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Valley Christian, St. Mary's students cleared to return to campuses
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Valley Christian, St. Mary's students cleared to return to campuses

Two more private schools in the Santa Maria Valley will bring elementary students back for in-person learning over the next week, after receiving state approval of reopening waivers on Monday.

Valley Christian Academy on Santa Maria Way and St. Mary of the Assumption School on East Cypress Street both will be permitted to bring back students in grades K-6 for in-person learning that will involve cohorts and social distancing. Students also will have the option to continue distance learning. 

Twenty-three schools in Santa Barbara County have applied for state waivers, with 14 approved thus far. Waivers are first reviewed by the county Public Health Department, then passed on to the California Department of Public Health for final approval. 

Although Santa Barbara County remains in the most restrictive reopening tier, the waiver is open to all elementary schools in the state. 

Valley Christian Academy will begin phasing in students in grades 1-3 on Thursday, followed by grades 4-6 on Friday, with St. Mary of the Assumption School waiting to reopen until Sept. 23, officials from both schools said. 

According to Valley Christian Principal Christopher Maples, the K-12 school has been able to host small groups of kindergartners on campus since last week under state child care guidelines, helping staff get a jump-start on keeping cohorts of students separate from one another. 

"That's been good practice for us with the cohorts, because that’s the biggest logistical issue for us — keeping our cohorts separate at recess and at lunch. That’s really helped us prepare for later this week when we have the older kids back," Maples said.

With only 190 students between grades K-6, class sizes can stay small, Maples said. In a second-grade classroom taught by first-year teacher Mary Cover, 10 small desks were spaced evenly throughout the room in preparation for students' return on Thursday.

At St. Mary of the Assumption School, staff experienced some whiplash leading up to their waiver approval. Last week, the school was incorrectly told by county officials that their waiver had been approved on Thursday and they were permitted to reopen, leading administrators to make reopening plans they then had to retract, according to a letter sent to school parents. 

Once the waiver was officially approved by the state on Monday, Principal Michelle Cox said they decided to wait until next week to give families time to plan. 

"It’s a new process for everyone. There are mistakes along the way," she said. 

The Catholic K-8 school is anticipating the return of about 75% of students for in-person learning, with the rest continuing in a distance model, according to Cox. Teachers will continue to provide both forms of instruction to serve both the "roomers" and the "zoomers."

"Our focus is on in-person instruction with a live feed for our at-home zoomers so they can access all the instruction taking place," Cox said. 

According to St. Mary's COVID-19 reopening plan, which schools are required to share on their websites, health and safety procedures for in-person learning will include Plexiglas sneeze guards on each desk, daily cleaning of high-touch surfaces and student temperature checks each day. 

Similar safeguards will be in place at Valley Christian, whose plan describes one-way hallways marked with signage, daily professional cleaning, and required daily screenings by families before children are sent to school, in addition to school-provided temperature checks. 

Masks or other face coverings will be required for all students at St. Mary, while at Valley Christian they will only be required for students in third grade and above. 

Classes at St. Mary of the Assumption also will be slightly larger, with up to 24 students allowed per classroom, according to Cox. 

Down the road from Valley Christian, elementary students at nearby Pacific Christian School began to return to campus this week after in-person instruction was granted by the state. 

Waivers also have been approved for Santa Ynez Valley Christian Academy, Santa Ynez Valley Family School and several schools in the Santa Barbara area.

Other local schools awaiting approval include St. Louis de Montfort in Santa Maria, Santa Ynez Valley Charter School and La Purísima Concepción Catholic School in Lompoc. 

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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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