As of March 15, there are 15,101 cases of COVID-19 in Santa Cruz County, including 265 active cases, 196 deaths and 14,640 recovered. For updated information on vaccine eligibility, please check the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency (HSA) website.

As of March 15, UC Santa Cruz has a 0.08 percent seven-day positivity rate. Zero students are in quarantine and five are in isolation. For more information, please visit UCSC’s Tracking COVID-19 website.

Temperature checks, health questionnaires, plexiglass, and face masks. This is the new normal for elementary school students, teachers, and staff as they return to in-person learning. The floors are painted with arrows to avoid cross-traffic and students only interact with their classmates twice a week in cohorts of 15-20, spaced six feet apart. 

However, officials have said that even with these precautions, decades of poor public funding have prevented schools from improving their infrastructure, which would make schools safer.

Scotts Valley Unified School District was the first to open, bringing Transitional Kindergarten (TK) and Kindergarten students back on March 3. Mountain Elementary School District (ESD) and Pacific ESD followed suit on March 8, bringing TK through first grade and TK through third grade students to in-person learning, respectively. 

Dr. Faris Sabbah, Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools, attended the reopenings of these three elementary schools, and spoke to the mixed emotions of the return.

“It was emotional for parents of kindergarteners who had never been to school before, and parents and students were very excited, the energy was there,” Sabbah said. “[But] there were masks everywhere, kids were lined up very separated from each other, and parents were very aware of one another. So, in some ways it was very similar to the first day of school and in other ways it was very, very different.”

Safety and Health Protocols

School districts are reopening in accordance with guidelines from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). Under these guidelines, all elementary school grades are eligible to return during the purple tier after having a return to school plan and COVID-19 Safety Plan approved by the County Office of Education. Secondary schools are eligible after the county has been in the red tier for two weeks. The county entered the red tier on March 10.

Reopening timeline for each school district. Courtesy of Santa Cruz County Office of Education.

All school districts have strict health guidelines in place to ensure the health and safety of students, parents, staff, and faculty. These include desks being six feet apart, mandatory mask wearing, directions painted on the floor to organize walkways and prevent cross-traffic, and a morning health screening, which includes temperature and symptom checks. 

“We want to make absolutely sure that we’re providing the safest environment possible,” said Santa Cruz City Schools (SCCS) Communications Manager Samuel Rolens. “In some cases we are going beyond what we’re required to do and we’ve made decisions about requirements to enforce on ourselves, because we bear a burden of responsibility to keep the community as healthy as we can.” 

The cases where the district went beyond the minimum requirements include keeping desks six feet away, when the CDPH mandates a minimum of four feet, and having maximum air filtration through air purifiers and upgraded ventilation systems, when CDPH only requires updating ventilation.

All of the nearly 5,000 employees in the Santa Cruz school districts will be fully vaccinated by the time their respective schools reopen this semester, Sabbah said. This includes teachers, custodial and food service workers, and administrative staff. 

Students will attend school in cohorts of 15-20 students, which will alternate between two days of in-person instruction and three days of virtual instruction in order to avoid cross-exposure between groups. For example, if a student in one cohort tests positive, only that cohort would need to isolate, and a team of school administrators and nurses conduct an extensive contact tracing protocol. Other cohorts would be able to continue their hybrid in-person lessons since they were not exposed.

 Students will be returning to Bay View Elementary School on March 15. Photo by Benjamin Gonzalez Cueto.

Regarding concerns from parents that elementary school students may not understand the situation or take it seriously, SCCS nurse Lisa Tripp indicated otherwise.

“[When students come back] there will be a lot of education around the protocols and the importance of observing them,” Tripp said. “Of course there’s always a worry because kids will push boundaries and test defenses. But they’ve been out of school so long and they’re pretty much over it just like we are, [so] I think they’re going to be very cooperative.”

All districts also undertook a comprehensive review and upgrade of ventilation systems, costing around $800,000 for SCCS alone. Upgrades to ventilation systems are essential to having healthy schools, and educators have questions as to why it took so long to finally get them done.

Funding Issues and Inequities in Education

Casey Carlson, president of the Greater Santa Cruz Federation of Teachers Local 2030 – the union that represents the teachers, counselors, nurses, and psychologists of SCCS – points out that ventilation is just one of many issues that have been plaguing underfunded California schools for a long time. 

“The infrastructure of public schools in California are sorely in need of repair,” Carlson said. “When this crisis hit, all the things that teachers have been talking about for years, like falling apart buildings, ventilation, [heating that doesn’t work], how class sizes need to be smaller, how we need better technology that works. These investments should have happened many years ago, but thank goodness it’s happening now.”

Carlson added that one of the reasons classes are returning in a hybrid manner is that there is not adequate funding to support the small classroom sizes needed for social distancing. 

With the crisis being as far-reaching as it has been, many parents also struggled to adapt to virtual learning. The Student Support Services Department at SCCS provides meals, housing assistance, mental health services, and technical support to families in need.

Nereida Robles, a social worker in the Student Support Services Department, says that the vast majority of their work, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, was focused on providing internet hotspots, laptops, and technical support on how to access classes, for families that are low income or speak English as a second language.

Families have always had urgent needs, and the impact of the pandemic is forcing educators to reconsider the way funding is allocated and what kinds of support can be provided to them. Sabbah and Robles both said it is important to go beyond surface-level support, like providing internet hotspots. Rather, they want to think of ways to provide permanent connectivity and equip families with the skills to access resources like food banks or vaccination appointments. 

School districts that reopen will be able to access increased funding through SB 86, a $6.6 billion school reopening plan in California, as well as federal COVID-19 relief bills. These will be going to critical services to support students who have fallen behind as a result of virtual learning. Ideally, this will include hiring new educators to support virtual learning and smaller classes, as well as providing tutoring services and summer school programs. However, Carlson said it is too soon to tell if funds will be sufficient and continuous enough to cover these needs. 

“If we had smaller class sizes, great technology, and our buildings were well ventilated and up to date, then we would be in better shape to resume in person instruction,” Carlson said. “Because all those pieces that should be there anyway weren’t there, that made it even harder to get schools ready.”

Though the road to reopening schools has been bumpy, educators have been working diligently to ensure that students can access the highest quality education possible. 

“Every family is so unique, every child is developing resilience at a different level, but we’re ready to support families in the middle of this crisis,” said Robles. “I’m very happy to be part of a team that collaborates [toward] one goal: supporting our students.”