School campuses reopened across the Santa Ynez Valley last week as parents and school staff expressed cautious optimism at the kickoff of a third academic year marked by COVID-19.

Joe Castle, whose 10-year-old twins William and Juliette returned to Ballard Elementary on Aug. 19, said he is excited.

"I think Ballard is doing great despite the mask wearing," he added.

Some noticeable changes include the elimination of a hybrid learning option on campuses and the relaxing of social distancing measures for in-person instruction; however, masks still must be worn by students.

Under a health officer order that went into effect Aug. 6, Santa Barbara County residents 2 years and older, whether unvaccinated or vaccinated against COVID-19, are required to wear face coverings in all public indoor areas that include classrooms.

Castle said although he'd rather his children not have to wear masks all day at school, he understands the vigilance.

"I think they should take the masks off; we've got to proceed," he said, noting that his children have gotten used to wearing them. "I think it's good to be wise — and I'm glad we're in school and being mindful — but you can't let it control you."

Christina Tseng, mother of sons Clive, 9, and Jonas LaVeigne, 16, who attend Oak Valley Elementary and Santa Ynez Valley Union High School, respectively, said she feels uneasy.

"It's scary," Tseng said. "I've never been so concerned to send my kids to school, however, I do know that Oak Valley and Jonata take safety seriously."

Considering the alternative to returning, Tseng said her sons are happy to be back in class.

"What can we do? We can't live our lives in fear," she said. "We're just going to be brave and do it. It's been 18 months."

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Students change classes at Santa Ynez Valley High School on Friday morning.

New Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District Superintendent Andrew Schwab said the continued aim is to keep kids safe and in the classroom by following strict state and the county guidelines including indoor mask wearing, specific cleaning protocols and maximizing ventilation. Schwab started in his new role on July 1, replacing his predecessor Scott Corey. 

"I'm excited we're back in school, that school's open, and our kids and staff are here," Schwab said. "We're going to make sure school stays open — that's important."

Schwab, who spent part of his childhood in Oxnard and attended Humboldt State University, recently relocated with his family to the Santa Ynez Valley from San Jose, where he served as assistant superintendent at Union Elementary. 

Getting straight to work, Schwab looks to a meaningful and inherited project on the horizon: renovation of the campus kitchen, which will be transformed into a state-of-the-art teaching facility starting this winter.

"Target of construction is this December," he said. "That's moving along. I'm really excited to be working with our team on that, and having that facility ready to go next school year for our kids."

Under Schwab's direction, the district also will roll out a new 1:1 technology initiative starting Aug. 30, issuing a MacBook Air to each student, both on campus and at home.

In the meantime, Schwab said he has been settling into his new role and connecting with students since their return to campus on Aug. 12.

"I was out talking to kids today," he said. "I got to walk into a few classrooms and say hi."

Classrooms at both Santa Ynez Valley High School and Refugio High School are once again mostly full, according to Schwab, with 863 students back on campus and 16 students learning from home after opting to enroll in the district's independent study program. 

"But the majority of students are back on campus," he said. "I think everyone is really happy to see everybody in person. It's been really nice."

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New Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District Superintendent Andrew Schwab, stands beside Edmund Hung, campus IT director/network manager, holding a MacBook Air, one of 863 devices that will be issued to each student as part of a new 1:1 technology initiative.

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Solvang Elementary School students on Thursday were welcomed back to campus through separate entrances adorned with balloons and signage.

Lisa André covers lifestyles and local news for Santa Ynez Valley News and Lompoc Record. 

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