Kindergarteners are set to return to Gault Elementary on Monday to begin their hybrid in-person and remote learning, followed by older students the next week. They’ll be met by excited teachers, and a number of new protocols.
Lines of blue dolphins cover the grounds of Gault Elementary, each stenciled exactly six feet apart.
“This is our mascot,” said Gault Principal Amariah Hernandez. “And you’ll see it all over our campus, we’ve got lots of them.”
The dolphins — and the tape markers on tables, the six-foot wide hula hoops, the new TV screens in classrooms, and, of course, the spaced-out desks — are among the school’s many preparations for a moment that is quickly approaching: Its youngest students are returning Monday amid a wave of elementary school reopenings under a hybrid in-person and a remote model.
Gault Elementary, in Seabright, has more than 300 students in transitional kindergarten through fifth grade. Most are returning to school for the first time in a year starting on March 15 for kindergarteners across Santa Cruz City Schools District, then March 22 for grades 1-5. With the county back in the red tier as of Wednesday, the district’s middle and high school students are on track to follow on April 5.
Families that opt to continue with fully remote learning are free to do so. Districtwide, about 7% of families are refraining from returning to classrooms, according to a statistic shared by district spokesperson Samuel Rolens. At Gault, the number opting to stay fully remote is even lower, about 4%, according to Hernandez.
Hernandez, whose fifth-grade twins attend Gault, had to make the same choice.
“I have to think long and hard,” she said. “And probably, if I didn’t have all the internal details, I would have more questions. But my own kids are coming back to hybrid, so I feel that confident in our protocols and procedures.”
‘This year, sharing is not caring’
Sitting at her desk in her empty classroom between remote lessons, first grade teacher Lacie Wall said she is eager to welcome back her students after a year of remote learning.
“There’s a lot of stuff that’s hard and tricky, but we’re here for the kids,” Wall said. “And I think that once they’re here, it’s going to be such a joy.”
Each class will be split up into two groups, a hybrid model alternating between in-person and remote learning — “Roomers and Zoomers,” as Hernandez calls them.
One group will be “Roomers” on Mondays and Tuesdays, the second group will get their in-person opportunity on Thursdays and Fridays. Both groups will learn remotely Wednesdays.
When students are dropped off at school each morning before their 9 a.m. class, they’ll line up with their parents on the socially distanced dolphins painted outside each of several different gates. “We’re staggering not our start time, but our entrance points,” Hernandez said.
Kids will undergo a temperature check and answer several health questions before walking onto campus. Once inside they’ll be greeted by teachers and staff and escorted to their rooms.
Inside the classrooms, remaining desks are spaced out widely with their corners marked with tape. TVs are mounted on the wall to allow the “roomers” to see the “Zoomers.”
Masks stay on at all times, except for meals and brief breaks in designated areas.
Lunch time will be staggered by grade level, with the outdoor lunch tables sanitized between use by each class. Students can bring meals from home or have a paper bagged lunch brought to them at their table, where seating will be assigned to allow contact tracing should a case be confirmed.
Each class has their own set of balls to play with at break time, designated by a color. And each student will have a bin of their own supplies. “This year, caring is not sharing,” Hernandez joked.
Then it’s back to class until an early afternoon pickup time, with kindergarteners out at 12:30 p.m. and older grades at 1:45 p.m. or 2 p.m.
Cohorts give hope for safety
Dozens of high-need students have been learning in-person at Gault since October, part of the small cohorts that now number nearly 1,000 students districtwide. Across the school district a single case of on-campus transmission has been confirmed to date, bolstering confidence in the safety protocols.
Several small cohorts were learning contentedly at Gault on a recent day, their desks spaced out outside, large orange buckets next to them filled with school supplies and blankets for warmth (the small groups’ protocols are somewhat different than those set for next week).
If any COVID-19 case is confirmed in a class, the class would go fully remote for two weeks per state guidelines. A wider outbreak would force the entire school to temporarily return to remote.
Monday’s return is set to come almost a year to the day since the pandemic prompted Santa Cruz County schools to close on March 16, 2020.
It’s a milestone that Hernandez is eager to reach. “So much has happened,” Hernandez said. “I just really want to welcome these kids back to school.”
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