After an extended summer break, Isla Vista Elementary School, which serves approximately 500 preschool through sixth grade students, is now a month into the new school year. But the elementary school, like many other schools around the nation, is experimenting with a new — online — approach.
When schools in California were forced to move online in April, the transition was anything but smooth, said Donna Lewis, superintendent of the Goleta Union School District (GUSD), which serves 10 K-6 schools in the area, including I.V. Elementary.
“Everyone went away in March, and then we never came back,” Lewis said. “We kind of went into survival mode, scrambling to put together an education for the kids.”
Lewis said the school district, now back in session, leveraged its summer break as a buffer to prepare for the upcoming school year and a period to devise new preparations for remote learning.
Prior to the district’s first day on Aug. 19, GUSD donated Chromebooks to students and teachers and established internet connections for those who needed it.
“As of now, we have given close to 3000 Chromebooks and a good number of hotspots to families to try to get everybody hooked up to the internet,” Lewis said.
GUSD schools will stay fully remote until Santa Barbara County moves down to Tier 3 in Governor Gavin Newsom’s reopening plan, meaning that the risk of community transmission is “moderate,” according to Lewis.
After the 2019-20 school year — which became an emergency situation for the GUSD, with teachers balancing their home lives and remote teaching with no training — the school board held a special meeting to determine whether the district should apply for a waiver to safely reopen schools in person this year.
However, after considering Santa Barbara County’s “Tier 1” placement on the state coronavirus watch list, the lack of coronavirus testing equipment available, the impact coronavirus can have on children and the rise of COVID-19 cases in the community, GUSD decided against requesting a waiver, Lewis said, because the school board did not feel “safe enough.”
This decision brought a mix of reactions from parents, including some who thanked the board for keeping students safe and others who disagreed with the decision due to personal circumstances at home.
“A lot of people understand our decision, but I have received several emails from parents who were unhappy, and that situation is so complicated,” Mary Kahn, the assistant superintendent of GUSD, said.
“There are families in desperate times, single mothers who are juggling work and their young children and some of these parents cannot work remotely,” she said.
Over the summer, a working group of 30 teachers and school leaders reviewed feedback from families and staff members and drew out the district’s upcoming needs in fall to prepare for remote education, according to Kahn.
This working group discussed online delivery methods, as well as tutorials for new online learning platforms and a universal schedule for all students to provide more structure for families and staff members.
“Usually each school has a bit more autonomy on how to set up their schedule, but having a common schedule allows our parents to know what to count on,” Kahn said. “So for children with additional needs, intervention specialists can pick the student from their Zoom class, so that they can really get help from both their teacher and their support staff member.”
GUSD also hired 21 additional teachers to help reduce online class sizes and reallocated funds to train and equip these new faculty members in preparation for the coming year. Hiring new teachers is also a preparation for when GUSD schools are able to open again, so that schools can have the smallest class ratios possible to keep students socially distanced.
The district has also invested in safety measures to protect students and faculty once schools can reopen for onsite education, including sneeze guards, mask-wearing and hand washing training and new individual desks for students. Lewis and Kahn hope these measures will protect students when they can eventually return to campus.
“Even though the children are not present right now, we are trying to gear up because one day they are going to be back,” Lewis said.
But even with added training and new precautions, the district cannot fully meet the needs of students, most critically in the form of childcare for working parents.
“Our school district single-handedly cannot meet all of the needs of these families by ourselves,” Kahn said. “We are providing essential childcare for our employees, but we cannot provide it for everyone else. We hope that employees step up to help their workers with childcare or even the city to try to help provide these resources.”
For I.V. Elementary School, where about 50% of the student population are English-Language Learners and many come from low-income backgrounds, families and faculty have their own challenges amidst the pandemic, according to Kahn. To combat these difficulties, a community liaison is working with families in need through aid for food insufficiencies, housing challenges and medical help, according to Kahn.
“This liaison has developed a great relationship with our community over the years, so we are able to reach out to them when needed, and they are bilingual as well,” Kahn said.
Isla Vista Youth Projects, an organization that provides services from childcare to medical counseling, has a strong partnership with I.V. Elementary School and is now serving approximately 80 to 150 students online every day for homework help and tutoring support, according to Kahn. The group also provides extra online after-school activities for children such as art projects and programming, along with home family kits with materials and school supplies.
“One thing I can say is that there is not going to be any child who is not going to get the support they need,” Kahn said. “There is a whole network of support between our district employees and community partners that step in and help.”
In addition to online education training, GUSD is educating students this fall on addressing racism and social injustice issues highlighted by the civil rights protests across the country.
“The teachers are hungry for this,” Lewis said. “We just did a pilot this summer with a number of teachers, administrators and board members for specific training that is being dovetailed for our community, and we are really proud of that work.”
Lewis, Kahn and the rest of the staff and families within the district are holding their breath for a school year full of uncertainty, changes and challenges. However, they are hopeful that with support and perseverance, students can still receive the most of their education this year and can return to campus safely and with ease.
“The teachers never settle, and we never rest,” Kahn said. “I was on campus recently, and seeing all the teachers in their empty classrooms, propped up with their computers, yet being so animated was so wonderful to see. It was delightful, to say the least.”