Santa Maria Joint Union schools welcome back students under hybrid model
All grades are back at Ernest Righetti High School as of Tuesday, just a month before the last day of school.
High schools in the Santa Maria Joint Union School District are some of the last schools in the county to open campuses and are currently operating on a hybrid schedule. District officials will re-evaluate the hybrid model at the end of the school year.
The biggest obstacle to reopening was frequently shifting public health guidelines, Righetti’s Principal Karen Rotondi told the News-Press.
“It’s like we’re wedding planners every year, and it’s hard to plan when you don’t have the answers until right beforehand. It takes a while to, you know, put things into action,” she said. “Definitely the biggest challenge is just having the pivot so many times.”
Seniors have been on campus for nearly a month, and freshmen re-entered last week.
“We’re just really happy that whoever wants to be here can be here right now. Because for some kids, it’s something they need right now — and even if it’s only for a short few weeks,” Principal Rotondi said.
A little over 30% of the district’s students chose to return to campus and are separated into two schedules, Tuesday and Thursday or Wednesday and Friday. Students said it felt a bit bare.
School staff tried to make the day special, as they had when seniors and freshmen came back to school.
Counselors blared pop music and cheered, some armed with pom-poms. They distributed masks with students’ graduating class printed on them as they checked in with each English class.
“The student engagement piece, you don’t realize how important and how powerful it is until you don’t have it. Now that they’re coming back, it’s so so awesome to see their emotions, and it’s really boosted their energy,” Eric Blanco, a school counselor, said.
Students chatted with friends during lunchtime, smiling around lunch tables and bleachers. They didn’t keep far apart, and many masks were below noses.
Still, the students interviewed by the News-Press felt safe.
Arieanna Clarke, a junior at Righetti, said school was “way easier” now that she’s back on campus.
Leonardo Felix, a freshman, held the same opinion. He said it was calmer now and he could better organize his work.
Arieanna said it’s “hard to get the help that you need” at home.
For her chemistry class, she built a molecule model but struggled to find the materials she needed. She missed having classroom materials available when she learned remotely.
School staff made more home visits than ever, delivering textbooks, fixing technology and checking in on absent students. The district provided Wi-Fi hotspots quickly when seeing internet connectivity issues.
“What we try to do is take those challenges, and immediately address them by providing — even if it meant we did a lot of home visits to take hotspots out to them,” Principal Rotondi said.
School counselors juggled home visits, phone calls, Zoom and now in-person appointments. Mr. Blanco and his fellow school counselor Julie Utterback said it’s harder to pick up on nonverbal cues.
They felt like they could address academic and college/career preparedness but wanted to do more for students’ social and emotional needs.
“I like hearing the students on campus, their laughter, their camaraderie. It just brought such a spark to our campus,” Ms. Utterback said. “Finally, it feels like we’re getting back to normalcy.”
She didn’t like the quietness of campus and described students as the “heartbeat” of the school.
“The worst part (of distance learning) was probably just the loneliness — not only for students, but for staff, counselors, teachers,” Mr. Blanco said.
Staff members are excited to provide activities for seniors, like prom and graduation.
Both events will look different this year, and prom is taking on a new identity. It’s much more like a seniors only night of activities. One school is calling it a “promenade.”
Graduation, which will be located in the district’s stadiums June 10 and 11, will be limited to two supporters per graduate.
Administrators have begun discussing plans for next school year, hoping for five days per week on campus.
“In crises like this, you save things you can take from this in a positive light. So there are some things that we’ll probably never go back to, but we may also have options for kids for distance learning. But that’s still very preliminary,” Principal Rotondi said.
Some classrooms had few students as teachers shuffled two cohorts.
Art teacher Melissa Johnson had five students in her class after lunch, and they chatted about the artwork created from home.
Her classroom had projects from last school year on counters, as class abruptly ended more than a year ago. One new project hung on the drying rack as students leaned in, ready to create more.