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It is a rare sight, especially for a public middle or high school in San Diego.
For several months, roughly 700 students have shown up to Bear Valley Middle School in Escondido twice a week for in-person learning. Half come Tuesdays and Thursdays and the other half, Wednesdays and Fridays.
School days and classrooms look different this year. School administrators check temperatures and screen students for coronavirus symptoms in the morning. Anyone with even a headache or runny nose is sent home. Students must enter campus at three different points, depending on their grade level.
They stay in groups of 12 students, all day, as they travel teacher to teacher, sitting at least six feet apart in each 45-minute class. Teachers tell them to wash their hands at the start of each class and wear a mask covering their nose and mouth, except at lunchtime, when they can sit where they want but must still keep distance. Teachers sanitize their classrooms between periods and since February, an air purifier runs in each room.
Walking the halls is far quieter than it used to be, and there’s new pathway signage to help keep students apart.
What Bear Valley has achieved has proven impossible for most other San Diego school districts. Some school leaders, employee unions and other education stakeholders argued students could not safely return to school in-person during the pandemic. Combined with complex state regulations that held back more willing educators, almost all middle school and high school students across the region have had to stay home. And while most schools that have managed to reopen have served wealthier, Whiter student bodies, Bear Valley serves a range of students: 66 percent are socioeconomically disadvantaged, 24 percent are English-learners and 64 percent are Hispanic.
Concerns about higher coronavirus transmission in teens, scheduling difficulties with multiple teachers, elevated community case rates and the lack of a vaccine have all been held up as insurmountable obstacles elsewhere.
So despite millions of extra dollars poured into schools by the state and federal government, in part, to see them reopen safely, few have actually done it over the last year – though more districts are preparing for broader reopenings next month.
Now, though, falling case rates, broader vaccine availability and new state reopening incentives, which require schools to open to get extra money, is providing new momentum.
As others figure out how to slowly bring students back, schools like Bear Valley that have been open a while offer insight into how it could work.
There’s no doubt the hybrid learning program in place at Bear Valley and the rest of the schools in the Escondido Union School District since October is not the same school system of old. But it is more like traditional school than sitting on a computer at home – which most public K-12 students across San Diego County have done for nearly a year, garnering fury from some families.
In contrast, when given the choice this school year, most of Escondido Union’s 13,417 K-8 students came back to campus. Districtwide, 36 percent of students remain online only, while 64 percent of students are learning at least part-time on campus, according to a school reopening tracker from the San Diego County Office of Education.
An even smaller minority – about 260 out of 966 students – remain in full distance learning online at Bear Valley Middle, school principal Jason Wrzeski said.
Teachers were not asked to pull double duty by teaching online and in person simultaneously upon their return, like some teachers will be expected to do elsewhere. Instead, to achieve smaller class sizes this year, Wrzeski said Bear Valley hired nine new teachers.
District Superintendent Luis Rankins-Ibarra said in an email, “it’s best for instruction to be happening in the same format for students, rather than having the teacher’s attention divided.”
He also said getting teachers to return months before a vaccine was available was not difficult.
“We had no difficulties, no issues when it came to our teachers returning to campus when we returned to in-person instruction beginning in late September. Everyone who was supposed to work showed up to work,” he wrote.
For Bear Valley Middle School teachers Lana Albertson and Regina Snew, coming back to school in-person was always preferable to online learning even before the vaccine, especially after seeing the precautions that would be taken. Both said they actually wished they had more time with their students than the two days a week they get in hybrid learning now, and could be comfortable reducing student distancing to three feet to fit more students in class, as recently recommended by the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention so long as masks are worn.
“I feel it is not as scary as it’s perceived,” said Albertson, who teaches science to Bear Valley sixth- and seventh-graders. She feels shopping is riskier than school.
“I see more people when I go to Walmart and I go to Target and I can still go to Kohl’s and Michael’s… I’m interacting with more people I don’t know at those places than I do in class,” said Albertson, 56. “I feel like we are safer now than we have ever been… They (students) can’t even be on campus if they have a fever or headache… You can’t have any symptoms and be at school whether it’s COVID or not… I haven’t even gone through a whole box of Kleenex and normally I would have gone through multiple by now.”
Both teachers also said student mask wearing and compliance with other safety measures has been a non-issue, aside from the occasional reminder.
“You don’t have to fight them to wear masks,” said Snew, who is in her first year teaching Bear Valley sixth-graders English and social studies.
Albertson said, “I was worried about kids not following rules, refusing to wear masks, refusing to follow the distance rule,” but, “I have not had one discipline problem.”
She also thinks having so few students on campus at one time and having them stick with the same small group has minimized the typical middle school drama.
“Kids really are respectful. They are being kind to each other. There’s a sense of compassion for each other that was not the norm before COVID. … They know everybody in the class,” she said.
In-person instruction has had other benefits too.
“The engagement is so much higher in person. Just seeing a face and being able to respond to body language, respond to students. The lesson is deeper. They are receiving more and comprehending more,” Albertson said.
So too said Snew, who described spending the first nine weeks of the school year online as “rough” and filled with home distractions like the TV, iPads, video games and phones.
Snew said she also heard from students they were “genuinely excited” to come back to school this year and they were “so excited to sit at a desk, writing things on pen and paper instead of Zoom.”
Bringing back in-person schooling during the pandemic has not been easy, but the benefits outweigh the struggles, said Wrzeski, Bear Valley’s principal.
Those struggles included initial scheduling for students and teachers, closing campus from December through January when regional coronavirus case rates spiked and quarantining a total of 72 students and 26 staff when 24 COVID-19 cases were confirmed. Wrzeski said he’s not aware of any serious COVID-19 cases or hospitalizations as a result of reopening.
“A lot of our families wanted the hybrid model and wanted our students back on campus,” Wrzeski said. “It is a challenge to flip back and forth, but it’s way worth it to have students back on campus. They are happy. Our attendance improves when they are back on campus, and our engagement improves.”
What’s more, “I think we have the proper protocols in place for a safe campus and I think that’s been proven,” he said.
Albertson, the science teacher, has not been fearful of getting COVID-19 and feels schools elsewhere that have stayed closed should have done more.
“I feel they are doing a disservice to those kids because there are a lot of kids who can’t learn through Zoom. I had a lot of kids failing on Zoom. Now I don’t,” she said.
The vaccine’s arrival is surely a relief – she’s received the first dose already – but she feels “waiting for the vaccine is unrealistic. I think most teachers are not in the danger zone age bracket anyway. Kids aren’t super spreaders and so I think we are doing kids a disservice by not having them in the classroom. I think that’s a copout.”
Snew, the Bear Valley social studies and English teacher, also struggles to understand why more schools did not open at least in hybrid format all these months.
“It kinda surprised me that not many schools were doing what we were doing. … To not even have the option to come to school is a little amazing,” said Snew, who has not been vaccinated yet but said she plans to.
Snew, who is on the “younger side,” said she felt confident about teaching in person with the precautions taken and described the experience so far as a good one.
“No one knew how it was actually going to play out. … On the teachers’ end, there’s been minimal issues. It’s been pretty smooth sailing,” Snew said.
Escondido’s teachers did not receive any extra pay just for returning to campuses during the pandemic, district officials said.
San Diego Unified teachers also will not get any pay boost simply for returning to school next month, but teachers elsewhere – including the Sweetwater Union High School District – will get a one-time 7 percent pay increase for returning in April and a 2 percent pay bump for returning in May, according to deals negotiated by the union.
In recent months, state and federal lawmakers have sent unprecedented amounts of cash to K-12 schools to help respond to the pandemic. Schools have been given a lot of leeway in how they can spend the money. Among other things, funds may be spent on creating new robust online learning programs, safety measures to reopen school campuses or providing extra academic supports for students struggling with learning losses.
Districts are still working to figure out what to do with all the money – including their slice of the latest $1.9 trillion federal relief package, which alone is expected to send more than $780 million to the county’s 42 public school districts, according to estimates reported by EdSource and local districts.
The state coronavirus funding package passed earlier this month that contained incentives is providing extra reopening motivation for schools, but even that aid is focused on elementary students. Districts with secondary grades, like middle and high school, only have to offer one grade level in-person instruction to qualify for the funds this year, in addition to identified vulnerable student groups like those experiencing homelessness.
During the bill’s hearings, some state legislators expressed concerns secondary students and their parents were being left behind.
“We needed to set a floor that we thought districts could reasonably achieve. … So, we needed something that was aspirational, but also achievable,” said state Assemblyman Phil Ting of San Francisco, chair of the Assembly budget committee and vocal critic of schools that have remained closed. “Of course, my preference would be to, you know, open middle schools up and if there is a safe way, to open up high schools. … I think we struck a balance.”
While others are just getting started and still struggling to figure out how to logistically make school reopenings work, districts like Escondido Union will easily qualify for the incentives and keep welcoming kids to school.
“I think our district did a great job of planning way in advance, a long time ago,” said Wrzeski. “Planning for reopening and putting these protocols and structures in place, and I think that made it easier.”