Students make easy adjustment back to in-person learning at Pacific Beach private school

Students at St. Paul's Lutheran Church and School have been back on campus for in-person learning since September.
(Courtesy photo)

With San Diego Unified School District campuses closed since March 2020, most Pacific Beach students, the majority of whom attend schools in the Mission Bay Cluster, have been participating in virtual learning for nearly a year.

On Feb. 23, the district announced they are aiming for an April 12 opening, but that is contingent on the county getting out of the restrictive purple tier.

However, about 100 local students have been attending class in person for five months in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and School, a private K-8 school on Felspar Street, received the green light to resume in-person learning just in time for the academic school year, which began on Sept. 2.

Meredith Binnie, principal of St. Paul’s, said the experience has been very smooth so far. They have been following all of the required health and safety guidelines, including the installation of plexiglass dividers, limiting class sizes from 22 students to a maximum of 17, and implementing a mandatory hygiene routine for students, such as regular hand washing and not sharing classroom supplies.

“I think at the beginning of the school year the teachers spent a lot time with procedures and creating healthy habits, and now the kids don’t even think twice about it. Nobody fights (the masks) at all,” Binnie said.

All students are now wearing masks, she said, with new guidance she received on Jan. 14. Previously, this mandate did not apply to students in kindergarten, first or second grade.

Students at St. Paul's Lutheran Church and School have been back on campus for in-person learning since September 2020.
(Courtesy photo)

Since the September opening, there have been two COVID-19 cases in separate classrooms, Binnie said. The two students tested positive after exposure to COVID-19 off-campus but were asymptomatic. In both instances, the teacher and classmates of each student were sent home for two weeks of virtual learning. No COVID-19 positive cases were reported during or after the quarantine period.

“There hasn’t been anything traced back to them catching it at school,” she said of the two positive cases.

In addition to minimal COVID-19 cases, Binnie said that in general, they “have had very few illnesses across the board” — no strep throat and very few colds.

“Kids are staying home if they have symptoms and parents aren’t sending them to school — it’s not spreading,” she said. “And because of the hygiene and masks, kids have been staying healthier throughout the day as well. So that’s been interesting.”

The safety requirements at St. Paul's Lutheran Church and School include plexiglass dividers and  limited class sizes.
The safety requirements at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and School include plexiglass dividers, limited class sizes and regular hand washing.
(Courtesy photo)

According to Binnie, the students, parents and teachers have all been supportive of the decision to return to in-person instruction.

Third grade teacher Barbara Polacek said she thought the benefits of returning to campus outweighed the risks. She noted that last year’s stint of online-only instruction was extremely difficult for her, as well as her students.

“I have taught for 27 years and probably teaching virtually last year was by far one of my most challenging years,” Polacek said. “No amount of training had prepared new or experienced teachers as to what would be required teaching virtually. Even though I saw my students on Zoom two to three times a day and also did individual Zooms when needed, I did not feel I connected with my students as I do in-person.”

And this challenge extended to the parents of St. Paul’s, including Emily Stewart and Crista Mathes.

“As a full-time working parent, I was afraid that I would have to quit my job if I had to teach (my son Sam) virtually from home,” Stewart said. “I work in software so it wouldn’t be easy to be on my computer all day while also moderating his Zoom calls.”

“Last spring, with remote school and my husband and I both working full-time at home, we quickly found how difficult it was to give the kids the support they needed at home to learn online,” Mathes said.

Fred Friedrichs, who teaches middle school at St. Paul’s, said he did not have any real concerns prior to returning.

“Mrs. Binnie and the administrative staff did a great job of putting together a plan, procedures and materials to keep everyone as safe as possible,” Friedrichs said. “The decision to return to in-person teaching was reinforced by the students’ reaction — they were exceptionally glad to be back in person.”

 Class sizes at St. Paul's Lutheran Church and School are limited to a maximum of 17 from 22 students.
Class sizes at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and School are limited to a maximum of 17 from 22 students.
(Courtesy photo)

He added that the support from the students’ families also helped, noting parents “were deeply appreciative of the effort the staff had made to continue the quality of education online and then back in person.”

Jenna LeCour is one of the appreciative parents. Her daughter, Lyla, has attended preschool at St. Paul’s for the last two years, and LeCour was worried about Lyla starting kindergarten in a remote environment.

“When weighing concerns regarding sending our child back to school, our bigger concern was keeping her out of school — as an only child, she was clearly craving interaction with peers,” LeCour said. “We had complete trust in the (St. Paul’s) team to provide a safe environment for our daughter to have a traditional kindergarten experience. They did not disappoint.”

Five-year-old Lyla said she is happy to be in the classroom. Her favorite things about being on campus are “playing and making stuff for my friends and I can give it straight to them.”

“It’s hard to wear a mask because it’s hot but I like picking one out in the mornings,” she added.

For Mathes’ 12-year-old daughter Haley, wearing a mask, along with following the other health and safety rules, hasn’t been a problem.

“It’s not difficult wearing a mask all day,” said Haley, who is in seventh grade. “I got used to it really quickly. The other procedures like hand sanitizer and staying six feet away have become a normal routine. I almost can’t remember what it was like without them!”

Like Lyla, Haley is glad see her friends, adding that she has also found being on campus more enjoyably from an academic standpoint.

“Being in the classroom helps me focus on my work, and of course I like seeing my friends,” she said. “When we’re in the classroom, we get to do more hands-on activities like science labs.”

Binnie said she has seen a number of positives from being back on campus.

“Our test scores continue to go higher because they have the in-person learning,” she said. “The kids are able to have social interactions with each other and you just see a smile on their face when they’re playing at recess or sitting at lunch with their friends. Having the opportunity to be with other kids is huge for their mental health.”

“I have no political opinion on this; I just see that you can (open campus) safely for those who want to be in person, and you just have to take the right steps,” Binnie continued. “And it really takes a lot of honesty on part of students, parents and faculty — and working together.”