081021 PVHS freshmen

Over 600 incoming high schoolers clad in masks attended Pioneer Valley High School's freshmen class orientation led by school staff on Friday ahead of the first day of school on Aug. 12. 

Santa Maria families not comfortable with returning to K-12 classrooms just yet are being offered a very different at-home learning option than what has been offered so far during the pandemic. 

While distance learning over the last year and a half has largely revolved around students and a teacher participating in class over video, the state is requiring schools to trade out that model for one-on-one virtual independent study programs for the 2021-22 school year.

In Santa Maria, some districts are simply beefing up their existing independent study programs to fit state requirements, while others are offering programs in partnership with neighboring schools or through third-party home-school services. 

Last week, officials in the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District said they are in the process of hiring more instructors for an independent learning program they are calling the virtual learning academy.

"This needs to be something quite different than the old [assignments] and packets and turning in weekly assignments, and more of an instructionally based, facilitated model," said John Davis, district assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. 

The window to nail down details about the new form of distance learning is closing, however, as all public school districts in the Santa Maria area are set to welcome students back by Friday. 

According to state officials, independent study programs must provide an equivalent academic experience to what is provided in the classroom, including weekly interface with teachers. In high schools, independent learning options must offer all A-G courses required for admission to state universities.

So far, around 300 students in the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District have expressed interest in the virtual learning academy, where they also will have 24/7 access through tutoring services via Tutor.com, according to Davis. 

St. Joseph High School, a private high school in Orcutt, is requiring full in-person learning for all students, according to Principal Erinn Dougherty. 

The Santa Maria-Bonita School District is going a different route, establishing a $2 million contract with virtual learning program Edgenuity, which will offer homeschool-style learning taught by program instructors rather than district teachers. 

According to district spokeswoman Maggie White, the program, funded by COVID-19 relief funds, will require a greater leadership role from parents than distance learning. Parents also must be able to navigate the online program in English to replicate the in-person English learning model. 

"I know a lot of families were waiting on the details, and there was a team that worked last week to hash all that out," White said. "Parents have to understand that they're going to have to be more involved in providing more of the actual teaching and oversight than what they were responsible for the last 18 months or so." 

Around 10% of district students are expected to utilize independent study as of last week, but that number may change after the specifics of the program were shared with parents Friday. 

While officials discussed an independent learning option similar to the high school district, White said there was not enough time to solidify all the details before the school year began. 

Yet another option is being pursued by the Guadalupe Union School District, which will offer independent study to a small group of interested students through the nearby Orcutt Union School District's Orcutt Academy. 

The Orcutt Union program allows students to choose between a hybrid program split between at-home and classroom learning, or a fully at-home schedule, according to the district website.

Unlike the majority of districts in the county, the first day of school on Wednesday will be the first time Guadalupe Union students have had on-campus learning since schools first closed in March 2020.

After the long wait, Superintendent Emilio Handall said around 99% of students in the small district are planning to return to Kermit McKenzie Intermediate and Mary Buren Elementary school campuses. 

"I think that’s been the process since COVID began — a continuous change in guidance and new iterations in guidance keeping districts on their toes and having them be very flexible. At this point as a school district and as an organization, we have to remain nimble on our feet to any changes in COVID," Handall said. 

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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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