The Goleta Union School District returned to in-person instruction in March on a five-day modified schedule. Now that Santa Barbara County has moved to the orange tier of California’s reopening guidelines, the district plans to have all students fully return in-person in August for the 2021-22 school year.

The school district reopened after Santa Barbara County’s COVID-19 case rate remained below 25 cases per 100,000 residents for five consecutive days. Upon opening, the district required all nine of their school sites to adhere to a strict 19:1 student to teacher ratio to accommodate for the six-feet social distancing protocol.

During the 2020-21 school year, Goleta Unified School District (GUSD) prepared three learning models that students and families could pursue according to their preferences, contingent on public health guidelines. 

The first model, for students and families who would like to return to in-person instruction, followed a five-day modified schedule with a shortened instructional day and reduced class size. Teachers were encouraged to use outdoor spaces when possible. 

Additionally, the district prepared two state-funded fully distanced learning models — Virtual Academy and Future Leaders Exchange (Flex) Program — for families who did not wish their child to attend school in-person this year. Both options provided a hybrid-learning approach to support students’ academic needs. In the Virtual Academy program, students are assigned a distance learning class and teacher to provide instruction through Zoom meetings and online videos and assignments. In the Flex Program, parents are responsible for providing instruction. The program is overseen by credentialed teachers who help determine students’ academic plans based on district curriculum. 

Twenty-five new teachers were added in the 2020-21 school year, allowing schools to reduce average class sizes to under 24 students. Additionally, the district rearranged classrooms to ensure that desks are at least six feet apart and equipped each classroom with new medical-grade air purifiers. 

Richard Mayer, Professor in the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department at UC Santa Barbara and member of the GUSD School Board, said that the district carefully planned to implement in-person learning in a safe manner using various strategies.

“We have tested all employees for COVID every two weeks, and now we have more than 80% of our employees vaccinated,” Mayer said. “We monitor students’ temperature and health every day and have staggered schedules at each school site.” 

Cheryl Takahara, a first-grade teacher at Isla Vista Elementary School (IVES), said the transition back to in-person school since March has gone smoothly. Despite the challenges that come with pandemic learning, Takahara said she noticed that younger students tend to enjoy learning more in an environment with face-to-face interaction.

“The distractions of the squirrels, garbage truck, airplanes, custodian, wind and miscellaneous items on the ground make [learning] really hard,” Takahara said.“[But] my students have been cooperative and focused. They love getting to know each other and have enjoyed the playground time.” 

Mark Warren, a fifth-grade teacher at IVES, said that some obstacles he faced under the in-person model included the limited class sizes and inability to pursue project-based learning. 

“One of my biggest challenges has been to teach masked all day, projecting my voice over the whir of the air purifier. Due to social distancing, it is difficult for students to collaborate on projects and support each other in small groups,” Warren said. 

“Transition has been successful all things considered. Students were eager to return and most did,” he continued. 

Looking forward to the fall of the 2021-22 school year, the district has a clear plan of action and plans to employ a full-day schedule. Most general education courses will be delivered by classroom teachers in an in-person format, although music and art instruction may continue to be delivered through virtual lessons. 

Virtual Academy and Flex Programs will not be receiving state funding next year, but GUSD plans to continue offering independent study remote-learning options for students with special needs, according to Mayer. 

Social distancing and mask wearing will continue to be required when returning to in-person learning. In addition, all parents will be expected to screen their children for COVID-19 symptoms prior to bringing them to school. 

The district will also add approximately 13 more teachers in order to reduce average class sizes down to 18 students, hire permanent substitutes and implement professional development programs for teachers and staff, according to Mayer. 

In addition, Mayer said that GUSD plans to implement district-run after-school programs in response to family requests. One such program is the Expanded Learning After School Program on all nine GUSD school sites, which will run five days a week. Mayer added that GUSD is also coordinating with the Isla Vista Youth Projects to run another program, After School Education & Safety, which will provide a safe and supportive environment at three sites for students after school ends.

In-person summer programs and additional academic and psychological support will also be offered at each school for small-group and individual assistance.

“We are looking forward to a return to a more normal school life for our students and everyone in the District,” Mayer said. “My heartfelt thanks go to the teachers, staff, administrators, students and families who have made this possible.”