Quick Take:

A number of Santa Cruz County school districts are preparing to allow elementary students back into classrooms five days a week later this month — and at least two are planning to fully reopen secondary schools. The county’s largest district, Pajaro Valley Unified, remains the biggest asterisk.

Five days a week of in-person class is just around the corner for many Santa Cruz County public school students as reopening plans continue to snowball.

Just a few weeks back, the idea of a full return to classrooms seemed impossible given the ebbing, but still prevalent, presence of COVID-19. But, taking advantage of dropping case counts and relaxed classroom distancing guidelines, a number of districts have announced plans to return students to elementary school campuses full time later this month.

“At this point it’s really looking like most of the districts are going to be fully reopening elementary, except for Pajaro [Valley Unified] — and then secondary I think is going to be mixed,” Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah told Lookout on Thursday.

Santa Cruz City Schools, Live Oak Unified, Soquel Union Elementary and Scotts Valley Unified are among the districts planning to reopen elementary classrooms five days per week starting the week of April 19.

The Scotts Valley and Soquel districts are going further: Both districts plan to fully reopen secondary classrooms on April 26.

Pajaro Valley Unified, serving nearly half of all Santa Cruz County’s public school students, continues to be the biggest asterisk. Based in Watsonville, where COVID-19 cases spread at disproportionately high rates, PVUSD has taken a comparatively cautious approach to allowing students to return to classrooms. Its hybrid learning model began this week — behind all other Santa Cruz County districts — and PVUSD has no plans for a full-time return this spring.

Citing staffing, facility and transportation restrictions, PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez told Lookout her district is offering in-person learning “to the fullest extent possible” for the remainder of the school year.

Plans in several other districts, such as San Lorenzo Valley Unified, weren’t immediately clear. The district told families on April 2 it was still evaluating more in-person time for its elementary students.

Several factors are driving districts’ quickly evolving plans for the spring. One key change came March 20, when California reduced classroom distancing guidelines from six feet to three feet, mirroring new guidance from the CDC.

A week later, the California Department of Education added further pressure to reopen by clarifying its interpretation of state law requiring districts to offer in-person instruction “to the greatest extent possible.”

School districts “are expected to consider full-day, full-week in-person instruction the default mode of instruction, only resorting to distance learning if required to ensure the health and safety of staff and students,” the state guidance states.

Pressure has also been mounting from parents, though views remain deeply divided.

In PVUSD, 40% of families are opting out of hybrid learning and choosing to continue to learn fully remotely for the rest of the year, according to Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez. “This requires PVUSD to maintain a significant number of staff to serve those students and families,” Rodriguez said via email.

In Santa Cruz City Schools, more than 90% of elementary students are expected to shift to full-time instruction this month — though that number may continue to fluctuate, according to district spokesperson Sam Rolens.

As the district transitions elementary classes from hybrid to fully in-person, some families are switching back to fully remote, or vice versa, based on individual comfort levels that run the gamut.

“There’s a lot of people who feel we’re moving far too fast in our parent community — and we’re listening to them — and there’s a lot of people who feel we’re moving way too slowly in our parents community, and we’re listening to them,” Rolens said.

For Westlake Elementary parent Meghan Smith, her district’s plans come as welcome news.

“We’re very thankful for this swift action and leadership on elementary schools,” said Smith, an organizer of a group of hundreds of parents that has pressed districts to more quickly firm up reopening plans. Smith said the advocacy group is also encouraged that district leaders “are continuing to engage with families who aren’t yet ready to return full time and continuing to offer an online only option.”

Some parents in the group, Smith said, want to see more, calling on districts such as Santa Cruz City Schools to push ahead with a full-time reopening of secondary schools.

Santa Cruz City Schools currently has no plans for a full-time in-person return for its middle and high schools this spring, according to Rolens.

“Barring any significant developments, what we’re expecting is to finish out the hybrid model for middle and high through this year,” Rolens said. “And in the summer, we’ll have enough time — and we’ll have more money heading into the fall — to hire the necessary teachers, and convert the necessary spaces to be able to open full time secondary in the fall.”

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