Friday, January 22, 2021     Volume: 21, Issue: 47

Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on January 13th, 2021, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 46 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 21, Issue 46

Northern Santa Barbara County public schools are back in session, at a distance

By Malea Martin

Public schools in Northern Santa Barbara County started back up during the week of Jan. 11, but will remain at a distance for the time being due to the ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases. 

Hopes that Northern Santa Barbara County public school students would be able to return to the physical classroom in 2021 continue to be thwarted by the ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases.

Students who attend schools within the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District returned to the virtual classroom on Jan. 13, according to the district’s Spring 2021 Reopening Plan, as did students in the Guadalupe Union School District, according to district calendars. Santa Maria-Bonita School District elementary students started back up on Jan. 12, while Orcutt Union School District and Lompoc Unified School District both began on Jan. 11.

Joseph Graack, a social science teacher at Righetti High School, told the Sun about the distance learning practices that he plans to continue into the spring semester.

“One of the things that really seemed to work well in terms of actual engagement during class time were the Zoom breakout rooms,” Graack said of the fall semester. “So that’s really what we have focused on, because we’ve found that they seem to be more engaged, they’re more willing to turn their camera on, they’re more willing to volunteer, they’re more willing to participate in what we’re trying to get done.”

Graack teaches both sophomores and seniors, and he said his older students “are able to handle a little bit more in terms of a virtual learning environment.”

“The sophomores, you know, the virtual dynamic I think has been hard for them,” Graack continued. “So one of the things that I’m really going to try to focus on is more of a process-based learning environment.”

This holistic approach to learning de-centers specific end objectives, insteading focusing on the process that leads to those endpoints.

“I’m going to break it down instead of building up,” Graack said, which he hopes will be more engaging for students learning virtually.

Last semester, Graack said that he had far more students failing in their progress reports than he had in previous years. It’s not yet clear how many district students actually ended up failing because “a number of incompletes were given out,” Graack said, giving some students the opportunity to make up missed work over winter break. 

“So it’ll be a while until we know how that worked out,” he said.

Moving forward, Graack hopes a more proactive approach will help students succeed.

“There is talk of maybe opening up extra sections and having teachers fill extra sections within their department for kids that had failed a semester to try to get them on track by the end of the year,” Graack said. “It’s not, ‘Let’s lower expectations,’ it’s, ‘What are some ideas to get them caught up.’”

He added that he’d be “shocked” if schools return to in-person learning this semester.

“Until the vaccine is distributed to such an amount where you can have at least some sort of guarantee … That’s kind of where we’re at,” Graack said.

In a Jan. 1 letter to students, parents, and staff, Lompoc Unified School District Superintendent of Schools Trevor McDonald shared a timeline for returning to in-person learning under a hybrid model, should Santa Barbara County reach the red tier in the state’s reopening system. 

“Elementary school waivers are not being considered in Santa Barbara County,” McDonald wrote. “Once our county meets the thresholds for the red tier, we still remain in the purple tier for two weeks before transitioning to red. Then, once we move into the red tier, we are asking for two weeks to transition from fully remote to an in-person (hybrid) instructional model.”

McDonald’s letter depicts a timeline that would start getting some students back in the classroom in early March—if COVID-19 allows for it. Santa Maria-Bonita Public Information Officer Maggie White said that, given new guidelines from Gov. Gavin Newsom, reopening schools in the near future is unlikely.

“There are a lot of guidelines, and in communities where the caseload is high, staff and students have to be tested every week if there’s a return to in-person instruction,” White said. “So for us, that’s 20,000 tests every week. There’s just not a procedure in our community for that at this point.”

White said Santa Maria-Bonita does not have a specific date for a return to in-person instruction.

“We are more data-driven than date-driven,” she said. “And so far the data in Northern Santa Barbara County continues to show high levels of positive COVID tests, high enough that it would be a concern to bring people back.” 

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