SANTA CRUZ >> Many elementary school students in Santa Cruz County public schools have begun a mix of in-person and online classes, a logistical challenge that has raised concerns among some parents.

Classrooms began to reopen with the youngest grades in early March. As of Thursday, Live Oak School District and Pajaro Valley Unified School District were the only two of the county’s 10 school districts that had not reopened kindergarten classrooms. Middle and high school classrooms are expected to open by mid-April.

The state’s distance requirements between desks essentially halved classroom capacity, County Schools Superintendent Faris Sabbah said Thursday at a Santa Cruz County Office of Education board meeting. That requirement has forced schools to a “hybrid schedule” of online and in-person classes to limit students on campus.

The hybrid schedule is even more complex than online-only teaching, Sabbah said. Some families have opted to stay in an online-only schedule known as “distance learning.”

“While you’re teaching, you have a group of students with you [in the classroom]. And at home, you have two groups of students, one who are always in distance learning and another group who are going to be here the following day or later in the afternoon, depending on how you schedule your hours,” Sabbah said. “And working in that environment is very challenging for teachers and for students. And so figuring out how to develop a hybrid schedule and how to implement it effectively is quite a challenge.”

School leaders anticipate state health leaders to shorten the 6-foot requirement between desks. Teacher unions have pushed to keep the 6-foot distance, Sabbah said.

A shorter distance rule would allow more students in classrooms, Sabbah said.

“The frustration that parents experience because their children are only going to school two days a week or that there are only 12 or 15 students in the classroom will only change if we get different guidance from the California Department of Public Health,” Sabbah said. “That really is the key piece that will impact our ability to bring more students back.”

All kindergarten through 12th grade teachers have been offered a COVID-19 vaccine, due to an effort led by Domincan Hospital and Dignity Health Medical Group-Domincan. The county office of education has partnered with Rite-Aid to vaccinate child care and preschool workers, especially workers who are not required to have licenses. Those appointments will be available soon, Sabbah said Thursday.

County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah shared planned reopening dates and hours per week of in-person instruction at a Santa Cruz County Office of Education board meeting Thursday. (Zoom screenshot)

Financial outlook

Separately, Deputy Superintendent of Business Services Liann Reyes gave a financial report for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education on Wednesday. A projected $4 million deficit has improved to a $663,045 deficit, Reyes said, largely due to recent awards of about $2 million in one-time state funds. 

Although the current budget picture has improved, deficits of $2.4 million and $3 million are projected for 2022 and 2023, respectively. Reyes said reasons for the rising deficit include:

  • An anticipated enrollment decline in the county’s alternative education programs
  • One-time funds are not expected to return in coming years, but the positions they funded will remain
  • Increased pension and health care costs.

The Santa Cruz County Office of Education has forecasted a rising deficit in the next three years. (Santa Cruz County Office of Education presentation screenshot)

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Kara Meyberg Guzman is the CEO and co-founder of Santa Cruz Local. ​Prior to Santa Cruz Local, she served as the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s managing editor. She has a biology degree from Stanford University and lives in Santa Cruz.