The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department is prepared to support the reopening of elementary schools by urging the state to grant an earlier return to in-person learning.

In her update to the Board of Supervisors on Feb. 9, Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso said the department is planning to send a letter asking the state to grant the Santa Barbara Unified School District permission to reopen within seven days. The letter also can be adapted for other districts with updated COVID-19 safety plans. 

County Public Health has been working with several districts, including Orcutt Union and Buellton Union, to finalize reopening plans in preparation for an upcoming reopening, according to Do-Reynoso. 

"We will tailor the template letter to accompany any other school district that has an approved safety plan and seeks that support," Do-Reynoso said. "We all agree that students need to return to in-person learning. That is the ideal and that is the ultimate goal."

Under requirements in the state's Blueprint for a Safer Economy, schools currently in distance learning cannot resume in-person instruction for grades K-6 until the county's COVID-19 case rate drops to 25 cases per 100,000 people. 

With Santa Barbara County's current adjusted case rate exceeding the threshold at 36.4 per 100,000 people, the county is hoping to fast-track the process for schools who have not seen students in the classroom for nearly a year. 

Since many private schools have been open safely since the fall, Do-Reynoso said it makes sense to allow other districts to open and access the same learning opportunities.

"There are existing schools open under the waiver process in Santa Barbara, or when we were in the red tier, that have been able to reopen safely … the other piece is [that] through the equity lens, disadvantaged students should have the same opportunities for in-person instruction as other schools in the same areas," she said. 

While all schools and districts have been required to publish COVID-19 safety plans on their websites for public review, these plans must be updated to include any new guidance from the state, including Jan. 14 requirements for widespread mask-wearing and more regular updates to the state.

"If any guidance comes down between the time you made your plan and when you want to open, you have to update your plan," Santa Barbara County Education Office spokeswoman Valerie Cantella said. 

Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg added that since evidence of COVID-19 spread is low among younger children, the county will be focusing only on elementary schools for fast-tracked reopening.

"The reason for that is there is much more virus spread in teenagers than the smaller kids. That is just a scientific fact," Ansorg said. "It is also very much a fact that younger children require in-person education much more than older children." 

The wait for in-person learning for middle and high school grades will be much longer, with state guidelines requiring county case rates to first drop to 7 per 100,000 people, triggering entry from the purple tier into the red tier.

Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart said he hopes the department's letter will spur Gov. Gavin Newsom to take action to help schools reopen, citing the governor's verbal support for schools despite guidelines that prevent the majority of districts from reopening at this time. 

Currently, only private and charter schools have resumed in-person learning in the county. While several public school districts planned to begin a hybrid learning model soon after winter break, the possibility quickly disappeared as COVID-19 cases surged around the holidays and the county was removed from the red tier. 

Board of Education meetings are scheduled this week for the Santa Maria-Bonita, Santa Maria Joint-Union, Orcutt Union, Guadalupe Union, Lompoc Unified, and Buellton Union school districts, with several to include discussions of reopening plans. 

Coronavirus: Impact, response to COVID-19 on the Central Coast

We are working hard to get answers about the impact and reaction to the coronavirus in Santa Barbara County, this is a collection of those stories.

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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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