Students adjust to pandemic protocols at elementary schools
Precautions abound at Hollister Elementary School as students returned Monday to campus for the first time in a year.
“It’s thrilling,” Hollister Principal Abby Vasquez told the News-Press. “I’m so happy.”
The school’s mascot, a hawk, flapped its wings waving at students and parents pulling into the parking lot.
Principal Vasquez ushered students into lines to complete their health screening and temperature check at the Santa Barbara school, which reopened Monday along with other K-6 schools in the Goleta Union School District. Then they slowly trickled into classrooms, guided by district staff members.
It looked like a typical first day of school — except students already had a large stack of books. Backpacks were full and hung on hooks outside each classroom.
Teachers personalized rooms Friday, a day the district gave them off to prepare, with the help of custodial staff.
First-grade teacher Liz Larsen equipped each desk with a stool in addition to the chairs, in case students get antsy or need a taller seat. The legs of desks rested on socially distanced velcro dots, a reminder to students not to move them.
Ms. Larsen held up a six-foot foam rod that the district gave teachers. It serves as a visual for physical distancing.
As young students excitedly looked for their classrooms, some were prone to walking by a friend. Dr. Mary Kahn, assistant superintendent of instructional services, gave gentle reminders to stay six feet apart.
The transition to in-person learning had obstacles.
“The biggest challenge was probably that we were committed to giving parents the option of which learning program was going to fit them. But giving them that option was complicated,” Dr. Kahn told the News-Press.
“Because once they make their choice, there’s just still a lot of work that needs to happen to pick the right places and make sure that we’re staffed appropriately.”
Around 450 students switched their initial selections between in-person and distance learning, so district officials shuffled a few classes around.
To group classes into a maximum of 19 students, a few classrooms became multi-grade cohorts. Usually, there are one or two classes with two grades in a normal year, but some school sites have three multi-grade classrooms now.
Although they’ve been learning for months now, the district wanted to give students and teachers time to adjust, as though it was a new school year. Officials encouraged teachers to introduce new students and classroom procedures this week.
“We want our kids to feel comfortable using those routines,” Dr. Kahn said. “This is the first time that they’ve been together in person. so there may be some new students in the class. They’re having a chance to build a sense of community as a class, so that they can play and learn together.”
To keep students from merging with other classes at recess, each teacher is assigned a color-coded section of the playground each day. Students may have the swings, basketball hoops, jungle gym and other fixtures on a rotating basis.
Each classroom has its own playground equipment, such as basketballs and jump ropes. Other supplies are portioned to each class as well.
At lunch time, students don’t walk through the classroom as they usually would. The lunch staff prepares each class’s meals and puts them in insulated bags and coolers to deliver to each cohort.
“Our principals have really worked with the teachers to set up minimal movements,” Dr. Kahn said.
The school nurse relocated to a classroom by the playground to tend to scrapes quickly and on site. The room will be used as a quarantine space if a student shows symptoms of COVID-19.
“This week, it’s been a total effort from our grounds crew and maintenance,” Dr. Kahn said.
A few maintenance members were on campus Monday to rake leaves, but the majority of the work is completed when students are not on campus.
For the district’s vaccine allocation, officials prioritized maintenance members alongside educators with minimal student contact. Severe intervention special education staff were first up to get their shots.
Dr. Kahn estimated that half of the district’s staff have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
She expressed gratitude for the teachers as well as parents.
“This has been a long time coming,” she said. “There’s been a lot of work behind the scenes.”
Each principal created a video to inform parents of the new procedures on campus and distributed the guide in Spanish and English. Dr. Kahn said a majority of parents did really well, and others had a few questions.
A lot of planning went into Monday’s reopening, and stress was low as school doors opened.
In fact, Principal Vasquez was impressed as young students quickly adjusted to the morning screening and temperature check.
“Those kindergarteners did that like they’ve been doing it their whole lives.”