The Guadalupe Union School District will remain in distance learning for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year, keeping over 1,000 local K-8 students out of classrooms even as neighboring schools move toward reopening.
While schools in Santa Barbara County now are widely permitted to resume in-person learning, the district Board of Trustees decided at its March 10 meeting to delay any return to on-campus instruction until the summer, citing concerns about staff safety, disruption of student learning and logistics of returning to campus.
The district's summer school program, which will take place from June 16 to July 28, will now serve as the trial run for in-person learning leading up to the 2021-22 school year, officials said.
"Summer school would be our test run on in-person learning," trustee Sheila Cepeda said. "At some point, we do have to go back to in-person learning, so maybe we [work] some kinks out during summer school, then we’ll be ready to come back in August."
This plan differs drastically from that of neighboring North County districts, all of which decided to launch hybrid learning, bringing students to campus a couple days per week, before the school year's end.
The Orcutt Union and Lompoc Unified school districts already have begun reintegrating K-6 students, with the Santa Maria-Bonita and Santa Maria Joint Union districts to launch on-campus learning in mid-April.
While Guadalupe Union trustees acknowledged the importance of aligning plans with neighboring districts to make things easier for families spread between multiple schools, board members ultimately chose to focus on their own district.
"We see that our neighboring districts are coming back, but I think we need to … come to a decision that best serves our community," Superintendent Emilio Handall said.
While trustee Diana Arriola supported a quick return to in-person learning, the four other board members questioned whether it would be worth it to implement COVID-19 safety measures for a hybrid or 100% in-person model with less than two months left in the school year.
Board President Jose Pereyra said a departure from the fully distanced model could be detrimental to student learning, noting relatively high success in grades and attendance at Kermit McKenzie Junior High and Mary Buren Elementary schools thus far in the school year.
"We’re already in a positive direction, and to interrupt that for the students, I think it’s gonna be detrimental for their education," Pereyra said.
The majority of district parents, however, indicated a desire to finish out the school year in a hybrid learning model, according to March survey data.
When parents were asked whether they preferred distance or hybrid learning for the remainder of the school year, 69% of respondents at Mary Buren Elementary voted for in-person, along with 65% of respondents at Kermit McKenzie Junior High School, according to survey data.
Some trustees also expressed concern about the health risks of returning to campus, citing the possibility of case spikes following spring break, despite falling COVID-19 case rates and widening vaccine access for educational staff throughout the county.
Looking ahead, Handall said district administrators will discuss the continued distance learning model with leaders at both schools and develop plans for in-person summer school.
"I will work with my administration and their staff to make sure we finish strong this year in distance learning, ramp up our summer school and gear up for our full return in the fall," he said.