Main Street School in Soquel will be getting back to in-person soon learning under plans announced Friday.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)
COVID K-12

A shot in the arm for school return: Districts united on ‘March-April’ elementary plan thanks to vaccination

A program to vaccinate teachers and support staff is moving ahead full steam, enabling the return of some 17,000 elementary students starting next month.

The push to get teachers vaccinated is pushing forward plans for a return to school campuses.

All 10 public school districts along with four charter schools announced plans Friday to get elementary schools reopened for hybrid in-person learning in March and April, according to a joint letter sent out by administrators.

The schools are working with Dignity Health/Dominican to get teachers and support staff vaccinated as quickly as possible, working from teachers in the youngest grade levels on up.

Bay View Elementary on the Westside.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We are excited to announce that Santa Cruz County school districts are working with their labor partners to plan for the phased reopening of our elementary schools beginning [in] March and April,” according to the letter, sent out by the county office of eduction.

The letter cited new prevention protocols, safety training, COVID-19 surveillance testing for all school personnel and environmental modifications to sites as the other key details beyond vaccination.

Vaccine developments

Dignity hosted two vaccine clinics for 600 teachers and staff over the past week, with education officials prioritizing those limited slots for pre-school and kindergarten.

Two more clinics have been added this weekend, offering first doses to an additional 800 more teachers and staff working in elementary schools, Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah confirmed earlier this week.

COVID K-12

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At Wednesday’s Santa Cruz City Schools school board meeting, Superintendent Kris Munro said “None of us thought we would be still in distance learning in February 2021. And it’s very, very exciting to see the light at the end of the tunnel right now.”

In a separate letter Munro sent to SCCS parents Friday, she reiterated that all elementary teachers and staff will have received their first dose by the end of the holiday weekend and added that “based on vaccine availability, we hope to be able to vaccinate our middle and high school staff in the coming weeks.”

As of last year, there were about 17,000 elementary students countywide. In-person instruction for some 23,000 middle- and high-school students will not be able to resume until the county moves into the red tier of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy.”

Munro’s letter focused on a return to “Elementary Hybrid Instruction mid March, with specific class start dates to come in the next two weeks as we finalize timelines and increase surveillance testing capacity.” SCCS will hold a Family Information Webinar on Feb. 23 at 6 p.m. to “go over our Hybrid Instruction Model, run through COVID safety protocols, and address your questions and concerns.”

Westlake Elementary on the Westside.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Labor leaders have said that vaccinating teachers and support staff is a key prerequisite to reopening schools under a hybrid in-person and remote model, a transition local districts have planned for since the summer.

Casey Carlson, president of Greater Santa Cruz Federation of Teachers, said in a statement Friday: “Our teachers’ union is so thankful for the cooperative efforts of our SCCS leadership, our Superintendent Kris Munro, our COE Superintendent Faris Sabbah and Dignity Health for recognizing the value of our teachers and school staff by arranging to get us vaccinated. We can now move forward into teaching students in person again; teachers can’t wait to see the faces of children as they walk through our classroom doors!”

Moving slightly slower in PVUSD

In the county’s largest school district, Pajaro Valley Unified, Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez struck an optimistic note in light of the vaccination news at Wednesday night’s school board meeting.

But each district will set its own timeline for returns, and a letter jointly signed by Rodriguez and union representatives Thursday makes it clear that PVUSD would follow a slower track due to greater concerns about COVID-19 in the Pajaro Valley.

“Santa Cruz County continues to be in the widespread purple category and the areas within the PVUSD boundaries are currently double the percentage of known cases than in other parts of the county,” the letter stated.

As has been the case for counties across California, a dearth of vaccines means local officials have had to adjust on the fly and tensions over who should receive the precious shots that remain.

County education officials had initially planned to vaccinate all 6,000 teachers and staff working in the public school system and at Cabrillo College at clinics hosted at the college between Feb. 1-12. Second doses would have been administered there in early March.

Kim Kaspar office assistant for Mar Vista Elementary rolls out a bin full of basketballs.
Kim Kaspar office assistant for Mar Vista Elementary rolls out a bin full of basketballs.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Those plans fell through as the vaccine doses anticipated by education officials never arrived.

With the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths in Santa Cruz County concentrated among people ages 65 and up, county health officials have been focusing much of their vaccination efforts so far on that population, including those who are uninsured or groups that have barriers to care or have been disproportionately affected by the virus.

Here is the text of the joint letter sent via the Santa Cruz County Office of Education:

Dear Community of Santa Cruz County Schools,

We are excited to announce that Santa Cruz County school districts are working with their labor partners to plan for the phased reopening of our elementary schools beginning [in] March and April. Our bargaining unit partners have agreed that staff will resume in-person instruction after their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Through a crucial partnership with Dominican Hospital and Dignity Health, we have secured vaccinations for most of our kinder- and preschool teaching and support staff which will allow schools to begin phasing-in expansion of in-person services for small cohorts of these student groups first. Schools will continue to help vaccinate both instructional and support staff beginning with the lowest grade levels proceeding in order through the higher grades.

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Vaccination is an important part of a multi-faceted plan to expand in-person services to most students. We continue to be actively engaged in our advocacy efforts to keep educators as a top priority in the County’s vaccination effort. We believe wholeheartedly that COVID-19 vaccination represents an important tool to help stop the pandemic and to bring our students back to the classrooms as quickly and as safely as possible. We hope to help vaccinate our entire education community which is composed of all childcare and early childhood educators, TK-12 public and private school personnel, and Cabrillo College employees as soon as possible.

According to CDPH guidance, our elementary schools (which consist of grades TK through 6th) became eligible to resume plans for in-person hybrid instruction once our county’s COVID-19 adjusted rate dropped below 25. At this time, our county’s adjusted case rate is 18.8. Middle Schools and High Schools are not able to implement hybrid instruction until our county’s COVID-19 adjusted rate drops below 7.

Schools have worked diligently over the past year to develop readiness systems in anticipation of expanding in-person instruction, including the implementation of a variety of new prevention protocols, safety training, COVID-19 surveillance testing for all school personnel. Schools have also made environmental modifications to sites in order to minimize the risks to our students, parents, and staff. Now, with the methodical vaccination of school instructional staff, we are confident that the robust mitigation systems we have put in place will continue to minimize the risks and ensure in-person learning spaces remain as safe as possible in order to welcome our students back to classrooms. We continue to closely monitor COVID-19 guidance from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and our local public health authorities and integrate changes in protocols as they pertain to schools into our COVID-19 Health Guidance for Schools framework.

To continue to make progress in overcoming the pandemic, as a community we must all continue doing our part by complying with all recommended preventative measures including staying home as much as possible, wearing face coverings in public, maintaining physical distancing and avoiding gatherings with those outside our household. We look forward to sharing more about plans to bring our students back safely to our classrooms and schools as new information becomes available. For more information about COVID-19 updates for schools, please visit our webpage at santacruzcoe.org/coronavirus.

Yours in education and health,

Laurie Bruton, Superintendent, San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District
Lorie Chamberland, Superintendent, Live Oak School District
Alicia Doolittle, Administrave Director, Linscott Charter School
Eric Gross, Superintendent, Pacific Elementary School District
Mike Heffner, Superintendent, Bonny Doon Union Elementary School District
Tanya Krause, Superintendent, Scotts Valley Unified School District
Michelle McKinny, Superintendent, Happy Valley Elementary School District
Diane Morgenstern, Superintendent, Mountain Elementary School District
Kris Munro, Superintendent, Santa Cruz City Schools
Jennifer Proudfoot, Director/Principal, Tierra Pacifica Charter School
Maria Reitano, Head of School, Pacific Collegiate School
Josh Ripp, Head of School, Ceiba College Preparatory Academy
Michelle Rodriguez, Superintendent, Pajaro Valley Unified School District
Faris Sabbah, County Superintendent of Schools
Scott Turnbull, Superintendent, Soquel Union Elementary School District

Here’s a separate letter announcing return plans for Santa Cruz City Schools, sent Friday by Munro.

Dear SCCS Families,

It is my great pleasure to announce that we will resume in-class instruction next month for elementary students in Santa Cruz City Schools. While secondary schools’ eligibility to reopen must wait for our County to move into the red COVID risk tier, elementary is preparing to begin Hybrid Instruction thanks to the planned full vaccination of our elementary school staff, our newly upgraded ventilation systems that cycle fresh filtered air into classrooms every 15 minutes and the success of our on-site safety measures.

We are planning to begin Elementary Hybrid Instruction mid March, with specific class start dates to come in the next two weeks as we finalize timelines and increase surveillance testing capacity. We will be holding a Family Information Webinar on February 23rd at 6pm to go over our Hybrid Instruction Model, run through COVID safety protocols, and address your questions and concerns.

I want to thank the County Office of Education and Dignity Health for their support in securing vaccinations for all of our elementary and special day class teachers, who will all have received their first dose by the end of the holiday weekend. Based on vaccine availability, we hope to be able to vaccinate our middle and high school staff in the coming weeks.

I want to remind everyone that our Hybrid Instruction is not mandatory. For all who prefer continued distance learning, details will be sent next week. All families will be welcome to change their preferences on whether to remain remote or join in-class learning as we lead up to a Hybrid opening.

To help in that decision, I wanted to share some details about our safety protocols. We recently experienced six COVID cases from community spread in our small in-person cohorts and, due to our safety measures, these exposures resulted in no in-class spread to classmates or teachers. Following exposure, we immediately closed and quarantined these cohorts. If there is exposure in a classroom during Hybrid Instruction, classrooms will be closed to quarantine. Despite the impact on families and their schedules, this is a required safety precaution to control the spread of COVID in our community.

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A summary of our safety measures includes:

  • Upgrades in filtration & efficiency to our ventilation systems
  • Class & school redesign to support social distancing
  • New sanitation protocols
  • Personal Protective Equipment (masks, etc.) for our staff and students
  • A public COVID web dashboard providing case transparency at school sites
  • It is with joy that we celebrate this first step back to normalcy. I want to thank you, all of our families and caregivers, for your patience and resilience as we navigated through much uncertainty this past year.

Please know, we have worked tirelessly to prepare our sites, our staff, and our safety precautions to be ready to welcome our students to campus. We all look forward to being back together very soon.

Best regards,

Kris Munro
Superintendent