Lookout education event Zoom
(Brook Knoll kindergarten teacher Krista Patterson walks her students out to their waiting families after their first day back in classrooms in Scotts Valley earlier this month.

What we learned about classroom reopenings from top Santa Cruz County education officials

The pandemic has created a lot of homework for educators — and that’s not going to end anytime soon.

That’s an overarching takeaway from a Lookout conversation Tuesday night with two top Santa Cruz County Office of Education officials: Superintendent Faris Sabbah and Director of Student Safety Jennifer Buesing.

“Whether it’s summer school, whether it’s after school programs, different ways to help students get reconnected with school in person, get back on track with their academics and also supply as much support as possible to help them through any of the mental health challenges that they’ve experienced,” the homework list is long, Sabbah told Lookout Education Correspondent Nick Ibarra, who hosted the virtual event. “We also have to be very careful and be very thoughtful … we can’t relax when it comes to safety and health. And so we have to continue to adhere to the guidance when it comes to keeping our face coverings on and, and making sure we’re continuing to distance even when we’ve been vaccinated.”

As Santa Cruz County inches out of the pandemic, Lookout is chronicling the changes in our lives and the accomplishments of everyday people. “People in the Pandemic” is one of eight Lookout initiatives documenting all aspects of life amid COVID. For more, go to our COVID 2021 section, and sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter here.

The wide-ranging conversation touched on those and other subjects Lookout will explore in the coming weeks. Here are some highlights — edited for clarity — as students, parents and teachers continue to navigate the process of returning to in-person learning.

On the divergent timelines for districts to return in person. (Scotts Valley schools, for example, have every grade level back in classrooms part-time, while Pajaro Valley Unified schools haven’t returned the majority of students to classrooms.)

Sabbah: The uniquenesses of each our school districts has created a variety of different dates for reopening and also different approaches. … I’ll give you an example in one of our school districts. The majority of their classrooms are two-person desks, which would make it impossible for students to be a three-foot distance. And so that would require them to change out all of their furniture, to be able to create individualized desks, and so I think that the school districts are looking at this very carefully. We’ve also heard from a lot of parents who have told us they’re very concerned [about the virus]. And so I think it’s not quite as simple as thinking that we’re simply going to move forward and just open up all our schools.

We have heard from from Santa Cruz city schools and some other school districts that are looking to move forward with with five days a week, at four hours [a day] or more, for all students. And I think that that is something that we’re going to continue to support them with. But I think that there’s going to continue to be inconsistencies.

On the role teachers’ and school support-staff unions play in reopening

Sabbah: All of these components that we’re talking about impact the conditions of work, and anything that can impact the conditions of work is negotiable. … I think that overall, the working relationship has been outstanding: Our teachers and our classified staff have done an outstanding job … from our bus drivers to our food service workers or instructional aides, and of course our teachers who’ve been working extremely hard with our students. But that process in moving forward with the implementation of in person services is a negotiated item.

On high school graduations this year

Sabbah: There’s new graduation guidance that will allow us to have outdoor events that we will have in be able to do in person events, and they will be in a limited capacity in terms of seating capacity. … We’re hoping we’ll move into the [less-restrictive] yellow tier, and the more we continue to progress with those metrics, the more, the more likely we’d be able to have kind of larger numbers of people. Of course … a lot of rules to come into this, but we’re very excited because for a lot of our students having a drive-thru graduation or a single-person graduation or virtual graduation just wasn’t the same.

On student education gaps and mental health

Sabbah: The schools are getting additional funding from both the state and federal government. The this is to help for students who have experienced learning loss, and many students have. ... Also, students have experienced a lot of mental health issues and the funding can be used at support students for therapeutic services.

Buesing: We have a lot of concerns about what we see about the mental signs of stress and the physical signs of stress. We have reports of depression. ... We’ve been training our teachers on what to look out for, such as not showing up, reduced engagement, students not being interested in what they once were talking about. ... Students, just like adults, have gone through so much during this pandemic, and all of those mental and physical signs of stress we will see in our children. And so the most important thing for students coming back, of course, is the academic piece [along with] the social and emotional piece, and schools feel strongly that that’s what we are here for. We all can have a therapeutic encounter with our students, and that’s what our students need. We’ve done a lot of training for school staff reminding, not only what to look for but what connections what resources in the community, we can continue to connect them to in terms of their clothing needs mental and physical health needs. Nutrition housing, there’s so much during this global pandemic that has affected all of our all of our families.

Lookout announces another free virtual event, in partnership with the Santa Cruz County Business Council and Kaiser...

On what will happen if a student tests positive for COVID-19 (which hasn’t happened so far since classroom reopenings began in earnest)

Buesing: We will of course be really cautious and incredibly safe, but [the] public health [department] in collaboration with our schools will not be quick to close a school again. One case in the classroom would probably look like closing that classroom and going back to distance learning. If there were multiple cases in multiple classrooms, it could close a school, but that would have a lot of collaboration and communication with public health. We would not be quick to close a school and I do not anticipate that to happen for the rest of the school year.”

On the continuation of distance learning, along with in-person instruction, next school year

Sabbah: One of the challenges for the schools right now is the, that the more choices that we offer the more challenging it is. It’s the same way as when you build a schedule for a school — the choices you make create variability, and the variability makes it more and more difficult. Right now, I think we’re committed as a county office of education to continue to offer solutions for families if they are interested in continuing with distance learning next year, and I think that that’s something that we’ll be working on … because we do anticipate that that’s a possibility and also some students were very successful in distance learning and may or may prefer it as an option. I think that one of the long-term impacts of this pandemic from a, from a kind of learning and teaching and learning point of view is that flexibility with incorporating more asynchronous learning or distance learning or online learning, as part of the learning experience.”

Watch previous Lookout virtual events here: