While kindergartners in Shannon Day's class at Ralph Dunlap Elementary School are normally welcomed into her classroom in August, this year they had their first day of in-person learning in March, following nearly 12 months of distance learning due to COVID-19.

Day, who has been teaching kindergarten in the same classroom for 25 years, welcomed her first group of students Tuesday morning and another in the afternoon under the Orcutt Union School District's new hybrid learning model

While the schedule is complicated, and Day is tasked with sanitizing frequently along with enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing for 6-year-olds, she is overjoyed to have students back in an environment that is more conducive to learning.

"I’ve been ready, I was ready in August," she said. "I could not wait for these little guys to come back … One of my kids told me she was so excited she was going to explode into sparkles." 

Seven schools in the district saw the return of kindergartners on Tuesday, with students in grades 1 through 6 scheduled to come back gradually over the next two weeks. 

District Superintendent Dr. Holly Edds said she was happy to see the first day of in-person learning go smoothly, following the district board's Feb. 23 decision to bring back elementary students.

"We look forward to welcoming [kindergartners] back for their second day tomorrow, and to welcome the rest of our elementary students in the coming days," Edds said. "We are so grateful to our parents for their partnership over this school year, our Board of Trustees for their continued leadership, and to our incredible team here in the district that made this possible."

Elementary schools were permitted to resume on-campus learning once Santa Barbara County's COVID-19 case rate dropped below the state-mandated threshold of 25. Grades 7 through 12, however, must remain in distance learning until the county reaches the second-most restrictive red tier.

While kindergartners in the district will come to campus for a half day Tuesday through Friday, other grades will learn in-person two days per week, with Monday designated as a distance learning day for all students.

Safety measures

To ensure a safe on-campus environment free of virus transmission, the district has implemented guidelines for sanitizing of school sites and rules for mask-wearing and social distancing. 

Other measures have been harder to implement, as the district continues to pursue options for regular COVID-19 testing of staff and students and as several educators await their chance to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

However, last week, thousands of school staff throughout the county began receiving vaccinations in a streamlined process run by Lompoc Valley Medical Center and the county Office of Education.

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Employees working closely with medically fragile students and those more likely to be exposed to the virus, such as speech pathologists, counselors and special education personnel, are currently being prioritized for vaccines. 

At each school, grade levels are separated into two cohorts, with only one cohort on campus at a time to prevent crowding and allow for 6 feet of distance between students in hallways and classrooms. 

At Joe Nightingale Elementary School on Winter Road, students also could be seen socially distancing on the school playground and in the sandbox on Tuesday, with staff sanitizing the play structure between recess periods.

Inside the building, classrooms are limited to 16 students and one teacher, with no mixing permitted between student groups. Students and teachers are required to wear masks at all times. 

Social distancing guidelines are also implemented on the district's school buses, with sanitization occurring after drop-off. 

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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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