Most Santa Cruz students, like those at Santa Cruz High School (pictured here), have been learning remotely since March.
The overwhelming majority of Santa Cruz High School students — and students at public schools countywide — have been learning remotely since March.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

Purple tier means more reopening haze for public schools countywide

Public schools throughout Santa Cruz County had been discussing a return to the classroom through hybrid learning in January, but the recent surge in coronavirus cases has put that on hold.

A shift from remote to hybrid learning for Santa Cruz County’s public schools is being thwarted for now by the county’s slide back into the purple tier, California’s most restrictive COVID-19 standard under which schools that haven’t already reopened are barred from doing so.

“We think it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to open in hybrid in January,” Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah tells Lookout Santa Cruz. It’s too early to speculate whether remote learning could continue through the end of this school year, he adds.

The county’s 10 school districts had been immersed in reopening plans as recently as last week. Across California, the majority of school districts in 21 of 58 counties had pivoted back toward in-person instruction as of late last month, an EdSource survey found.

More than a dozen private schools in Santa Cruz County had already welcomed back most students in the wake of COVID-19, according to county officials. Because students are already back in-person, those schools can stay open even in the purple tier. “They’ve been very successful and we’ve had almost no cases in the schools,” says Dr. Gail Newel, the county’s health officer.

As for the county’s roughly 40,000 public school students, a fraction of them who have high needs — including some English learners and special education students — recently began getting at least some in-classroom instruction.

Officials from Santa Cruz City Schools and Scotts Valley Unified said those districts have at least one such small group — 14 or fewer students — at every school site. Soquel Union Elementary School District had a total of 108 students split into small groups, roughly 6% of the student population, according to the County Office of Education. A countywide tally wasn’t immediately available, but it’s clear the overwhelming majority of students continue learning remotely.

“I was hoping it was going to be possible for the public schools to open sometime this fall,” Newel says, “but as case rates have risen, there’s been more and more discomfort on the part of the teachers, in particular, but also parents and leadership.”

Before the slide back to purple, districts had been targeting January reopenings, working together for months to build countywide guidelines. So when COVID-19 does start to ease, they’ll have fairly comprehensive playbooks to follow.

A complicated process

Reopening school campuses is complicated, subject not only to state health requirements but also to negotiations with teachers unions and the wishes of parents and students. And while Sabbah and his team have been coordinating reopenings through the County Office of Education, it’s up to each local district to implement plans.

Santa Cruz City Schools’ board on Monday approved hybrid schedules under which students would be split into two groups that each spend two days per week on campus and one day at home. Under those schedules, elementary students would learn remotely on Wednesdays and spend either Mondays and Tuesdays, or Thursdays and Fridays, at schools. High school students would learn remotely on Mondays, then in person on Tuesdays and Wednesdays or Thursdays and Fridays.

In the Pajaro Valley Unified schools, the path back to in-person learning hadn’t gotten that far along. The largest district in the county, PVUSD includes all of South County — the region where almost two-thirds of all county COVID-19 cases have been reported.

A union-conducted survey before the county’s return to the purple tier showed more than 72% of teachers preferring to stick to a remote model, according to Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers President Nelly Vaquera-Boggs.

Most students and parents supported returning to campuses after winter break under a hybrid model, according to survey results provided by PVUSD. That survey was conducted before the most recent case spike.

A sign at Mission Hill Middle School advises prospective visitors to stay off campus unless on official school business.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Purple tier thwarts plans, red tier a gray area

If Santa Cruz County stays in the most-restrictive purple tier, schools won’t be able to reopen campuses to most students at all.

Elementary schools can get waivers to reopen even in that tier, but none have been granted in the county to date — and Newel, the health officer, doesn’t expect that to change. “In conversations over this past weekend with the state, they’ve said now is probably not a good time to apply for a waiver, and I would agree about that,” she says.

If virus cases ebb and the county progresses to the orange tier or better, most local districts appear likely to move forward with a hybrid model.

Between them is the red tier. Schools are technically allowed to reopen under state policy, but the guidelines developed collaboratively between local districts and the County Office of Education advise against it.

In that sense, local guidance is a “little bit more restrictive” than the state mandates, according to Sabbah. Districts can opt not to follow that advice, however.

“School districts could say, ‘Well, you know, we do feel like the local measures are in place, that we are safe, that we are going to be opening, providing hybrid instruction, even in the red,’” Sabbah says. “The plan doesn’t prohibit that, by any means.”

Views of parents, teachers, students mixed

In Santa Cruz City Schools, the most recent survey of elementary school parents — and teachers — found majority support for debuting a hybrid model next semester.

San Lorenzo Valley Unified officials did not share any survey results from teachers, but reported that 75% of parents wanted to return to in-person instruction.

Those surveys were conducted prior to Monday, so it’s not clear how the latest case stats or tier shift might sway things.

Casey Carlson, president of the Greater Santa Cruz Federation of Teachers, says the union wants more assurances about ventilation and classroom spacing before it would back any reopening date, even if permitted by the state.

“From our union’s perspective, we’re fine with developing schedules, and we want our teachers to be a part of that process,” she says. “But the bottom line is that we will support schools reopening only when it’s safe to do so.”

Julie DeBernardo, of Soquel, has a 5th grade son in the Soquel Union Elementary School District. His older brother is a high school junior in Santa Cruz City Schools.

She says she has concerns about funding to keep schools clean, but she’s more confident in returning her children to school now, compared to early in the pandemic.

“Just having more knowledge of how the virus is spreading and how successful the private schools have been — and I have friends who teach in other parts of the country where the schools are open — I feel a little more confident that our schools can be safe,” DeBernardo says.

Helayne Ballaban, who teaches 3rd grade at Bay View Elementary in Santa Cruz, said remote learning continues to take a toll on her students and colleagues, despite heroic efforts from both.

“It’s turned what I experience as my job, my profession, my art, my calling, upside down,” she says.

Identifying himself as Vince, a junior at Santa Cruz High told the Santa Cruz City Schools board that he supports reopening schools “one way or another” on Monday night.

“This might be unpopular among everyone here,” he said, “but it’s definitely popular among my peers.”

Contributing: Mallory Pickett