Santa Barbara High School Fall Schedule Update

By Nick Schou   |   June 18, 2020
Santa Barbara High School gears up for a most unusual fall semester

With the Fall 2020 school year rapidly approaching, Santa Barbara High School (SBHS) is finalizing its plan for how to bring as many of its roughly 2,200 students back to campus as safely as possible. The key word here is, you guessed it, “safely.” Right now, the school is awaiting official rulings from Governor Gavin Newsom as well as state and county education officials on just what that word means in practical terms.

Will students and teachers have to pass a medical exam to confirm they are coronavirus-free before being admitted back on campus? Will they have to wear masks? How will social distancing work in the classroom? How will it work in the halls? What other health and safety measures will the school have to complete before the first day of school and then continue to enforce once the semester begins? All these questions so far remain unanswered, thanks to the complexity of the problem as well as the complex layers of bureaucracy that govern California’s public school system.

“It’s like a Russian doll,” said Elise Simmons, principal of SBHS. “You have the state and the governor saying what we have to do, then the county, and within those two frameworks, we have to create our plans.” According to Simmons, local school district administrators are having regular meetings with the Santa Barbara Teachers Association to review the latest COVID-19 data and forecasting and they are currently preparing to present the county’s school board with a fall semester “proposal” as early as later this week regarding their plans to re-open schools this fall. So far, Simmons and other school officials have outlined three hypothetical scenarios.

SBHS Principal Elise Simmons hopes to tackle student mental health ahead of time

“One is that everything returns to normal, which we know is not going to happen,” she said. “Another (worst case) scenario, depending on how the pandemic progresses, is that all teaching will be carried out on a remote basis. But the middle scenario, which is where we have engaged with all our stakeholders, is a hybrid route, and surveys went out to parents and staff and students to complete.”

Such a hybrid scenario, Simmons explained, would allow for certain students who either need to stay at home or prefer to continue studying in a remote learning environment to do so. “We know we have students and staff who don’t want to or can’t return,” she said. “People can only be as safe as they feel.” Currently, Simmons estimates that about 10 percent of students will likely opt to continue with remote learning, at least at first. “So the proposal is going to allow for a group of students that will be allowed to do 100 percent remote learning. We have found through researching other school districts in California that this kind of release valve is a common move to make, both for the safety of our staff and for some of our students.”

Simmons said that even a 10 percent reduction in the on-campus student body will help SBHS transition from the typical three class rotations per week to two. How this will affect the school’s bell schedule isn’t clear. “Breaking school down into two groups instead of three allows students to be on campus more safely and more often,” she said. “We can help students who need it the most , and they can have safe connections with others.”

However, all these details are subject to approval by the county’s education board, not to mention state guidelines on how schools should reopen. Simmons said she anticipates strict state health and safety rules for schools that will require enhanced cleaning of all surface areas, reduce indoor classroom size, and require facial coverings for everyone on campus and possibly even face masks for front office staff. “All these things are being decided right now, because it doesn’t matter what our bell schedule is if we can’t ensure our facilities are safe and clean,” she added. “Whatever the State of California and our county says we have to do we will follow.”

Dons Double Down on Student Mental Health

The worst job losses since the Great Depression have occurred in just the past few months, and Santa Barbara’s student population and their parents – especially low-income families who were already struggling financially – have been experiencing severe levels of stress lately. Because of this, school officials anticipate that more students than usual will need extra emotional support once classes resume this fall. Yet SHBS has only one full-time therapist and two part-time therapists available to provide counseling for kids. Because of this, the Foundation for Santa Barbara High School has secured a $37,500 gift from a local donor who has agreed to fund half the cost of another full-time therapist for the campus.

To complete the funding for this new full-time position, the Foundation hopes to collect enough funds from fellow Dons during the summer break to match that gift and ensure the position can be filled by the start of Fall semester. “About 10 percent of our students struggle with emotional issues,” said SBHS principal Simmons. “That’s about 220 kids that need support, and one therapist can only carry a caseload of about 12 to 15 students.”

For kids with emotional or medical disabilities that directly impact their ability to learn, the high school has a psychologist available as part of a larger assessment team, as required by state law. But while a mental health therapist might be part of such a team, most of their work involves helping students without disabilities but who are struggling emotionally for any number of reasons, problems that all too often only come to the school’s attention as a result of an incident on campus, which can range from being disruptive in class to fighting or being caught smoking or vaping marijuana on campus, which qualifies for an automatic suspension.

“If a student gets in trouble at school for being high on marijuana, for example, we have to suspend,” Simmons said. “But we are also trying to address the root cause, so we ask the student if they ever think about talking to a counselor, as opposed to a parent or a principal, about why they smoke marijuana. Then we refer the student to a mental health therapist who does a screening, and at the end, they are able to decide on a plan for that student. Maybe they need outside services, or maybe they work with the therapist on a once-per-month basis.” According to Simmons, suspensions for marijuana smoking – or, far more often, marijuana vaping – have risen substantially in the last few years. “It’s not just because it’s easy for them to walk into a vape shop,” she says. “It’s something much deeper. There’s something in our psyche now about instant gratification and loneliness that is involved, and we need to figure out how to help kids connect, so they don’t feel like they need to vape to get someone to like them more.”

At the heart of SBHS’s effort to hire another full-time therapist is the school’s goal to provide support for what Simmons calls the “whole child,” a concept that goes far beyond the classroom setting and which has become even more crucial during the coronavirus era. “We recognized that we had academic shifts we had to make with remote learning, but that this doesn’t address the social and emotional challenge some students face,” Simmons explained. “If your basic needs aren’t being met, you are not going to be able to academically or socially engage at all. I’m lucky we have a foundation and parents and staff who believe in that concept.”

So far this year, the Foundation for Santa Barbara High School has also raised tens of thousands of dollars to help support the school’s most needy families. According to Foundation Director Katie Jacobs, not just parents but staff members have been critical components of this effort. Jen Slemp, an English Language Arts teacher, took several of her students and their families grocery shopping and helped raise money for their rent. Parent Ann Rycroft made handsewn masks, while the Foundation also teamed with the school’s PTSA and the student group Dons4Dons to raise a total of $12,000 in emergency funds for the school’s most economically vulnerable families. Their drive inspired an anonymous donor to offer $12,500 if SBHS could raise a matching sum, a goal that took only a few weeks to accomplish.

Thanks to those efforts, the school collected a total of $77,000, with cash grants going out to nearly 130 families. “It has been gratifying to see our community respond to the needs of our families and our students,” said Jacobs. “However, we know that the money we are giving through #SBHSStrong is a drop in the bucket, and only a short-term fix.” Hiring another full-time therapist, she added, would go a long way to providing long-term support. “Having additional mental health resources for our students will build resiliency and possibly even save lives,” she said. “Now we just need to raise the second half of the funds for the position!”

To make a donation to help meet the long-term mental health needs of SHBS students, contact Jacobs at (805) 966-9101, ext. 5225, or email her at You can also donate online at


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