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Coronavirus in Santa Barbara County: Local schools to remain open, despite UCSB's move to 'remote instruction'

Coronavirus in Santa Barbara County: Local schools to remain open, despite UCSB's move to 'remote instruction'

Closures not recommended because no cases confirmed in county

While the University of California, Santa Barbara has moved all courses online due to coronavirus concerns, other universities and K-12 schools in the county are following the guidance of the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, which has not recommended closure because there are no confirmed cases in the county. 

Regardless, UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang announced the university’s transition to “remote instruction” on Tuesday, noting that effective March 11, fans are not permitted to attend sporting events, all campus concerts are cancelled and all student groups are encouraged to suspend planned events or activities. 

"We know that many of these recommendations will be challenging to implement, but it is important that we take the necessary steps now to respond to the rapidly evolving situation, despite the fact that no cases have been reported on campus or in Santa Barbara County,” Yang said. 

Hancock College in Santa Maria, on the other hand, does not plan to hold classes remotely as long as there are no confirmed cases in the county, according to college spokesperson Lauren Milbourne.

“We’re responding to the guidance from the CDC and communicating with the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department. We’re creating contingency plans so that if that changes, and we do get recommendations from [these agencies], we can be as ready as we can be,” Milbourne said.

Hancock College is continually updating their coronavirus webpage with new developments and instructions for the campus community, and will soon be offering a direct phone line to the college's Public Affairs Office for those wanting more information about the virus, Milbourne said.

When it comes to K-12 education, the county Public Health Department and Santa Barbara County Education Office have been in contact as updates occur in order to keep schools informed about next steps. 

Tuesday evening, the education office held a group phone conference with various educational partners throughout the county to reiterate that the status of cases in the county has not changed and that the Public Health Department is still not recommending school closures, education office spokesperson Valerie Cantella said.

“That was simply our purpose, to say nothing has changed, and that the Public Health [Department] has said there is no reason to close schools,” Cantella said of the call, which was held prior to the announcement from UCSB.

Although the county education office has no jurisdiction over private or charter schools, Cantella said they were still included in the correspondence so they could be in the loop along with K-12 school districts and university partners.

Public and private school districts have periodically reiterated this information to parents, stating that they are awaiting further instruction from the county Public Health Department before considering any closures or cancellations. 

“There are no school closures planned at this time and we would take direction from the SBCPHD. Should anyone exhibit symptoms consistent with COVID-19 that are not otherwise ruled out, SBCPHD will respond aggressively and quickly. The exact response would be determined by SBCPHD based on several factors, and we would work very closely on what action, if any, would be needed at a school site,” said Antonio Garcia, superintendent of the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District.

Maggie White, spokesperson for the K-8 Santa Maria-Bonita School District, said the district is working with the county health and education departments, and that they do not plan to send students home from school if their parents would likely still be required to come to work. 

“There are no cases in Santa Barbara, zero. We don’t anticipate a need for school closures,” White said. 

Private schools in the county including St. Joseph High School and St. Louis de Montfort School sent out the statement from the county Education Office to parents and included some of their own plans should cases develop in the county. 

“We, at SJHS, have a plan to transition to CANVAS courses in the event that things change, but we are prayerful and hopeful that this will not need to be implemented,” St. Joseph principal Erinn Dougherty said.

The California Public Health Department outlines closures of K-12 schools as a necessary step only when "multiple schools within a school district have a student, teacher or staff member test positive for COVID-19." For college campuses, the state department outlines closures as necessary if "multiple students, teachers or staff members test positive for COVID-19 on a campus." 

Despite the lack of confirmed cases in the county, county doctors have hypothesized that low-symptom cases of the virus have likely been in the county for over a month, but that no tests have occurred yet to confirm this. 

Laura Place covers city government for the Santa Maria Times.

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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