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Orcutt Union, Lompoc Unified districts to welcome back K-6 students next month
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Orcutt Union, Lompoc Unified districts to welcome back K-6 students next month

Elementary students in the Orcutt Union and Lompoc Unified school districts will be permitted to return to partial in-person instruction beginning the week of March 8, nearly a year after the initial COVID-19 shutdown.

Orcutt Union will launch a hybrid learning model for K-6 students whose families wish to return to campus at the beginning of the third trimester on March 9, with two cohorts of students on campus within a staggered schedule, Superintendent Holly Edds said.  

In this model, each cohort for grades 1-6 will learn on campus two days a week, and the two kindergarten cohorts will be split between mornings and afternoons four days of the week, with Monday designated as a distance learning day for all students. Different grade levels will be brought back gradually over a two-week period, according to district plans.

While some logistical unknows remain, such as who will cover the $82,000 cost of weekly COVID-19 testing for students, district officials said they are ready to proceed with reopening for the benefit of students.

"We look forward to having students back on our campuses; they are the reason we chose this profession and we can't wait to see them in person," Edds said. 

Lompoc Unified also will gradually bring back K-6 students on March 8, with a similar structure of two days on campus and three days remotely, but students will also have the option of distance learning one full day with four half days of either afternoon or morning learning on campus.

"Even though it will be different than traditional school, having kids on campus and learning in classrooms is a huge step in the right direction," Superintendent Trevor McDonald said.

Under recent state guidelines, districts with approved safety plans are permitted to resume in-person learning for K-6 students once COVID-19 case rates drop to 25 per 100,000 people. With a case rate of 16.9, Santa Barbara County reached the threshold Feb. 23, according to weekly Blueprint for a Safer Economy data.

Grades 7-12 are still required to remain in distance learning until the county reaches the red tier, with a case rate of 7 per 100,000 people.

While Orcutt Union board members voted in December to delay reopening for all grades until the county reached the red tier, they chose to recalibrate as the county drew closer to the new case threshold, submitting updated safety plans to the county for approval.

"Last week, we received notification that the plan has been approved by the county, and has been moved upwards to the [California Department of Public Health] and Santa Barbara County Education Office," Edds said.

Parent pressure

The night of Orcutt school board's meeting Feb. 22, around 70 district parents and kids rallied outside the district office in support of a faster return timeline and to share about their experiences with distance learning during the public comment period.

District parent Stephanie Lewis said her two children have struggled immensely since being in distance learning, to the point where her 6-year-old daughter is not meeting academic milestones for her age and her son has become withdrawn. 

"She's had most of her educational experience on a computer … she can't read and can barely write a sentence," Lewis said of her daughter.

Other parents criticized the district for choosing not to enter a hybrid model in October, when the county first entered the red tier. Several board members said they were more comfortable voting in favor of reopening now since case rates have been steadily dropping.

"I was someone who voted against reopening in October, and I’m glad that we did," said Board President Melanie Waffle, noting that COVID-19 cases began to skyrocket shortly afterward. "Now, it's time to get kids back in school." 

Reopening logistics

In the seven Orcutt schools eligible to begin hybrid learning, classrooms will be limited to groups of 16 students, plus one teacher, with no mixing between groups. Masks will be required for all individuals on-site, including young children.

When it comes to transportation, district staff said there will be substantial space on the district's school buses for the 2,180 students interested in returning to campus, especially since only half of the students will be on campus each day. 

The district will eventually work with Valencia Laboratories to accommodate weekly COVID-19 testing, a requirement that will decrease to bi-weekly testing once the county enters the red tier. 

However, with state funding for education still stalled, district officials are unsure how testing and vaccination of teachers, which begins this week in Santa Barbara County, will play out. 

"We are going to do our absolute best to try to implement all this. It’s not gonna be perfect, and there’s gonna be hiccups along the way, but we will try our best," Edds said.

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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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