Students in the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District went back to school Monday, but the campuses looked like modern-day ghost towns as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced public education into a virtual format.
“This is the first day of school and there are no students,” said Santa Maria High School Principal Steve Campbell, standing in a deserted walkway Monday morning.
Later, spreading his arms to indicate the empty spaces between buildings, he added, “Normally the bell would ring and 3,000 students would pour out here.”
A few students and parents did show up at the main office, but most of them were at home, communicating with their teachers through such platforms as Zoom and getting their assignments through the Canvas Learning Management System.
Campbell said the start of the 2020-21 school year is considerably different from the end of the 2019-20 school year, when COVID-19 caught everyone unprepared for the sudden, radical changes it brought about.
“In the spring, it was an emergency response,” he said. “Certainly having a few months to prepare helped.”
While classes are starting in a fully virtual format this year, the district has instituted a system that stresses accountability.
Campbell noted that after schools were physically closed March 13, students were required to attend virtual classes, although verifying attendance wasn’t easy.
But they were also guaranteed their grades would be no lower than they were on that date, which didn’t give them a lot of incentive to attend.
This year, however, attendance is not only mandatory but also verifiable, classes are running on a strict bell schedule just as they would under normal circumstances and grading has returned to the prepandemic system.
“We’ve completely reinvented ourselves in the last five months,” Campbell said. “Everything that used to run on autopilot now we have to think about. ‘How are we going to do this?’ … We’ve taken the institution of public education and turned it upside down.”
Although attendance figures hadn’t been compiled Monday, Campbell said the numbers were promising.
“Normally, we just need to get the students on campus, get them into the classroom and the teacher takes it from there,” Campbell said. “Now, we have to get them to pick up their tablet, log into their tablet, log into Canvas and meet their teachers.
“The students we haven’t heard from, we’re going to go out this afternoon and actually knock on their doors and ask, ‘What do you need? How can we help?’” he said. “I just don’t want COVID to make a barrier that will hurt our students.”
Almost all teachers were on district campuses Monday, with a few working from home because of child care issues or because they are caring for someone else, Campbell said.
Santa Maria High School world history and U.S. government teacher Caren Russom was in her classroom taking roll for her fourth-period class using Zoom. Attendance was high, with 31 of 35 students logged in.
“I’m surprised attendance is very good today,” she said, after sharing her screen and using the same screen students saw to explain that on Mondays they will have a quiz and an introduction to the topic of the next day’s class, when they will receive three more assignments for the week.
Because of her familiarity with Canvas, Russom is also the lead tech hotline person who can help students with their problems getting connected.
While she had 50 students seeking help Monday, she said she isn’t really concerned about their ability to use Canvas and Zoom.
“They have new procedures to get used to, but they found my Canvas page and got to me through Zoom,” Russom said. “These kids are digital natives, so they’re going to figure it out.
“The thing I’m most concerned about is student engagement,” she explained. “But I have a plan. … The real test will be tomorrow. What can we get through in 80 minutes?”
Russom adopted Canvas, which is used by Hancock and Cuesta community colleges as well as the UC and CSU systems, more than two years ago, but only about 30% of the district’s teachers were using it by the time the pandemic hit.
“This [pandemic] is forcing everyone to switch over to a digital platform, which I think is good for education,” Russom said.
Campbell feels much the same way.
“Our teachers have done a tremendous amount of professional development,” he said. “I think we have a stronger arsenal of tools than before this [pandemic] hit. … This will be a better school [after the pandemic] than it was before.”