Students wearing masks learn in a Santa Cruz County classroom.
Students wearing masks learn in a Santa Cruz County classroom.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz County school districts ‘confident’ in full return this fall after distancing guidelines eased

All 10 public school districts in Santa Cruz County expect to be able to fully reopen classrooms in the fall so long as the spread of COVID-19 stays low, officials announced Wednesday. And some districts are considering increasing students’ in-person time this spring.

School districts across Santa Cruz County expect to be fully open for in-person instruction in the fall, officials announced Wednesday — so long as the spread of COVID-19 remains low.

“We anticipate that school districts will establish varying timelines for when they will be able to implement a schedule with the full reopening of their schools,” states a community message sent Wednesday by superintendents of all 10 public school districts and the County Office of Education. “However, we are confident that as long as community transmission of COVID-19 remains low, all public schools in Santa Cruz County will be fully open for in-person instruction in the Fall of 2021.”

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All local districts are already on their way to reopening classrooms under a hybrid model, though timelines and planned in-person time can widely vary. Scotts Valley Unified became the first district to reopen its classrooms to its youngest students on March 3 and to some high schoolers on Monday.

Calls from parents for a wider reopening are increasing, with parents from dozens of schools recently forming an advocacy group. But district officials said social distancing guidelines from the state previously stood in the way of a wider return.

Then, on Friday, the Centers for Disease Control updated its guidance. Citing new research, the CDC said students could safely sit 3 feet apart, instead of 6, while in classrooms, so long as they are masked. California quickly followed suit, with the state Department of Public Health easing its own classroom distancing guidelines from 4-6 feet to 3-6 feet, referring to the 3-foot minimum as “strongly recommended.”

Santa Cruz County’s school districts are also reviewing how the guidelines could allow them to expand students’ in-person time this spring, according to the Wednesday letter.

Santa Cruz City Schools, for example, is now “hopeful” for a full in-person return for its elementary students this spring, according to spokesperson Sam Rolens. The Santa Cruz-area district began evaluating its classrooms for 3-foot distancing several weeks ago. “We’re doing the final planning now, and hope to have specifics soon,” Rolens told Lookout.

Pajaro Valley Unified School District is already planning to take advantage of the new rules to expand students’ in-person time under its hybrid model this spring from 3 hours per week — less than any other local district — to 6, according to district officials. Details on that plan are expected to be shared with parents later this week.

Even with the new guidelines in place, superintendents cautioned that “significant” changes to the county’s COVID-19 risk level could delay reopening plans.

“Despite the improving trends we are seeing in local COVID-19 data and vaccinations, we must all do our part to help ensure our community remains on this promising trajectory,” superintendents said in their Wednesday message.

Read the full message from educators below.

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