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SB Ed Board President Kate Ford: "High Level of Confidence" K-6 Kids Will Return Feb. 26

Kate Ford says the Santa Barbara Unified School District has "met every requirement to open" elementary schools - and is optimistic about final approval from the state to allow classroom learning to restart on Feb. 26.

"We're just awaiting that letter from the state Public Health Department that says, 'yes we agree with Santa Barbara County Public Health and we agree with the Santa Barbara Unified School District,'" said Ford, president of the district board of education, " -- go for it, make it happen."

With Covid infection levels steadily dropping in the county, the SBUSD board president said she has "a high level of confidence" of the state signing off on the district's "very detailed and comprehensive" safety plan for reopening; it is the final step needed to proceed with a "hybrid" teaching program for kindergarten through sixth grade students, which would combine several days a week in classrooms with the computer distance learning they've had since last spring, a plan the district hopes to launch before the end of the month.

"I don’t go to Vegas, I'm not a betting person," Ford said. "But I think it’s a pretty good bet."

In an interview with Newsmakers, Ford also said that vaccinating teachers against Covid-19 is not necessary for a safe reopening of elementary schools -- but emphasized that the district will do "whatever we can" to obtain vaccines and organize a program to administer them.

She pointed to a letter that she and other district leaders sent to public health officials last week pleading for a change in the current, age-related, tiered vaccination process: "Can't you take a pause and help us make everyone feel like the risk (of returning to classrooms) is nearly zero and get the teachers vaccinated," she said they wrote.

"We’ll do whatever we can," she said. "We offered our schools as sites, we offered our school nurses as personnel to be vaccinators, we have offered to create the priority list, we offered to make sure that everything for vaccinations for teachers and school staff will happen."

"There’s a lot of pressure from every corner of the state to get teachers vaccinated," Ford told us. "I'm not sure it's not going to happen."

That said, the lack of a vaccination program for teachers -- or even any official indication of when one might occur -- is perhaps the most politically fraught issue in the push to re-open schools.

Ford said, however, that the district has signed an agreement with the Santa Barbara Teachers Association and local staff employees represented by the California School Employees Association that clears the way for the hybrid program to proceed.

"Getting (Covid) vaccinations is not a condition of employment and it's not a condition of returning to school," she said. "If there are teachers who feel, for whatever reason they can't go back, no one can force them to go back. I do believe that most teachers will return, I do."

If a teacher refuses to return as scheduled, they would not lose their job, Ford added, but, "They will use some sort of leave" to account for their absence.

The new school president, elected by colleagues last month, in a wide-ranging interview also addressed a host of other key issues about the pandemic's impact on students.

On the difficulties of making policy in a pandemic. "Honestly, we hear every few days that Governor Newsom is coming out with a different message or a different idea or a different guideline."

On a return to classrooms for junior high and school students. "As of today, I can tell you, for the foreseeable future, junior high and high school stays in distance learning."

On local sentiment about returning to school. "In this community, as in others, there are polar opposites. Some people say, 'don’t go back to school until it's one hundred percent safe and there is zero risk' and other people say 'get back to school right away, what is wrong with you, we’ve got to get these kids back in school.' So board members just have to constantly weigh it and find a path forward. I feel like most people are voting on the side of where I am which is -- it’s safe."

On criticism the board failed to seek a waiver to return to classrooms last fall, as some other local districts did. "We receive a lot of criticism - 'why don’t you do this, why don’t you do that?' We were following the science (and) we were not ready in October...That early November start date just didn’t seem smart."

On what's changed. "We’ve been trying to stay on top of science and data, and now the science and data shows us, especially with elementary, that the risk is much, much lower, transmission is much, much lower and we really have seen that those little kids really have a hard time on distance learning...

"This has gone on so long, first of all, we've learned, if kindergartners never ever meet their teachers in person, or have interaction with their teacher and classmates beyond the screen, it's not actually a school experience. So that has been so alarming to us...I'm no genius, I'm just responding to what I'm learning."

On non-academic impacts on students of being out of classrooms. "So many students have shared with us their discouragement, their disappointment, their sadness, their isolation. These are all things that are part of learning loss too...So it's not just about 'skill and drill,' make sure everyone knows their times tables. This is something very big."

On intensified problems among economically disadvantaged and students of color. "These student are suffering in many ways, other than learning loss. Many of their parents have lost their jobs, many of their parents have lost their homes, many of their parents and their families are struggling for the basics of life, including food. And so everything is worse because of this.

"All the data points to all our of kids who are socially, economically disadvantaged really need to get back to school...(There is) a much lower rate of achievement than we already had. That was problematic as it was. The disproportionaity is happening at every level of this."

On the possibility of elementary schools being forced to close again because of Covid. "I'm very confident that they would stay open. Not only are all the measures in place with regard to hygiene and safety, but also in regard to contact tracing and quarantining...I don’t think it's an issue -- I'd go way up, to a nine out of ten, that we’ll stay in, we’d stay in session."

On criticism of the board hiring a $50,000 public relations consultant. "They're a media adviser and I think it’s a totally reasonable expense…smart and important. We have to be so thoughtful about how we communicate, about every single thing, going forward. It's a good solution for what we need for complete communication."


Watch our full interview with Kate Ford via YouTube below, or by clicking through this link. The podcast version is here.

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