While Santa Barbara County moves closer to meeting state COVID-19 requirements for reopening schools, several logistical hurdles related to widespread testing and vaccinations could push off that reality for the county's larger districts. 

On Tuesday, the county's adjusted COVID-19 case rate dropped to 27 cases per 100,000 people, just inches away from the 25-case threshold needed for schools to resume in-person learning for grades K-6. 

While counties previously needed to reach the red tier with a case rate of 7 or below to pursue reopening, state officials in January relaxed regulations to speed up the return process for elementary schools, with grades 7 and above still restricted from in-person learning until the red tier. 

Under these changing guidelines in the state's "Safe Schools for All" initiative, which still remains to be approved by the Legislature, North County schools have had to recalibrate reopening plans without a set timeline. In the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, Santa Barbara County's largest K-8 district with over 16,000 students across 21 school sites, plans to bring back grades K-6 are stalled as administrators face several unknowns.

"It’s going to be different for a district like ours; our schools were crowded before, and crowded and COVID don’t mix," Superintendent Luke Ontiveros said at a Feb. 10 board meeting. "If we get to the point where we’re able to bring just our K-6 students back, that's about 12,000 to 13,000 kids."

In preparation for a possible return to school, the district has conducted baseline testing of staff, testing 25% of employees every two weeks in conjunction with Quest Laboratories. However, new state guidelines require schools that reopen in the purple tier to perform biweekly COVID-19 testing for all staff and students on campus.

While the district is exploring the possibility of using a lab in Valencia to process the tests, more information about the process and funding for testing is needed from the state, Ontiveros said.

"For a small school, you might be able to find a way to test 100 students a week. We just looked at our TK-2 [grades], and we're talking about 3,000 students. So that's gonna be a little bit more of a challenge, and that's the piece we're hoping to get some clarity on," Ontiveros said. 

Another large question mark that remains for districts is the process of vaccinating teachers. At this point, Santa Barbara County's 22,000 educators and child care professionals will not be eligible for at least a couple more weeks, according to public health officials. 

The question is also pressing for the Santa Maria Elementary Educators Association, which represents 900 employees in the Santa Maria-Bonita district. The association has not entered into any official agreements with the district regarding vaccinations, but President Jose Segura said he hopes to see widespread access for teachers as part of reopening discussions. 

"As a union, our position is that vaccines need to be made available to teachers before they return to in-person instruction. To be honest, I don’t know what’s going to happen if a teacher decides they don’t want to be vaccinated. We’ll see what happens if and when we get to that place," Segura said. 

With the absence of widespread vaccine availability, the district also will need to establish a flexible model that continues to support families who choose to stay in distance learning, he said.

Alejandra Romero Lopez, a mother of two students in the district, said while her family has struggled immensely with poor internet connection during the pandemic, she does not want to send her children back to campus. 

"Even though it’s a hard experience, I would rather them stay at home and be in distance learning rather than being amongst other kids … because I know they’re here and they’re not sick," she said. 

Physical education has always been important, but in a time when students are stuck to the screen, playgrounds and youth sports have been shuttered and even the in-between workouts of walking to and from schools have been taken away, P.E. might be more important than ever.

So, do you think you have what it takes to complete this forest workout with Miller Elementary School physical education teacher Chris LeVander?

It is a simple walk through the forest complete with mountain climbers, tree climbers and stone steps. The workout is designed for an elementary school student, so you shouldn't have any problem, right?

Read the full story on SantaMariaTimes.com, here -

Follow the work of reporter Laura Place, here - https://santamariatimes.com/users/profile/laura%20place/

Over the months, her son has frequently been late to class due to technology issues, with no Wi-Fi hotspot or other forms of assistance provided by the district or their internet provider.

"If the district could help us more with that, that would be great," she said. "I do have the three of my kids using internet at home, and it can take up to three tries [to log on]." 

As the district awaits more specifics from the state, administrators are bracing themselves for the possibility of not returning until the end of the school year, or even later.

"It’s gonna depend on how the Legislature fills in those requirements," Ontiveros said. "If we can get kids back even for a short period of time this year, just for an easier transition into next year, that would be good."

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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