With Covid-19 cases at their lowest rate since the fall, and elementary schools reopening for hybrid instruction, the Santa Barbara Unified School Board has put into place a plan for secondary schools to reopen as well. This category includes Junior High and High Schools which are planned to reopen under a hybrid learning model as soon as state and local guidelines allow. Teachers are set to return to their classrooms on March 9 to prepare for hybrid instruction and receive new technologies to assist them to that end. The school will also switch to the new hybrid bell schedule on March 8, which consists of longer eighty minute periods and a shortened Wednesday schedule. Students will not actually return to campus until we are cleared by the state to do so. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended that all school districts, even those that have our current level of community spread of the virus, should be open for hybrid learning, and SBHS principal Dr. Elise Simmons said that she does believe we are at a safe level to reopen. However, Santa Barbara County is still in the purple tier in the state’s coronavirus prevention model, the most restrictive tier which does not currently allow secondary schools to open. However, as we approach 7 positive tests per 100,000 residents, the dividing line between the purple and red tiers, reopening looks more possible. Santa Barbara County would have to remain below that threshold for one week and then in-person instruction would be able to begin. Furthemore, there is some possibility of the state’s guidance becoming less onerous in response to the new CDC report. Either of these scenarios is possible by the end of next week, in which case students could return March 15. To this end, Dr. Simmons made a bold prediction: “I am anticipating that […] Santa Barbara High will be open for in-person hybrid learning around spring break.”
It has been almost a year since Santa Barbara High School first started teaching exclusively on Zoom, and there have been many raised expectations and false starts on that journey. The school district initially planned for a hybrid model for the fall during summer last year, but was quickly shut down by the state’s guidelines. As cases trended downward in October, schools looked ready to open again but then came the massive surge in cases aided by holiday travel and a relaxing of precautions. In the last month, however, cases nationally and locally have dropped in number tremendously. The most recent report put Santa Barbara’s positive covid tests at about 16 per 100,000 but that number continues to decrease quickly. Another important point in the school reopening debate has been teacher vaccinations. Teachers are supposed to be eligible for the coronavirus vaccine after healthcare workers and elderly people, but a shortage in supply has kept many of them from getting it. While some districts have fought with teachers about vaccinations before reopening, the CDC has said vaccinated teachers are not a requirement for a safe school environment. In Santa Barbra, however, the teacher’s union has not made teacher vaccination a formal requirement for schools to reopen.
If Santa Barbara High School is able to reopen, it will be with a very similar model to that proposed in the summer with a few minor changes. Students that opt to return will be split into A and B cohorts which will come to school on Monday and Thursday, and Tuesday and Friday respectively. Parents were recently sent a form to confirm their cohort preference for their student. Everyone will attend shortened virtual classes on Wednesday and have time to complete independent work. Before arriving on campus, students will be required to fill out a pre-screening form and they will have their temperature taken upon entering. Masks and social distancing will be required at all times on campus, and if someone does test positive, their cohort will be required to quarantine and comprehensive contact tracing will be implemented by the school nurse. Thanks to the cohorting model, classes will be much smaller, and extra ventilation will also be in place. All of this will contribute to the “swiss cheese” model of Covid safety where many imperfect precautions are taken to compound into a safe school environment.
With many students feeling the effects of a continued lockdown harder than ever, there is finally some hope on the horizon. A hybrid model at Santa Barbara High School looks to be around the corner, and the science has shown that it can be done safely. Obviously, even with all these precautions some spread of the coronavirus is still possible. There are also worries about how spring break travel may contribute to community spread. But overall, things are looking up for our community for the first time in a while and Dons are looking ready to get back to campus.