With California schools resuming widespread in-person learning this fall, Santa Barbara County's largest elementary district is planning how to accommodate around 1,700 students whose families are still uncomfortable with returning to school.

In a family survey answered by Santa Maria-Bonita School District parents of 9,100 students — over half the district's student population — 90% said their children would attend in-person classes five days per week while 10% said they would like information about alternative options due to health concerns. 

According to district Superintendent Luke Ontiveros, the response suggests that up to 1,700 students could continue learning from home this fall.  Officials are completing outreach to all the families who selected the option. 

"That's higher than I thought it would have been," Ontiveros said. "I think when we start making those contacts, when they learn more, maybe their anxiety will lower a little bit."

While the state's waiver allowing distance learning in schools has expired, July 5 educational trailer bill SB 130 now requires schools to offer comprehensive independent study programs to students who opt not to return to in-person learning for health reasons. 

The programs are intended to build off existing independent study models by providing an equivalent learning experience to what is offered in the classroom, with specific requirements for engagement in synchronous instruction, or instruction of all students at the same time.

Within the independent study model, daily synchronous instruction will be required for independent study students in transitional kindergarten to third grade. For fourth to eighth graders, opportunities for at least daily live interaction and at least weekly synchronous instruction is required. 

To ensure that the students don't fall off the map, school officials will notify a parent or perform other outreach for students who are absent for more than three days of the school week.

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In the spring, many teachers simultaneously taught students over Zoom and those present in the classroom through a process known as simulcasting. How teachers will accommodate in-person and independent study students in the fall, however, remains to be answered. 

"We're gonna have to figure out what this looks like. These are the requirements we have to have in place, so there are still some questions [and] some problems to be solved," Ontiveros said. 

The 2021-22 school year is set to begin in four weeks on Aug. 12.

Many students experienced less than two months of in-person learning last year, and even then only two full days per week. However, since the school year ended in June, hundreds of students have continued to adjust to in-person learning through summer school programs. 

Eduardo Panting, Migrant Education Program assistant administrator, said the Migrant Summer Program at Robert Bruce Elementary School has been crucial for transitioning students into full in-person learning in the fall. 

"This is like a preamble," he said, noting that the program can help put parents at ease who may have "mixed feelings" about sending their students back to school as the pandemic continues. "Some of our migrant parents are kind of hesitant about sending their kids back in person."

The state also will require masking this fall for all students and teachers while indoors, regardless of vaccination status, which removes requirements for social distancing in classrooms.

While some officials and parents have expressed concerns about the rule, Robert Bruce sixth grade teacher Tom Billinger said masks are something students are used to at this point. 

"This is the world we live in right now, but the kids have adapted," Billinger said. "Kids are very flexible, and they show up every day ready to learn."

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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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