Students set to return to campus at local schools

Schools will implement hybrid in-person learning schedules

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San Benito High School is reopening on April 19 to allow students to return to campus under a new hybrid model. Photo: Juan Reyes

It’s back to school season—sort of, as school districts in San Benito County are hustling to get things organized before students return to campus. It’ll be the first time in months that kids will get to be in the same room with some of their classmates since the Covid-19 pandemic forced them to shut the doors. 

Hollister School District is set to open in a hybrid model for all levels starting April 12. San Benito High School is planning to open a week later, April 19, also in a hybrid model. 

Aromas-San Juan School District will reopen April 12 for TK-8th grade, and April 19 for 12th graders. Hollister Prep Navigator’s K-8 hybrid model will begin on April 19. 

Southside Elementary TK-3rd grade will begin April 12, and 4th-8th grade will start April 19.

The programs run by the County Office of Education began on April 5 in a hybrid model. 

Hollister School District Superintendent Diego Ochoa said this past year has taught the school that there’s a combination of about 10 different variables, and the public health scenario is the first and foremost. Hollister School District was doing distance learning like 95 percent of the other schools throughout the state. Ochoa mentioned it was because the Covid-19 rates were exploding at that time.

He’s seen a sharp decline in the number of Covid-19 cases within the past month. Plus, the state has been encouraging school districts to offer hybrid in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible.

“As an educator, I’m thrilled to think of the idea of having students on campus,” he said. “As a father, I’m thrilled of thinking of all these boys and girls who are going to get out and be on their school campus to connect with their friends and teachers.”

San Benito High has just under 3,300 enrolled students. Principal Adrian Ramirez said more than anything they’re excited to give kids an opportunity to get back into a healthy routine. 

“It’s really more about mental health, productive routines and trying to get kids out of the house, being able to come on the campus just to interact,” he said. “It’s really about the social emotional learning and wellness part is really the priority for all of us.”

Ramirez mentioned that some students, however, are going to stick with distance learning because some of the families have found a healthy routine that works for them. He said there will be protocols and restrictions but students would still have access to wellness services and support. 

San Benito High’s model since the beginning was to work closely with the local California Teachers Association representatives so that kids can take two classes every six weeks.

Ramirez said the reason behind that idea is it allows them to not be disruptive during any transition into the hybrid model. In hindsight, it’s not the perfect model but it created a lot of advantages because students weren’t fatigued at the end of a long rigorous school day, Ramirez said. 

“I think we did a good job of really thinking this through and putting us in a position to not have to create these contrasting type schedules,” he said. 

Ochoa said implementing a hybrid model can compromise the total amount of time that one would like to see kids in the classroom because there’s only 15 kids allowed at one time due to social distancing.  

“What’s absolutely certain is that the benefit from an emotional lift standpoint is going to exist for all these students,” he said. 

He said the benefit for teachers is to be able to connect with individual kids who might have other needs outside of the academics. 

Ochoa wishes that they could go back to the regular schedule of teachers spending seven hours a day, five days a week with the students. 

“That’s the program. Anything less than that is a compromise, but we’re going to take the good out of it,” he said. 

Updated social distancing guidelines

New state and federal Covid safety guidelines that reduce the recommended minimum distance between students from 6 feet to 3 feet, can make it easier for California schools to return students to classrooms full time.

Ramirez said they had already set up the classrooms to abide by the six-foot distance. Based on the numbers on the percentage of students who opted to stay remote, they should have ample room for in-person instruction. 

Ochoa mentioned that it’s something they’re considering for summer school and the next school year. As far as this school year, they also made plans for students to have 6 feet of social distance. 

The concern with reducing the minimum distance is that some parents are only sending kids back to in-person instruction because it’s still set to 6 feet. Ochoa said there would be a substantial group of parents who would not send their children to school because the thought of having 29 students in a classroom would scare them away.

Over the course of survey data the district asked parents, “Would you immediately bring your kids back to hybrid and in-person instruction or would you be cautious and take the most stringent safety precautions?”

Ochoa said the biggest group of parents in the district consistently requested the highest level of safety standards and a slower reopening process.  

“[School districts] are opening up more but what’s happening is more kids are being pulled out of that option,” he said.

Summer school

The Hollister School District is planning substantial summer school programs. Ochoa believes that these seven weeks of in-person instruction will help them effectively recruit the kids for summer school. 

He said the plan is to have 24 days of school over a five-week period for children who are dealing with social and emotional setbacks. 

“It’s going to be a positive, engaging new experience,” Ochoa said.

Ochoa added that it’s been years since the district has done any summer school beyond what’s required by law, which is special education and migrant education.

Summer school at San Benito High will also look different. Students will have the option to take courses in a hybrid format and fully distance learning format from June 14 to July 22.

“We anticipate that we’ll have a much higher enrollment in summer school,” he said.

CARES Act funding

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, also called the COVID-19 Stimulus Package will allocate $130 billion for K-12 schools, to safely reopen most schools within 100 days.

The money for K-12 schools may be used to improve ventilation in school buildings, reduce class sizes to make social distancing possible, purchase personal protective equipment and hire support staff.

Twenty percent of the school money must be directed to programs to help counteract “learning loss” from students who missed school during the pandemic.

Hollister School District will receive $5.4 million from In-Person Instruction and Expanded Learning Opportunities grants issued by the California Department of Education.

Ochoa said their biggest challenge is to come up with the best way to utilize the funding over the next 18 months to recover from the effects of Covid-19. 

San Benito High will receive $3.3 million. Ramirez said the funding didn’t change the timing of starting the hybrid model. Ramirez said that April 19 was one of three benchmarks they set during a board of trustees meeting in December.

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