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Santa Barbara, SLO counties barred from reopening schools until removed from state watch list
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Santa Barbara, SLO counties barred from reopening schools until removed from state watch list

Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo are among 30 counties on the state's COVID-19 monitoring list that will not be permitted to reopen schools for in-person instruction in the 2020-21 school year, until they remain off the monitoring list for 14 consecutive days.

The announcement from Gov. Gavin Newsom comes just weeks before some districts' scheduled start date in mid-August, with distance learning required at this point for 80% of the state's population.

The mandate applies to public school districts, charter schools and private schools, according to the Santa Barbara County Office of Education.

Ellen Barger, assistant superintendent for the county Office of Education, said she expects that distance learning will go more smoothly in the fall, since districts won't be suddenly thrown into a new model like they were earlier in the year.

"Distance learning in fall will look very different from distance learning in the spring," Barger said.

Under the state guidance, schools offering distance learning will be required to provide devices for every student to participate, as well as daily live interaction, challenging lessons equivalent to in-person learning, and targeted support for English learners and special education students.

At this point, Santa Barbara County has been on the state monitoring list for 32 straight days for exceeding thresholds of case rates and test positivity, according to the California Department of Public Health.

San Luis Obispo County was added to the state's monitoring list on Monday for exceeding case rates.

The North County school districts of Santa Maria-Bonita, Santa Maria Joint-Union, Guadalupe Union and Orcutt Union were planning to make an aligned final decision next week, in order to limit complications for families with children in multiple districts.

In the hours following the governor's Friday announcement, however, districts began to formally announce their plans for distance learning when the school year begins.

"All distance learning is one of the options that the district has been preparing for. Now, we will put those preparations into practice," said Santa Maria-Bonita district spokeswoman Maggie White.

The Santa Maria Joint-Union High School District also announced its intention to continue with distance learning.

"Based on the governor’s communication, we will begin instruction via distance learning in SMJUHSD this fall," said district Superintendent Antonio Garcia.

Following the state announcement, the Lompoc Unified School District moved its start date from Aug. 31 to Aug. 17, with officials stating they are hoping to transition into a hybrid model once the county is removed from the state's monitoring list.

Although private and charter schools are also required to proceed with distance learning while the county remains on the monitoring list, St. Joseph High School in Orcutt is still holding out for an in-person model, principal Erinn Dougherty said.

St. Joseph has been planning an in-person instruction model since late June, and Dougherty said things could change in the time before the school's Aug. 17 opening.

"We are planning on moving forward with in-person and have more than a month until opening day," she said. "Even when we open physically, all students can choose to preferentially to distance learn if that is what is right for their family."

Messaging regarding the 2020-21 school year has changed drastically over the past months, with the decision originally being left up to individual districts to decide between distance learning, blended learning or in-person models.

In late June, a trailer bill to the state budget discussing educational requirements for the upcoming school year stated schools should hold in-person instruction whenever possible, with case numbers throughout the state rising drastically since.

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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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