Students at Gateway School wear masks as they work on their computers.
Students at Gateway School wear masks as they work on their computers on Tuesday. The private school has gradually reopened with a hybrid model this fall.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
COVID K-12

Santa Cruz County elementary schools begin to map out timelines for return

A number of school districts are targeting the week of March 15 to start phased returns to in-person schooling for their youngest students — though PVUSD is moving more slowly. A town hall on districts’ plans is set for Thursday.

Timelines are quickly taking shape as districts make final preparations to return elementary students to schools across Santa Cruz County in the weeks ahead.

In Santa Cruz, the City Schools district plans to reopen pre-K and kindergarten classes under a hybrid model March 15 — a year, to the week, after the pandemic first shuttered its schools. First through fifth graders would return to schools a week later on March 22, according to a timeline shared by Superintendent Kris Munro.

COVID K-12

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The county’s largest district, however, is charting a slower course.

Pajaro Valley Unified is considering reopening schools to students in first grade and below on April 5, following its spring break, according to a plan headed to the school board Wednesday. As proposed, the plan depends on the county progressing from purple to the red tier of California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy.

Leaders from across Santa Cruz County school districts and independent charters had worked together on a loose plan to reopen elementary schools in March and April that they announced via a joint letter on Feb. 12.

A number of districts are targeting the same week in mid-March for their return to in-person learning. But ultimately each must chart its own course to plan its reopening in coordination with its union, and subject to state guidelines.

Superintendents from all 10 districts are set to appear at an online town hall Thursday to discuss their plans, as well as new safety protocols that will be in effect for students and families. Doctors from Dignity Health will be in attendance to provide an update on school staff vaccinations.

  • Event
    The Santa Cruz County Office of Education is hosting an online town hall on school districts’ reopening plans, and the status of vaccinations — featuring district superintendents and doctors from Dignity Health and Dominican Hospital.
    Thursday, February 25, 2021 - 5:00 PM

Soquel Union Elementary district plans to launch its hybrid model March 15 for transitional kindergarten through first grade, according to Superintendent Scott Turnbull. Dates for grades 2-5 weren’t confirmed as of Monday afternoon.

San Lorenzo Valley Unified, meanwhile, is targeting March 16 to open classrooms to students in kindergarten and pre-K at several school sites. First and second graders would follow on March 30, with grades 3-5 on April 13, according to a letter sent to district families on Saturday.

On the other end of the spectrum is tiny Pacific Elementary — a single-school district serving the North Coast town of Davenport, with an enrollment of about 120 students in grades K-6.

Aided by its small size, Pacific is on track to welcome students back to campus a week earlier than most of its peers. Students in kindergarten through third grade can return to school March 8, according to superintendent and principal Eric Gross.

Plans for Scotts Valley Unified and several other local districts were either still emerging or couldn’t immediately be confirmed.

Faris Sabbah, the county superintendent of schools, said he expects to know all districts’ plans by Thursday’s town hall.

“I think all of the districts are trying to kind of move forward as quickly as possible,” he said.

Reopening in-person learning for middle and high schools is prohibited by state policy until Santa Cruz County progresses to the red tier. It remains unclear exactly when that might happen, though Santa Cruz County’s coronavirus metrics continue to improve.

At Santa Cruz City Schools, small cohorts of high-need students have been learning in-person since October — offering a smaller scale test of its upgraded infrastructure and safety protocols.

While a small number of students in those small cohorts have tested positive for the virus, the district has yet to confirm a single case of spread on campus. “That has affirmed our confidence in our safety protocols,” said Munro, the district superintendent.

Students will be split into two cohorts, one on campus on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the second on Thursdays and Fridays under the district’s hybrid schedule. Both groups will learn remotely on Wednesdays. And families that wish to continue learning remotely full time can opt to do so.

Casey Carlson, president of the Greater Santa Cruz Federation of Teachers union, said the approaching milestone has left her filled with a mixture of emotions.

“It’s both a great deal of joy mixed with a great deal of anxiety, but overall really excited,” Carlson said.