On Tuesday, April 6, the Santa Barbara Unified School Board voted to expand the amount of in-person learning students in the districts are able to receive. This decision followed new guidance by the CDC on classroom safety. Notably, the CDC informed school districts that three feet of distance is sufficient to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as long as students are wearing masks. This guidance comes after six-feet of social distancing had been held up as the gold standard for school safety for over a year. However, after new studies that were only possible with the number of schools that are now open, the CDC changed their tune. This guidance was met with excitement by many because it removes many logistical hurdles for schools to reopen full-time. However, many are also skeptical that the guidance may cause staff and students to lower their guard as some scientists in the US warn of the possibility of a fourth wave.
While different districts responded to the news differently, in Santa Barbara the School Board promptly acted to implement these new standards in their classrooms. The previous A and B cohort model, which has seen those students that want to attend on campus in-person for two days a week, was implemented to keep class sizes small and allow for ample room inside of classrooms. Now, the school district feels ready to return students to school for almost full-time in-person learning. First, elementary students returned to their classrooms with all of their classmates for the first time on Monday, April 12. Those that want to will attend five days a week of in-person education during those critical develomental years. Similarly, starting next Monday, April 19, secondary students willl return to classes four days a week. The previous A and B cohorts will combine into one group while C cohort students will remain remote. Wednesday will keep its modified distance learning schedule to accomodate enrichment for cohort C students. Although Santa Barbara High School has had to overcome many logistical challenges, the school is hopeful that this new setup will allow learning in the final quarter to be as meaningful as possible.
Although this new CDC guidance has taken a burden off of some people’s minds, others are concerned by the state of affairs in the country. With many states like Florida and Texas lifting mask mandates and a general attitude of jadedness, cases are starting to rise again in the US. Luckily, California maintains the lowest per capita case rate in the country and Santa Barbara is no exception. The county has been reporting around 30 cases per day, but that number continues to decline with only 11 cases being reported on Tuesday, April 13. However, over the weekend a testing backlog from January and February was reported which added over one hundred cases each day. Those numbers will not be included in the data that are factored into our county’s statewide tier assessment, and if Santa Barbara is able to maintain its current situation for another week, it will slide down into the Orange Tier. In this tier, more businesses are allowed to be open at higher capacity including for indoor dining. This was the original tier that the administration had hoped to open SB Unified schools under in January before the deadly third wave struck the country.
Even as a large number of students prepare to return to Santa Barbara High School four days a week, there is still concern about the disparity in learning. Sophomore Kyle Fitton who opted to come to school as part of cohort B said his choice was at least partially motivated by feared learning loss. Had he only been deciding in terms of his health, he may have chosen to stay home. Junior Vin Sanderfer who is a part of cohort C actually had a very different opinion. They said that they were more concerned about the distractions students would face in a classroom and felt that their classes were more geared towards online learning. These opinions highlight the major divide right now. Many teachers are already struggling in class with whether to address students in-person or on Zoom. When only about 30% of students will be remote, this problem is likely to get worse. However, this is why the new Wednesday schedule has built in time for asynchronous work and individual support. Regarding Wednseday schedules, there has actually been an update. The previously thirty minute periods have been lengthened to forty-five minutes and passing periods have been shortened to ten minutes. Lunch now starts at 12:30.
The cohorts will start being combined on Monday and other than the three-foot distancing rule, the same guidelines around masks and hygiene will apply. Additionally, students are still required to keep a distance of six feet from adults on campus and when eating without their masks.