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The return to in-person learning in Santa Cruz County remains an elusive prospect heading into 2021.


COVID K-12, Lookout’s overview of COVID-19’s impact on education, is among eight Lookout initiatives documenting all aspects of the pandemic this year. For more, go to our COVID 2021 section, sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter here, and leave feedback and ask questions at the end of this story.

According to county Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah, the vast majority of public-school students should expect to continue with remote learning at least until March. That would be a full year after schools first shuttered their campuses to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

“We wouldn’t be able to get there before then,” Sabbah said, detailing his expected vaccination timeline for teachers and schools staff — currently, February into March — as well as persistent state restrictions under the purple tier.

As a staggering surge in COVID-19 cases continues, local schools are proceeding with caution before allowing even the small cohorts of high-needs students back onto campus.

All students, small cohorts included, should expect to start the term in distance learning for the first weeks of the spring term, Sabbah said. Small cohorts of students should be able to return to schools on or around Jan. 19.

Most local districts had returned small cohorts of 14 or fewer students to their campuses by the start of winter break. The composition of those groups varies, based on identified needs, but they include special-education students, English learners, and those who lack reliable internet access at home.

When the cloud of pandemic life lifts enough to allow in-person schooling to resume it’ll be under a hybrid learning model developed by districts over the summer and fall. Students will be divided into two groups who split time between in-person and remote learning.

Districts were on track to rollout the hybrid model in January until the current COVID-19 wave toppled their plans.

“Originally there was a talk of us going back next week,” said Serena Palumbo, an English teacher and Santa Cruz High. “That was October, when we were in the orange [tier] and people were eating inside of restaurants and it was a different time.”

Palumbo’s district, Santa Cruz City Schools, already has its hybrid schedule approved. High school students will all learn remotely on Mondays, then split into two groups that spend either Tuesday and Wednesday or Thursday and Friday in-person.

Palumbo called the schedule “the least terrible” hybrid option, though she said it won’t be a replacement for fully in-person instruction.

“The thing we all miss is relationships, you know?” she said. “I don’t think that the hybrid model replaces or allows us to have those relationships.”

Even if local public schools wanted to more broadly reopen, state policy currently stands in their way.

Santa Cruz County is firmly entrenched in California’s most-restrictive purple tier alongside most of the state. In that tier, schools that haven’t already reopened campuses are barred from doing so.

Schools can reopen once a county is elevated to the less-restrictive red tier, or better, for at least two weeks.

Elementary schools can apply for a reopening waiver even in the purple tier, but so far Santa Cruz County has refrained from opening up the waiver process. A stay-at-home order is also in effect — and appears likely to be extended — but it doesn’t specifically impact school reopening.

Private schools are also taking a wait-and-see approach before returning students to campus following winter break, according to Sabbah. “They’re all looking at a buffer of a week or two before resuming in-person services,” he said.

Taking advantage of more resources, autonomy, and smaller class sizes, local private schools had largely returned students to campuses throughout the fall. Some temporarily reversed course amid the record surge in COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving, according to Sabbah.

That trend — stepping away from reopening amid the case surge — was already in evidence across California leading up to winter break.

A recent EdSource survey found more California students learning remotely in December compared to an earlier survey from the end of October. The survey found districts in 22 counties — including Santa Cruz — offering mostly distance learning, compared to districts in 17 counties in October.

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Contributing: Mallory Pickett

Follow Nick Ibarra on: Twitter. Ibarra has a track record of reporting that has shone light into almost every corner of Santa Cruz County. Raised in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he came to journalism from...