, it marks the first time that all students can return for full, in-person learning since campuses closed about a year and a half ago amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Schools within the Santa Barbara Unified district started Tuesday, and in Santa Maria, the Santa Maria-Bonita and Santa Maria Joint Union High school districts started last Thursday.
“It’s been a joy to have every child here with us every day,” La Cumbre Junior High School Principal Bradley Brock said. “This opening really has been emotional for all of us.”
During the 2020-21 school year, learning was done almost entirely online, with some hybrid in-person and distance learning near the end of the school year.
Ann Marie Galbraith, a fifth-grade teacher at Monroe Elementary School in Santa Barbara, said that the pandemic really made teachers and schools look at learning differently and gave them space to fix things that weren’t working as well.
While Galbraith said in-person learning is ultimately better for students, online learning “gave them a voice” and helped students learn to voice their opinions more.
“I really think that there’s more learning when the kids are actually with us in person,” Galbraith said. “They get to be students, they get to be kids and they just get to have fun. It’s just better all around, and they know it is. The students have always wanted to be in person.”
Based on the California Department of Public Health’s guidelines, all students and staff in K-12 schools are required to wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
Maggie White, public information officer for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, said the district is also requiring masks to be worn on buses, as well as keeping windows or doors open as much as possible in buses, classrooms and offices.
Additionally, all teachers and staff members in K-12 schools are required to either submit proof of COVID-19 vaccination or undergo testing for the virus at least once weekly.
Districts have until Oct. 15 to be in full compliance with the order, but according to White, the Santa Maria-Bonita district is requiring proof of full vaccination by Oct. 1 in order to ensure that the district complies before the deadline.
As for the Santa Barbara district, public information officer Camie Barnwell said that more than 90% of all SBUSD teachers and certificated staff have shown proof of vaccination.
According to Kenny Klein, the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District’s public information officer, the district is also following public health guidelines and having staff enforce the county’s guidance. Klein said the district is focusing on four areas to provide a safe environment: masking, handwashing, vaccination and testing.
“[The students] have been really good with masks,” said Miranda Dominguez, an employee at Bill Libbon Elementary School. “And they know if they forget, they’re easily accessible [in the office or from a teacher].”
Bill Libbon Elementary School is the Santa Maria-Bonita School District’s newest school, with this year being its first full year.
“It’s been great. … So far, so good,” Dominguez said. “It’s a new year for everyone.”
Teachers and staff at schools throughout the county say they’re doing all they can to keep students safe and to make them feel comfortable and enjoy themselves.
“After being away from their peers for so long, it’s super important to make sure that the students have activities they can do outside at recess, so we really made sure that we provide those for our students,” said Brian Naughton, Monroe Elementary School principal. “We have hula hoops, basketballs. We’re even bringing out the ukuleles.”
At La Cumbre Junior High, the staff is focusing on easing the transition from elementary school to junior high, especially after having spent the past year and a half online.
“Coming back from the pandemic, there was so much trauma and disconnectedness, so we are really trying to infuse self-affirmations and give students belief in themselves,” Brock said. “We are really trying to reimagine learning spaces and create an identity-safe environment. Coming from a year and a half of distance or hybrid learning, and then with students transitioning from elementary school to junior high, we want to go out of our way to make them feel welcome, safe and like they belong.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Serena Guentz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.