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Santa Maria public schools delay reopenings amid COVID-19 rates, potential liability

Santa Maria public schools delay reopenings amid COVID-19 rates, potential liability

From the What you need to know: This week's top headlines series
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For Righetti senior Kidasi Nepa, the news that the Santa Maria Joint-Union High School District would not be returning to in-person learning until after winter break was something he had expected in the back of his mind.

Still, with the recent return of on-campus sports and the reopening of local private schools, he was hopeful things might be returning to normal. 

"I'm just in the mindset of being prepared to do this for the rest of senior year. It’s a test for me, that’s how I think of it," he said. "[The district] coming to that decision is unfortunate, but in the back of my head, I've been preparing for that."

Although schools are finally permitted to reopen in Santa Barbara County, Nepa and thousands of other students in Santa Maria, Orcutt and Guadalupe school districts are facing the reality of continued distance learning, due to concerns from district officials about liability and local COVID-19 case rates.

Orcutt Union School District officials, along with officials in the neighboring Lompoc Unified School District, made announcements about their winter timeline to district families last week, with Santa Maria-Bonita, Santa Maria-Joint Union and Guadalupe Union district officials echoing similar plans in subsequent board meetings. 

After seven months of mandated distance learning and extensive work on district reopening plans, some families have expressed anger and confusion at districts' decisions not to enter into at at least a hybrid model, in which students would be on campus two days a week. 

"It seems like there is a good plan in place," said Kristin Reeves, a parent in the Orcutt Union School District. "At this point, it’s time; the kids are struggling. I have three kids, we’re new to town, they have no friends … it’s just devastating to see the effects it’s having. I just feel like it’s hurting our kids more than anybody realizes." 

While Santa Barbara County's overall COVID-19 case rates have been dropping, district officials remain concerned about COVID-19 data for Santa Maria. According to Santa Barbara County Public Health Department data from early October, Santa Maria's daily case rate per 100,000 people has recently been double that of the county as a whole.

"When we’re making decisions on behalf of the safety of our students and staff, it’s incumbent upon us to consider data and information that directly pertains to our community," Santa Maria Joint-Union Superintendent Antonio Garcia said Tuesday. 

In the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, Superintendent Luke Ontiveros recommended viewing Santa Maria as its own county to determine the level of safety. Since the city's case rates would qualify for the most restrictive state reopening tier, he said district schools should wait to reopen until a consistent downward trend is seen for three weeks. 

Districts are also treading carefully due to the increased liability they could face if a student or staff member were to contract COVID-19. The lack of insurance protections for COVID-19 claims could leave districts spending thousands of dollars in legal fees, superintendents warned. 

"Our insurance company let us know in July that we will not get any coverage for COVID-19," said Dr. Holly Edds, superintendent for the Orcutt Union School District. "We would have to pay for everything out of the general fund."

While hopes were high for legislation that would increase liability protections for educational institutions, AB 1384 ended up dying in the state Senate, leaving districts unsure of when things might improve. 

"We have legislation that is currently stalled that would give us a higher level of protection. So, we are being held accountable for factors that are truly beyond our control. That’s problematic for our school districts," Garcia said. 

With the return to in-person learning delayed for the time being, districts are focusing on securing testing for staff, bringing back small groups of English learning and special education students, and supporting students in distance learning.

Status report and survey data for Santa Maria Joint-Union students shared at a Tuesday board meeting indicated high levels of stress and unhappiness with online learning, along with high rates of failing grades since the start of the school year. 

"This is our first snapshot of how things are working or not working, and it's a pretty grim picture," said John Davis, assistant superintendent.

When it comes to testing, the Santa Maria-Bonita and Santa Maria Joint-Union districts will offer both onsite and at-home testing options for staff, who will be required to take a test every two months under state guidelines.

The Joint-Union district has secured a yearlong contract with LabCorp to cover this testing for around 900 employees, district spokesman Kenny Klein said. 

While the district has allowed a handful of individual students back on campus to work in the library when needed, with screening and temperature check procedures in place, specialized learning groups for English learners and special education students will begin next week, Klein said.

At the Santa Maria-Bonita district, staff are beginning the process of reaching out to 120 families with students who have special learning needs who would be eligible for small group instruction, spokeswoman Maggie White said. 

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