The Hope Elementary School District began in-person instruction last week through a staggered return for grade levels, with the final group of students expected to return to classrooms at the end of the month.
As the coronavirus pandemic closes in on its 10th month of disruption, the 800-student Hope district’s three-phase return to in-person learning started with students in transitional kindergarten through second grade on Nov. 5.
The three-school district in northwest Santa Barbara will bring back grades 3-4 beginning Monday and grades 5-6 on Nov. 30.
“There were a lot of tiny technical issues that we had to deal with, but the staggered start was a good idea,” District Superintendent Anne Hubbard said, adding that the youngest students in transitional kindergarten and new students stepped onto campus for the first time.
“We wanted to get them on campus without a lot of chaos,” she said. “A welcoming, warm and no chaos atmosphere, and I think we were able to pull that off because on each campus it was such a small number of kids.”
The district brought back cohorts of no more than 17 total students, with the majority of class sizes at six to nine students at each campus — Hope School, 3970 La Colina Road; Monte Vista School, 730 N. Hope Ave.; and Vieja Valley School, 434 Nogal Drive.
“We don’t have any classes at 17,” Hubbard said, mentioning a few upper grades are cohorts of 15 students. “The cohorts sizes are nice because there is amazing attention to the students.”
The young learners are placed in morning and afternoon cohorts. The morning cohorts take place from 8:30 to 11:15 a.m., while the afternoon cohorts are from 12:15 to 3 p.m.
The Hope school district has established cohorts of no more than 17 total students, with most class sizes at just six to nine students at each campus. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)
The school schedule runs four days a week — Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.
Every Wednesday, the students attend school at home, with remote asynchronous and synchronous assignments.
Recess isn’t on the schedule because the total amount of time children spend on campus is less than three hours.
Playground structures and playground equipment are not available for use, Vieja Valley Principal Kelly Johnson said.
However, students attending in-person instruction have an opportunity to eat a snack, play games or walk around outside during their 15-minute brain and movement break.
“There are designated spots outside on our blacktop and on the field area where those small cohorts can go,” she said.
Recess isn’t on the on-campus schedule, but students get an opportunity to eat a snack, play games or walk around outside during their 15-minute brain and movement breaks. (Hope Elementary School District photo)
In-person learning cohorts do not overlap or mix.
“We decided to have these cohorts who are essentially like a little family,” Johnson said. “They are the ones who are always together when they are on campus.”
More than 100 students opted to continue fully remote instruction from home as of last week.
For remote instruction, the classes include about 22 to 23 students. The teachers are generally working with two remote grade levels.
“Teachers and our support staff really poured their heart and soul into remote learning, and making it effective and engaging,” Hubbard said.
Lower grades struggle the most with remote learning, she said.
Socially distanced makeshift cohort classrooms have been arranged around campus at Hope School. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)
“It’s tough for a 6 year old to sit there on a device, looking at a screen and fully engage in academics,” she noted.
Hope School brought back small cohorts of special education students in October and also hosted in-person remote learning support on each campus before the staggered return for TK-6 grade levels.
The first day of in-person learning for students in grades TK-2 included face coverings, hand washing, social distancing practices to combat the spread of COVID-19 and other public health recommendations for reopening schools.
The children were used to mask-wearing in public when they set foot on the campus for in-person learning more than two months into the school year, Hubbard said.
“The kids are used to wearing their masks,” she said, adding, “Even our kindergarteners seemed prepared and seemed to go with the flow.”
School staff conducted visual wellness checks of all students and took students’ temperatures with a no-touch thermometer.
Trained school administrators, office staff and education aides perform daily student health screenings at a designated location at the entrance to campus when students arrive in the morning or afternoon.
“It was all hands on deck,” Hubbard said. “It was really smooth.”
School officials will carry out the daily student health checks until coronavirus conditions improve.
Duct tape on the floor doubles as physical distancing markers.
Hope School is covered with bright markings on the floor outside of the restrooms, classrooms and other areas where students line up.
Arrows direct students on the one-way circulation in the hallways.
The district set up outdoor learning spaces in the fresh air.
Most teachers rotate between indoor and outdoor classrooms that feature pop-up tents to provide shade, as well as rolling whiteboards.
The inside learning areas have had the existing furniture removed to maximize proper social distancing.
Hubbard noted the hard work and flexibility of educators and district staff.
“They are nervous,” she said. “This is a pandemic, but they are willing to show up, put the safety protocols in place, and try to make this work as best as they can.”
Operating schools during the coronavirus crisis involved the ever-changing public health protocols and evolving criteria for schools to consider reopening.
“I feel like we have had two or three school years in one year because each time it’s a massive change,” Hubbard said. “And they (district staff) are willing to do it.”
Schools throughout Santa Barbara County are addressing a variety of reopening timelines and models amid the contagion.
Districts in the county can move at different paces as their governing boards consider area factors, including regional COVID-19 data, transportation, grade levels and size of the student body, the ability to physically distance within facilities, and the safety and health of the school community, according to the county Education Office.
Santa Barbara County is in the second-most restrictive red tier under California’s four-phase reopening plan, which permits all K-12 schools in the county to reopen for in-person instruction with public health modifications.
Some schools already had the green light to reopen while in the state’s strictest category, the purple tier, through the California Department of Public Health’s elementary school waiver process for grades TK-6.
Many public schools — including the Ballard, Cold Spring and Montecito Union elementary school districts and the Carpinteria Unified School District’s elementary schools — were conducting in-person instruction as of Friday.
Some school districts decided on a phased opening, while others will continue distance learning through the end of 2020.
The Hope district plans to follow all county Public Health Department required protocols for potential exposure.
“We will have to go through that,” Hubbard said. “It’s inevitable. I’ve got my letters ready.”
The district established procedures and protocols to deal with any exposure to the coronavirus.
An isolation location is designated at each campus for students or staff who experience suspected symptoms potentially associated with COVID-19, according to the district’s reopening plan.
School closure decisions are generally made by the school, according to Susan Klein-Rothschild, assistant deputy director of the county Public Health Department.
Schools do consult with Public Health officials about the decisions, she said.
In each individual situation, there are different factors at play, like the size of the school population, the number of individuals who were in close contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus, the number of reported cases that may be above the threshold, and the availability of a capacity of staff to provide in-person instruction, Klein-Rothschild said.