It’s lunchtime at Dos Pueblos High School and students eat outdoors as the sun shines over Goleta.
The yellow caution tape placed around the lunch area blocks seating spaces to maintain physical distance protocols.
With music playing on the speakers set up outside, some prefer a quieter spot on the campus located at 7266 Alameda Ave. A handful of students sit inside the library, reading books or working on their iPads. All wear masks and some have headphones.
Two members of the cheerleading squad, wearing their uniforms adorned in the school colors of gold and blue, practice their routine in the open air. They have a big performance in a few hours.
Nearby, football players are seen wearing their game jerseys around campus.
It’s Friday, and it’s game day between crosstown rivals San Marcos and Dos Pueblos high schools — a traditional battle for the Goleta Valley that would be won that night by Dos Pueblos, 34-24.
“It’s our last game today,” DPHS Principal Bill Woodard said. “It went fast. We had five games. We lost one of them due to COVID protocols, but we all cleared the kids today. We’re ready to go tonight.”
On Friday night, DPNews live-streamed the football game as well as cheer and marching band performances since a large crowd of fans isn’t allowed to attend in-person due to COVID-19 health restrictions.
DPHS students returned to classrooms for in-person instruction in late March after about a year and a week of distance learning from home. Students in Cohort A arrived for the first day of on-campus lessons on Thursday, March 25, and Cohort B the next day. Each group has about 650 students.
“We did a soft restaurant opening right before spring break to see if it worked,” said Woodard, a father to a senior and a freshman, who attend the same school. “We got our systems down.”
At DPHS, about 64percent of its students are back in-person, with the remaining students participating in a virtual distance-learning option as of Friday, he said.
The Santa Barbara Unified School District plans call for junior high and high schools to hold four days a week of in-person instruction as soon as Monday, with students participating in distance learning on Zoom on Wednesdays.
Monday is the first day that DPHS will have double the number of students for the four-day on-campus schedule. School officials expect approximately 1,300 to 1,500 students to return.
“Since we’ve decided to go four days we have more students wanting to now come who were full distance,” Woodard said.
The change comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its recommendation of three feet of distance between students in classrooms, instead of six feet.
DPHS will increase overall class size starting on Monday now that the COVID-19 protocols shifted. The average class size will have around 20 students, instead of around eight to 13 students.
“This weekend, our custodians are making sure every classroom is ready to go for three feet,” Woodard said, later adding, “Three feet between desks is almost what you would have in a normal set up. It’s a little bit more.”
High school-aged students are booking COVID-19 vaccine appointments now that all Californians ages 16 and older are eligible for inoculation.
“A lot of these kids have their appointments,” Woodard said.
On Friday afternoon, high school seniors painted tiles for a mosaic mural set for an outer wall on the side of the gymnasium. The project signifies school experiences the students missed out on due to the pandemic.
School officials hope to put up the mural by graduation. The Class of 2021 has about 500 graduates.
“Some have been able to handle this situation well, some have struggled, their family financially or medically,” Woodard said. “Everybody’s got different stories.”
Seniors Natalie Grover, 17, sat alongside Sasha Runyen, 17, and Noel Tsoukalas, 18.
The soon-to-be graduates hand-painted their tiles for the new mural project, and they recalled the return to campus for the first time since COVID-19 closed schools last spring.
As a few weeks at home turned into one month, two and so on, students spent more than half their academic year in distance learning via the Zoom videoconferencing platform.
The three students were excited to be back on campus.
“I like seeing my teachers and meeting them for the first time, which is weird meeting them for the first time in March, but it was fun to see our teachers and also my peers who are not normally in my circle,” Grover said.
“It’s nice to be able to catch up with them and be social again.”
Grover, a member of the girls lacrosse team and the school’s engineering academy, said the staff did “an exceptional job, and parents are always jumping on board to help make students feel welcome, and enjoy these last few months of school.”
Both Grover and Runyen were accepted to UC Berkeley and plan to attend the university in the fall.
They acknowledged some advantages to in-person schooling.
“In-person social interaction is good for everyone’s mental health, instead of being behind a screen,” said Runyen, who also is a student in the engineering academy and a member of the soccer and track teams.
The group of students said they look forward to prom and other end-of-the-year activities for seniors.
Tsoukalas, a libero on the Chargers volleyball team, is also pumped up about her beach volleyball season and graduation. She has been a volleyball player since eighth grade.
She likes spending time at school, and interacting with people face-to-face.
“I’m a people person,” Tsoukalas said. “I get my energy off of being around people, so it was hard being on Zoom. We’re grateful we get to be here, our senior year, and have sports. It’s nice.”
A similar mural, sponsored by the Dos Pueblos High School Foundation, is placed on the gym’s other wall. It’s adorned with individual tiles created by the Class of 2020 and is dedicated to those seniors who showed their strength and resiliency during the pandemic. The 2020 high school seniors lost their milestone spring events and other end-of-year traditions when school abruptly shut down.
(DP News video)
The new adjustments are not limited to students, however. Teaching inside a classroom while wearing a mask is challenging.
The voices behind the masks sometimes get muffled.
Wearing a headset while teaching helps amplify educators’ voices during class.
“When we have kids in front of us, we have a mask on,” said Gina Pearce, a DPHS math teacher and a technology coach for the Santa Barbara Unified School District. “I would be talking with my students, saying ‘can you hear me?’”
DHPS teachers have faced big challenges during these uncertain times, Woodard said. They’re solution-oriented and work to maximize the experience for the students, he added.
The teachers and classified staff have embraced challenges, Woodard said.
“Nobody was meant to be teaching kids at home and in front of you at the same time, while they’re all wearing masks, and not being able to help them collaborate the same way,” he said.
“The teachers are the unsung heroes who make this all work.”