SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Two colors recently cast a grey cloud over the Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD): orange and purple.
Educators have spent long hours over the past months working hard to reopen classrooms in January, hopefully, in the state's less restrictive 'Orange Tier'.
But a statewide surge in COVID-19 cases brought work on school campuses to a screeching halt. On Nov. 16, Governor Gavin Newsom pulled dozens of California counties back into the highly restrictive 'Purple Tier,' including Santa Barbara.
That status restricts each campus to a maximum of 20 percent of the school's student population.
"I was floored," said SBUSD Superintendent Hilda Maldonado. "I looked at the rates and I noticed we were only a fraction from becoming 'Orange.'"
Maldonado took the helm on July 1, overseeing the district's 21 schools and more than 15,000 students. As local residents plan their Thanksgiving holiday, Maldonado has a homework assignment, of sorts, for the families.
"Hold tight. Stay home. Avoid these large gatherings and continue to practice mask wearing," said Maldonado.
The superintendent said 80 percent of the parents in the district have stated that they want their children back in school for in-person learning. Maldonado said she was "devastated" when that scenario was pushed farther out of reach.
"I don't have the luxury of getting angry as a superintendent. My job is to manage the paradox of being optimistic and realistic."
Now, Maldonado and her staff are working on Plans B and C: Stay with remote learning or -- the preferred plan -- apply for the waiver process through the school board, starting Dec. 1, for limited in-person learning.
"I talk to parents who are low income, high income, middle class ... you know, all races that have concerns about their children."
Maldonado said schools are "the center of the community" and mental health concerns surrounding local children and teens are growing among parents. Many believe that keeping schools closed long-term is doing more harm that good.
"With food insecurity, with joblessness, with homelessness, we fear that we're gonna lose connection with a lot of our kids."
The long-time educator, wife and mother stressed that families in the district can help reopen school campuses on Jan. 19 as originally planned by limiting their holiday activities. Keep the celebrations small, local, and under one roof.
"I would want everyone to just think about the children. That's who we are here for and that's our future," Maldonado said.
For more information about the Santa Barbara Unified school District, click here.