It may be April, but today felt like the first day of school in many ways at local high schools, complete with freshmen trying to find their way around campus and teachers helping kids get acclimated to being back in the classroom.
The Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District is resuming in-person lessons this week for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered campuses last March.
“My brain keeps feeling like it’s the first day of school, like we’re back in August,” Los Altos High teacher Susana Herrera said. “There’s just those first-day-of-school jitters.”
As she prepared to start in-person classes, Herrera reminded herself that even though it was her first time meeting students face to face, she already knows them from months of online classes.
Roughly half of MVLA students have opted to return this week, with the rest continuing to learn remotely. Teachers are instructing both groups simultaneously, structuring lessons for both those at home and at their classroom desks.
Los Altos High junior Reece Enthoven decided to take part in the reopening because he was bored in his online classes and had trouble focusing. Enthoven biked to campus today and said he was excited to be back.
“It’s so great,” he said. “(With) online school, it’s just so much harder to engage, so I feel like I’ll be able to pay attention much more easily.”
As kids arrived, Los Altos High teachers and staff assembled at the school’s entrances to cheer them on, wearing school colors and holding signs reading, “Welcome Back!” “We Missed You” and “Have a great first day.”
During this first week, students are on campus for four half-days, but full days of in-person lessons will begin next week. Wednesdays will remain a remote learning day. In these initial few days, administrators said teachers are focusing on helping students get acclimated and transition into a new model of learning.
Rather than jumping straight back into academic content, Associate Superintendent Teri Faught said teachers are trying to “create a little space for students to readjust, feel comfortable with their classmates that are sitting around them and build community.”
Even with teachers and students back on campus, the pandemic is still changing things. It’s a more “controlled setting” than a typical year, Los Altos High Principal Wynne Satterwhite said. Student desks are spaced at least 3 feet apart, masks are required and there are reduced capacity limits in gathering places like the library. Some classes, such as instrumental music, are now being held outdoors.
“We want to keep kids safe,” Satterwhite said. “Our No. 1 priority is that our students and our staff are safe – and that we don’t get closed down.”
Health officials have the power to shut down school campuses if there are sufficiently large COVID-19 outbreaks.
Pandemic precautions mean certain activities, like hands-on science labs, aren’t possible. Having students clustered around tables, sharing supplies with one another, isn’t an option, science and engineering teacher Stephen Hine said. Hands-on labs also pose an equity issue, he added, because students who chose to stay at home need to have equal access to the curriculum. Instead, teachers are using online lab simulations.
Teachers also are adapting their techniques to be able to simultaneously teach their in-person and remote students. Some will keep teaching over Zoom from their desk, Faught said, while others have setups that may allow for more movement. Their methods are likely to change over time, as they become more comfortable, she added.
Because Hine teaches from four different classrooms and therefore doesn’t have a consistent setup, he’s chosen to remain at the front of the room, teaching over Zoom. The in-person students will use their laptops and headphones to participate.
Hine has been on campus since February, because he was among the teachers who volunteered to supervise groups of students who came back last month to do their online coursework from the classroom. He also has led cohorts of robotics students.
Even though being back on campus was an adjustment at first, Hine said he quickly “saw how lovely the kids were: They were listening to the mask requirements, they weren’t doing anything bad (and) they loved seeing each other.”