When it comes to the Goleta Union School District’s ultimate plan for the fall, Superintendent Donna Lewis said to envision an accordion.
“Guidelines will loosen, and we will loosen,” Lewis said. “Then, if the health situation changes, guidelines will tighten more and we are going to have to change.”
The GUSD hasn’t formally released its plan, but district leaders are discussing possible preparations for fall amid COVID-19.
“I keep hoping there’s a good magic answer, and no one has it yet,” Lewis said. “It is validating to know that no matter where across the nation or in California, we are struggling with similar issues regarding this pandemic, school closures, and how we reopen and keep everybody safe.”
The topic of reopening schools is scheduled to be addressed at the Goleta Union School District board meeting on July 15. The district’s Board of Trustees is expected to discuss the potential roadmap.
The California Department of Public Health and the state Department of Education released guidelines for schools reopening, and the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department sent the GUSD documents to fill out.
“One of the hard things is some of the guidelines seem to conflict with each other,” Lewis said. “Big picture — the public health department and the state guidelines are less stringent than the (California) Department of Education guidelines.”
Earlier in June, the California Department of Education released its statewide guidebook for reopening public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting that students report to school on two designated days based on grade level for in-person instruction and create smaller student-educator cohorts to minimize the mixing of student groups during the day.
The state’s nearly 60-page document encourages the need for physical distancing and types of personal protective equipment. It also outlines cleaning and disinfecting recommendations.
The California guidance includes a plan to address positive COVID-19 cases or community surges, and it recommends establishing “a plan to close schools again for physical attendance of students, if necessary, based on public health guidance and in coordination with local public health officials.”
To promote consistency and safety in the classroom, the state’s Department of Education suggested establishing and implementing daily routines for both in-person and remote learning.
Social distancing of 6 feet or more between students would be the hardest challenge when reopening schools in the GUSD, particularly for younger children, Lewis said.
“How are you going to bring kids back to the campus and keep them 6 feet apart from one another?” Lewis said. “Imagine doing that with preschool kids.”
GUSD serves elementary students in kindergarten through sixth grade at nine schools.
As the district rethinks its learning spaces for a world impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, taking some lessons outside is a possibility.
“Our schools are like parks,” Lewis said. “We have the fields, (and) we have the blacktop, so we need to take advantage of all those outdoor spaces.”
Area school district superintendents, including Lewis, meet up virtually once a week to discuss ideas and how the school community is coping with the crisis at the local level, among other topics. The Santa Barbara County superintendent of schools attends those meetings.
Lewis also is part of a smaller breakout group with the South County superintendents only.
During the summer vacation, GUSD officials are trying to figure out and visualize what staying 6 feet apart looks like in a practical sense inside the classroom.
Some of the district’s cabinet team and the La Patera Elementary School principal recently visited the campus along La Patera Lane in Goleta.
The group looked at a primary and an upper elementary classroom, and “we physically moved furniture around in the classroom and tape-measured it out to see what could be possible,” said Mary Kahn, GUSD assistant superintendent of instructional services.
The furniture isn’t uniform in each class, so “we will have to be creative about how to divide up furniture and maybe remove some furniture,” Kahn said.
Depending on how many items are removed, about 24 children can fit inside a classroom with social distancing, Kahn said.
“It’s not ideal because teaching in 6-by-6 squares and rows is not how we teach these days,” Kahn said. “We prefer methods that include grouping and kids interacting with each other.
“We are still working out how we support teacher strategies with the guidelines on social distancing.”
Elementary school teachers are resourceful, Kahn said.
“There are a lot of resources in the classroom,” she said. “We may need to help store some things to make some more room in the classrooms.” La Patera “is one of our schools that physically looks like many of our schools. We have a few that are physically a little different, so we know that for them, we will have to make some adjustments.”
A Team Effort
District officials are using feedback collected in a parent survey as they put together the reopening plan.
Before the meeting next month, a survey is planned to gauge staff opinions on reopening ideas and proposed measures. It will help offer a sense of how GUSD will move forward, with guidance provided by public health officials.
The coronavirus is ever-evolving the guidelines for how schools could look in the fall, but the likely reopening of schools will require the ability to assure students, teachers and the campus community that they are safe.
The GUSD is making sure that staff feel comfortable if they return in the fall, said Louise Dahlquist, a fifth-grade teacher at Ellwood Elementary School and vice president of the United Teaching Profession of Goleta.
UTPG is a union of about 220 certificated employees of the district, including teachers, school nurses, psychologists and more.
In a typical year, Dahlquist said she has more than 20 students in her classroom. She also recalled teaching 27 children during a school year.
“Comfort level-wise, that (27) is too many kids right now in the classroom,” Dahlquist said. “They would not be able to social distance in the classrooms we have.”
Dahlquist is another important voice in the discussions about preparations on how to safely reopen classrooms and schools.
“The hard part is things are changing so rapidly, day by day,” Dahlquist said. “The possibilities are endless for what it could look like, and things keep changing.”
Distance learning isn’t the most desirable for some, and it has brought several challenges. Research has shown school closures can impact more than academics.
“The remote learning is what we had to go into — but what is the best need for students, remote learning is not the best need for students,” Dahlquist said. “Students need to be in school and learning in a classroom, but it’s also making sure teachers feel safe and the students are safe.”
When asked about predicting what classes might look like at Foothill Elementary in the fall, Principal Felicia Roggero said, “I don’t know because it’s too early to say definitively because we don’t have the teachers’ input yet.”
GUSD is working on the plan that would spell out its model for the next academic year.
Roggero has read about options and ideas for instruction at other school districts, and some others may implement a “mixed” model of in-person and remote learning.
She has been reading articles about how educational institutions abroad such as Denmark and South Korea began sending children back to schools and reopening campuses in recent weeks after closing because of COVID-19.
“Visuals are great to see, and also reading the stories,” Roggero said. “It helps reassure us that it can be done.”
She said that “whatever model we (GUSD) go with, we will be following the guidelines of social distancing and all of the components of health and hygiene.”
There are big unanswered questions for some local schools.
“Our hope is to open, and we will have a plan in place — provided that we are allowed to open,” said Sheri Scott, a full-time learning center teacher at Foothill Elementary School and the UTPG president. “That plan will stay in place as-is until we are told we can do something else, and with that, we have a secondary plan that we could do less or we could do more.”
Will there be face masks and face shields? What about installing plexiglass? What about students learning in small groups?
“I can’t tell you the ultimate learning environment — that’s how hard it is,” Scott said. “I wish we had that crystal ball.”
The GUSD officials are discussing every facet of reopening decisions. There’s an atmosphere of open communication with other district leaders, and it’s important to keep the dialogue going as circumstances evolve, Scott said.
“We are preparing for everything,” Scott said. “I’m impressed with our district. They are going through all of the health guidelines and putting in place every measure that they are supposed to put in place, and then checking with myself as a union person and also CSEA (nonteaching staff).”
District officials were given a comprehensive list of health guidelines, Scott said.
“We have all the people in place at our district to put our heads together to use the information we are given to make the best decisions,” Scott said.
Much is unknown, but the official reopening plan is expected to have a great deal of flexibility since guidance from state and local mandates are swiftly changing depending on public health circumstances. Many details about reopening are being fleshed out.
“We want to be optimistic, and say ‘yes’ we are going to be able to come back as regular and it’s going to stay that way through the course of the school year,” Hollister Elementary School Principal Abby Vasquez said. “We know that may happen, but also might not.”
The safety and well-being of students, staff and the campus community remain a top priority when it comes to reopening schools this fall.
In the digital age, information is quickly communicated to both families and staff, Vasquez said. Santa Barbara-based ParentSquare, an online portal, comes in handy for school communication, she said.
In making reopening decisions, it will be critical to support continued academic growth and focus on ensuring student learning.
“My first job is making sure everybody is safe,” Vasquez said. “We want our kids and staff to be safe coming back to school, but then paramount after that is our students are learning, and what is going to be the best way to make sure that is going on.”
Vasquez is among those helping lead the planning effort about what comes next for the 2020-21 academic year and reopening to what’s best for the school community.
There are a variety of viewpoints helping prepare for the fall. Several stakeholders are working together to sort out the decisions, including representation from the teachers union, classified employee union, school nurses, principals and other district officials.
GUSD officials are staying up to date on what’s happening with health guidelines and the rapidly changing conditions with COVID-19. They are frequently communicating any updates. However, it’s difficult to predict how the coronavirus will progress.
They are working to ensure young students are ready for the upcoming school year and the future.
“Hopefully, this is a limited time and not a forever thing,” Vasquez said. “We want to do what we can to make sure they (students) are ready for life after COVID.”
Numerous educators switched to an online learning environment format because of the coronavirus’ impact in the spring months.
According to the California Department of Education, it’s “reasonable” to anticipate the protocols that schools implement will shift as the local conditions change.
No matter what, the GUSD is preparing for a new and different reality when the school community return.
“In a perfect world, I’d like to have them (students) and be at school like we normally do,” Vasquez said. “But, I don’t know if that’s going to be 100 percent possible.”