Excited and stressed, San Diego’s educators prepare for first day of in-person school Monday
Teachers are happy to see kids again, but nervous about hybrid learning and COVID
Danny Blas, who teaches middle school history and social science at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, is excited to see his students again. Some students have had their Zoom cameras turned off this school year, so Monday will be the first time he sees their faces.
But Blas also is scared. He is vaccinated so he’s not scared about his own health, but his “worst nightmare” is if one of his students contracts COVID, he said.
“I wish there was a support group I could go to and just be able to have someone telling us, or someone telling me, everything’s going to be okay,” he said. “It’s just a very complex collection of thoughts and feelings and stresses.”
His classroom has multiple safety measures in place, including a MERV-13 air filter, an air purifier, an air monitor and windows he can leave open to improve air circulation.
Besides COVID, Blas also is stressed about how he will make hybrid learning work, where some kids will learn in class while others simultaneously learn online from home.
He plans to use his iPhone and his tripod to livestream his classroom to students at home and will use a Bluetooth earbud to hear those students respond on Zoom, he said. He also has been studying techniques for hybrid learning in the last few days before school starts.
“I feel like I’m being inundated with so much information … so I feel like I’m falling behind,” Blas said. “I just want to do a great job for these kids because they are my happy place and they give me so much joy.”
This week hundreds of teachers like Blas in San Diego Unified and other long-closed districts will welcome back tens of thousands of students to classrooms for the first time in more than a year.
Schools have been outfitted with face masks, hand sanitizer, air purifiers and filters, temperature check stations and lots of posters reminding students to mask up, stay six feet apart and wash their hands.
While teachers say they’re thrilled to see students again, many are nervous about hybrid teaching, serving students in-person and at home at the same time. About half San Diego Unified students are expected to learn in person this week while the rest stay home in distance learning, district officials said.
About three quarters of San Diego Unified schools will offer students four days of in-person instruction, while the other schools will provide it two days a week, depending on classroom space. That complicates things for some parents and teachers.
At the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, less than half of Blas’ students chose to attend school in person.
Some said they don’t want to go back to school, only to have to switch back to distance learning if there’s a COVID exposure or if county COVID rates surge again. Others said they love waking up right before class starts.
“I thought my students would be so happy they’re returning, and it’s just like it wasn’t so exciting to them as it was for me,” Blas said. “So I had to kind of recalibrate my enthusiasm.”
Trace Cimins, Hancock Elementary
At Hancock Elementary, kindergarten teacher Trace Cimins says all but two of her 24 students chose to come to school in person. For most of them, it will be their first time ever learning in a classroom.
“Ever since we announced it, they are so excited. They cannot wait,” Cimins said of her students’ families.
The school will be on a two-day hybrid schedule, so Cimins will have 12 students in person on Mondays and Tuesdays and 10 students on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
On one hand the two-day schedule is a relief, Cimins said, because it halves the number of students who will be in her classroom at a time.
“I’m a kindergarten teacher, and so the thought of even trying to keep 12 kids six feet apart when all they wanna do is socialize and play and interact with each other … I’m worried about how that’s going to play out,” she said. “But we’ll do the best we can and do everything we can to keep everybody safe.”
On the other hand, hybrid learning means she will have to teach students on Zoom and in her classroom simultaneously.
It was hard enough getting youngsters engaged in learning on computers at home. Now it will be even harder, she said, because she will be dividing her attention between in-person and at-home students.
“I’ve been teaching for 25 years, and I feel like a first-year teacher because I’ve never taught this way before,” Cimins said.
Just because schools are reopening doesn’t mean distance learning is gone. Cimins said adults at home will still need to help students learn during their at-home days, she said.
“If anything, I feel like this new situation is putting more stress on the distance learning part,” Cimins said, “because the idea of teaching students sitting in front of me as well as keeping kids on Zoom engaged the entire time … I’m not gonna lie, it’s freaking me out.”
Still Cimins is excited and believes having kids in class will be “a great opportunity” to get her kids ready for first grade.
“I really think this is going to be a positive end to our school year,” Cimins said.
Rosi Martinez, Hilltop Drive Elementary
Rosi Martinez, bargaining chair for the teachers union in Chula Vista Elementary School District, said she is pleased that the safety measures the union asked for have been put in place in schools, including personal protective equipment, air purifiers for every classroom, protocols to limit bathroom capacity and student chairs placed six feet apart.
“I’m ecstatic about coming back. I’m completely ready,” Martinez said.
Distance learning has been “extremely difficult” this past year, she said. Her students had trouble getting sufficient internet connectivity, even after the district gave them free WiFi hotspots. Most of her kids did not have an adult at home helping them daily with distance learning.
“Kids were bored,” said Martinez, who teaches third grade. “As much as we tried to make it fun, sitting in front of the screen was very difficult for them.”
In the spring when it was time for parent-teacher conferences, Martinez struggled to tell parents what their children actually learned because she has not been able to see all of their work or to work with them closely.
Out of her 25 students, 20 are coming back to school, Martinez said. Most parents keeping their kids in distance learning said the district’s two-and-a-half-hour, in-person school day doesn’t work for them.
“I know that’s going to be quite a challenge for parents,” Martinez said of the half-day schedule. “But even though it’s a short amount of time, I think it’ll be so much more productive.”
Vista Square Elementary
Vista Square Elementary in Chula Vista has been preparing to reopen for at least the past nine months. There are six-foot distancing markers on the ground, clear dividers set up on student desks, and devices at school entrances that check temperatures and dispense a pump of hand sanitizer.
Out of roughly 600 students, a little more than half are coming back and the rest are staying home, Principal Marissa Allan said.
About a third of the school’s teachers also are staying home. They will only teach students in distance learning, so the in-person teachers can focus only on in-person students.
Many teachers wanted to remain at home, Allan said, but priority was given to medically at-risk teachers and teachers with seniority.
Third-grade teacher Samantha Thompson, who is returning to school, has been vaccinate and feels confident she won’t bring COVID home, she said. But she worries about her students.
“I’m definitely anxious. I’m nervous because you have to look out for the well-being of students,” Thompson said.
But, Thompson said, “We had to rip off the band-aid at some point.”
Julieta Castruita, a fifth-grade teacher, said 10 of her kids are coming back to school while 19 are staying home. Some are staying home because their parents are working and can’t make the mid-day commute to school; others are waiting until kids can get vaccinated.
Nevertheless, she said she is excited to have students back in class after a year of struggling with distance learning.
Online it was hard to give extra help to students who need it, she said, and she wasn’t always sure what students were doing.
“I’m here, I’m ready to teach,” Castruita said. “These kids have to be in the classroom.”