Goleta Union School District returned to in-person instruction on Jan. 3 after its winter break, closely monitoring COVID-19 cases in its community as cases continue to spread due to the omicron variant.
Isla Vista Elementary School and the rest of Goleta Union School District (GUSD) serve just over 3,500 students at nine schools. The district experienced a wave of new cases that began around Thanksgiving and grew in numbers through December, according to Assistant Superintendent David Simmons.
“It is a crazy increase. Even in the first surge that we had, we didn’t have nearly these numbers,” Simmons said.
Under the current state directive for K-12 schools to safely remain in person, Superintendent Dr. Diana Galindo-Roybal said GUSD has no plans to transition to fully remote instruction. However, she said the district is closely monitoring conditions related to the spread of COVID-19 and communicating daily with the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department.
In addition, students can opt in for independent study for any period of time as an alternative to in-person instruction. According to Simmons, roughly 30 students, or 2% of the district’s student population, are currently enrolled in independent study.
“We are doing our community a great service by being able to keep our schools open safely,” Galindo-Roybal said. “The overwhelming parent communication has been, ‘Thank you for keeping schools open. We need you to keep schools open.’”
Nevertheless, in-person instruction amidst an ongoing pandemic is burdening staff with new responsibilities on top of their teaching demands, like sanitizing classrooms, contact tracing and coordinating independent study for remote learners.
Additionally, high COVID-19 positivity rates are stressing the bandwidth of district employees, causing students of absent teachers to either be taught by a substitute or temporarily moved into a different classroom. On Jan. 11, 18 of 203 teachers were absent due to COVID-19, according to Galindo-Roybal.
Yet, Simmons said that the district’s decision to hire an excess of educators and reduce class sizes helped reduce the impact of a potential teacher shortage. The district is effectively “overstaffed” by 52 teachers, based on its pre-pandemic average class size of 24, according to Simmons.
Currently, the class size average for primary grades — Transitional Kindergarten (TK) through third grade — is 16.6 and for fourth through sixth grade is 17.9, he said.
“One of our core mitigation strategies was to have small enough classes that we could make sure we were doing physical distancing,” Simmons said.
The district increased hiring of substitute teachers and incentivized non-teaching staff who held a bachelor’s degree to receive an emergency substitute permit ahead of the start of the school year.
“We know that there are more staff testing positive because of omicron, but we have been able, because of [additional staff and subs], to flex staff members around to provide coverage,” Galindo-Roybal said.
Vicki Ben-Yaacov, GUSD board member and parent to a sixth grader at I.V. Elementary School, said that this policy helped reduce class sizes and bolster teaching staff but also produced shortages amongst classified employees.
According to Simmons, free COVID-19 testing for the community and the increased presence of trained nurses at school sites has also helped provide the district with the medical capacity to weather the pandemic.
GUSD offers same-day results testing to staff, students and their families through Aptitude Clinical Diagnostics that visits each school once a week. Testing was available the week before spring semester began to the community, and with school in session, teachers have access to weekly testing and students, biweekly.
“What we’re seeing with omicron, though, is that there are a ton of people that are asymptomatic and because we’re doing so much testing, we’re really catching it,” Simmons said.
In the fall, the district additionally hired five registered nurses, all trained by Johns Hopkins University in contact tracing and two licensed vocational nurses who provide medical assistance.
Vaccines, which became available to kids ages 5 to 11 in November 2021, present another new resource for mitigating the spread of the omicron variant.
Ben-Yaacov said she feels “good” sending her kids back to school after more than a year of remote learning, especially now with her children’s vaccinations.
“You can see toward the end, they get quite depressed, and we do everything we can. We exercise, we take them biking, we do everything we can, but that social [environment] is just really really difficult to not have it for their age,” Ben-Yaacov said. “So going back, it’s just a huge difference, having that interaction and having that routine. I see such a big difference in my own kids and I can tell the difference in the kids that I work with. They’re just so happy to be back.”
Galindo-Roybal also described the difficulties and financial barriers that families dealt with in having to supervise young children when schools closed.
“Not all of our families in our district have the ability to miss long periods of work to stay home with their children, and we know that the reality is that many children are left home alone simply because a parent, if they don’t show up to work, they don’t get paid,” Galindo-Roybal said. “We know the economic struggles that many of our families face, and so we really believe that school is the best and safest place for our kids to be right now.”
According to Ben-Yacoov, the district is hoping to see cases peak within the next week or two and then come down, based on trending data.
“That means the next two weeks are super, super critical for what we can look like. I think we need to be as careful as we can and do everything we can to keep the cases low,” she said.
Galindo-Roybal echoed Ben-Yaacov’s hopefulness that cases will peak and then begin declining soon.
“Obviously, we are counting on cases to decline and things to get better,” Galindo-Roybal said. “We’re looking forward to that happening, but I would say, furtively, we have been able to keep school going for our kids, and I know that’s super important for our community.”