The Santa Maria Bonita School District will initiate a return to in-person learning through a hybrid model in mid-April, with all grades expected to be back partially on campus by mid-May.

In a unanimous vote Wednesday, the Board of Education set a specific target date for in-person learning for students in grades K-8. Prior to the vote, school officials said a return to campus would be based on local COVID-19 case rates but did not specify a date range.

"We’ve really been intentional about moving with an abundance of caution. We are a little behind other districts in bringing kids back for that reason; we’ve really been thoughtful about how we’d do this and ensuring that all the health and safety procedures were in place," Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services Melissa Dutra said. 

Under the district's plan, teachers will be required to return to campus on March 29 to begin training for the hybrid model. On April 19, the week following spring break, kindergartners and first graders will begin learning on campus twice a week, followed by other grades over the subsequent weeks, Dutra said.

Officials said they expect most, if not all, district staff interested in a COVID-19 vaccine to receive at least one dose by the end of March, a projected timeline also shared by the Santa Barbara County Office of Education. 

Thus far, around 100 employees have been vaccinated at Lompoc Valley Medical Center via appointments provided through the district, with more employees scheduled to be vaccinated at Marian Regional Medical Center this weekend. 

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Appointments also are available to educators and school staff through local pharmacies but are not provided directly through the district.

While the question of whether teachers will be vaccinated now has an answer, to the relief of staff, other reopening logistics remain unknown. 

At this time, district officials still are developing plans for the safe transportation to thousands of students to schools on city buses. As a result, the process for morning drop-off, temperature checks of students and managing traffic have yet to be determined.  

"There are some things we don’t have answers to yet because it will depend on busing," Dutra said.

Much of the ground-level planning, including implementation of lunch and recess schedules, simultaneous teaching of on-campus and Zoom learners, and social distancing will be determined by the district's 21 individual schools.

"The application at school sites is what’s really important," said Superintendent Luke Ontiveros, adding that he has been in discussion with district principals about this process.

Despite a focus on local schools driving solutions, some staff members say they need a clearer picture of the day-to-day operations in a hybrid model before deciding on a reopening date. 

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Teacher, union concerns

Jose Rodriguez, an eighth grade U.S. History teacher at El Camino Junior High School, said he is eager to have his students back in the classroom but only once solid plans are in place.

Despite the district's approval of a widespread learning plan, Rodriguez said logistics seem far from solid at this point. 

"I want to know, what [personal protective equipment] will the district provide us? Who is gonna be responsible for cleaning the room? Am I gonna do it?" Rodriguez said. 

With a lack of specifics, he said he worries about potentially bringing illness home to his family.  

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Like many teachers during the pandemic, eighth grade teacher history Jose Rodriguez has purchased his own equipment and added a bit of production quality to his Zoom classes with a professional microphone and a key light. 

Santa Maria Elementary Educators Association president Jose Segura said he is pushing for teachers to be more involved in developing plans for the day-to-day process of hybrid learning, such as the logistics of "simulcast" learning to both virtual and in-person learners.

According to Segura, the district declined in February to negotiate the exact terms of in-person learning outlined in the state's recent education Assembly Bill. Segura characterized the action as the district "walking away from the negotiating table," which Superintendent Ontiveros refuted.

"This is the first time our district has simply refused to bargain something, and something super important. We want to make sure our teachers understand what the working conditions are supposed to be like," said Segura, adding that the association is prepared to demand negotiations if no changes are made.

According to Ontiveros, the plan approved Wednesday by the board follows all guidelines outlined in the bill, and the district is not required to establish a separate contract when individual school sites can develop their own plans.

"We are not obligated under [the bill] to negotiate those terms," he said. 

Ontiveros and Segura both agreed that other negotiations, such as discussions about the association's now-expired general contract, are continuing without issue. 

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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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