Following the Santa Barbara Unified District (SBUSD) School Board’s decision at its meeting on Tuesday, October 13th, to proceed with a plan to bring students back to campus under a hybrid model in January, protestors convened at the district headquarters to advocate for a quicker reopening. A week after the meeting, on Tuesday, October 20, about 35 students representing all three high schools in the district, proceeded with their planned rally at the headquarters on Santa Barbara and De La Guerra streets, with homemade signs reading such things as “This is not school,” “We did our part,” and “We don’t feel heard.” The protesters expressed a wide range of grievances regarding online learning and the school district’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, from their ability to focus to mental health concerns. Although many of them individually had differing opinions on when and to what extent students should be able to return to campus, the organizer, San Marcos High School (SMHS) Senior Sierra Chesluk, made it clear what their primary goal was: “We are pushing for a return to school with a hybrid option in the red tier, as Governor Newsom has authorized. We believe we should have a choice to return to school, just as students have the choice not to return.” Santa Barbara was recently downgraded from the “widespread” purple tier, the worst tier for Covid infections, to the “substantial” red tier where schools are legally allowed to give in-person instruction. It has entirely been the decision of the School Board to wait until January before reopening and to only open under a hybrid model.
As Chesluk and her co-organizer, Mia Marcillac, a sophomore at Santa Barbara High School (SBHS), were ushered into the district offices to voice their grievances with SB Unified Superintendent, Hilda Maldonado, I got the chance to speak with some of the protestors. One of the main factors these students pointed to in wanting to return to school in-person was the quality of their education. Charlotte Bennet, a Sophomore at SBHS, said the main reason she thought school should reopen is because of the difficulty of learning at home through Zoom: “We’re teaching ourselves and we’re not fully comprehending what we’re being taught.” She said being in physical classrooms was important because of the distractions present in people’s current working environments: their bedrooms. “We have distractions of phones” and “being in our rooms isolated from people.” She concluded that “Home isn’t school.” Shay Suzuki, a freshman at SMHS, echoed this sentiment, saying “Online school is a lot harder to learn” and that with school fully online, “If you’re taking hard AP classes, then […] you won’t grasp the knowledge as well.” Kira Consela, also a freshman at SMHS, added that “I think sitting in front of a computer for multiple hours a day is really hard for a lot of people.”
Many of the protestors pointed to the fact that under the state government’s guidelines, SB Unified is legally allowed to return fully in-person. Hope Campbell, a freshman at SMHS, argued that “Other schools are opening, but Santa Barbara Unified just hasn’t planned properly and we could be in schools with safety precautions.” Many of the people present at the rally pinned the failures of the current model on the School Boards lack of planning. Allison Marcillac, mother of Mia and Marin Marcillac, said “I feel that we are in the red tier. There’s no reason to be keeping these kids from not getting the best education possible.” Because Santa Barbara County meets the requirements for reopening established by the state government in Sacramento, she rhetorically asked, “Are you saying that we’re special and we should keep our kids closed up in the house longer or our teachers don’t go back into the classroom because we’re special?” Regarding the possibility of outbreaks among students on campus, Marcillac said, “I don’t want any student to get the stomach flu. Nobody wants to get sick at any level, but we have to adapt to that. We make changes, we shut down. We tamp out any hot spots that might arise. But […] right now where we have closed down the Covid unit at our local hospital, [it] seems kind of ridiculous that our kids aren’t getting any education.” Protestors also did not feel that Santa Barbara County would reach the gold tier that the Board had expressed was their goal before reopening. Marcillac commented that “They set a parameter for us to go back in the orange tier which we’ll clearly never get to especially with the flu season.” Isabelle Jenka, a Junior at Dos Pueblos High School (DPHS), agreed. “At this point, the numbers aren’t gonna go down enough to what they want.”
In terms of how safety procedures would be enforced, students were a little bit less certain. Blake Eckler, a Junior at SBHS and a club volleyball player, said that mask-wearing and social-distancing should be enforced similarly to the dress code. Overall though, he has faith that students will hold up their end of the bargain: “Wearing masks and staying six feet apart is something minor that we can do to achieve something major. So achieving that we all get our education that we deserve and that we’re set up for college like they say they’re gonna set us up.” But even if social distancing wasn’t perfectly followed on campus, Eckler was not super concerned about the risk of an outbreak citing his own personal experience: “What I’ve seen from retail stores and restaurants and stuff, they’re not accurately spacing people apart either. And I mean it is unfortunate that we’re not perfectly six feet apart, but at the end of the day, I mean, I’ve worked at my retail job since May and there hasn’t been a Covid outbreak.” Despite the fact that almost everyone at the rally was spaced substantially less than the CDC recommended six feet, everyone I talked to insisted that this would not be the case on campus. Bennet affirmed that “We’ve all gone seven months learning how to live with our masks and social distancing, using hand sanitizer, so therefore […] we’re still gonna continue to do it in school.”
One of the most notable people in the vicinity of the rally was Brian Campbell, a realtor and candidate for School Board in the upcoming election, as well as the parent of two of the protestors. When pushed about why SBUnified has not reopened yet, Campbell stated that “According to the people I’ve talked to, the Teacher[s] Union is against the school opening.” However, he also insisted that “Many many teachers want to reopen. They want the kids back in the classroom. But they’re afraid to speak out because there is political as well as work backlash against them.” He said that if he were elected to the School Board, his main goal is to help diminish the “inequality in education” particularly between Hispanic and White students. He believes that the coronavirus pandemic has only made this inequality even greater and returning to campus is an important step for families where both parents have to work and families without proper technology access. Furthermore, Campbell joined the students in expressing his concern over the “Emotional toll that it takes upon the children to not be back in the classroom and not be able to socialize at all.”
Despite the prominence and passion of this rally advocating for reopening schools under a hybrid model right now, this position still appears to be quite controversial. A widespread post about the rally by the Instagram meme/community page @justsbhsthings led to heated discussion among students online. DPHS Senior Maya Samarasena posted a screenshot of a Noozhawk article about the rally on her story, commenting “LMAOOO this is so silly” and “this screams privilege.” Furthermore, a poll sent out by the district at the start of the month found that about half of students did not want to return in-person at all. However, the number of families who decide in the coming week to actually return to campus for hybrid learning in January may not reflect these numbers for a variety of reasons. It’s hard to tell what, if anything, this protest may have accomplished and, at the end of the day, how and when the School Board decides students will return to campus comes down to the weighing of competing risks. The protestors recognized this but hoped that it would be sooner rather than later. Consela said “Getting sick is really scary but I also think that we can’t stay closed and shut down forever.”
[Photo credits: Emerson Steady]