Kellie Sabaska is a third grade teacher at Cerra Vista Elementary School and parent of a child enrolled in the Hollister School District. An educator for 10 years—eight of those with HSD—she said while she never imagined she’d be teaching her class virtually, she supports the decision to continue with a distance learning model through early next year to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
“With the flu season here, students and staff alike will have a hard time knowing if they are coming down with the flu or COVID, which impacts an entire class,” she said. “That risk is just not worth it. For anyone to catch COVID from school, when it is avoidable by learning virtually, would be unacceptable.”
Sabaska’s oldest, five-year-old Tommy, is in kindergarten at Cerra Vista. “For his first year in school it has been interesting, to say the least,” she said. “For a five-year old he has been forced to become very independent and self-reliant, making sure he gets on his different Google Meets and Footsteps2Brilliance on time.”
Since she is teaching at the same time her son is in class, Sabaska can’t assist much if he has questions or problems. And though she feels sad that her son has to be alone in a room learning all day with no real interaction, “it does not change my mind in thinking we need to open schools. I still believe distant learning is the safest thing for all students, their families, and HSD employees.”
Schools in San Benito County shut down in-person instruction on March 13. In June, HSD presented two plans for reopening: a hybrid model which combined in-person instruction with distance learning and a distance learning-only model. Before the start of the school year in August, the HSD Board of Trustees adopted the distance learning-only model to begin the 2020-21 school year.
On Nov. 27, the Hollister School District sent a survey to parents seeking input on how distance learning has gone for families, as well as their opinions on reopening when the district is able to do so.
Angela Hagins is another HSD teacher who would prefer to continue distance learning over a return to in-person instruction. The current president of the Hollister Elementary School Teachers Association, Hagins spoke to BenitoLink in her role as an instructor at R.O. Hardin.
“I, like many of my colleagues, feel the risk of having to close down a classroom or school would be too great to be worth it,” she said. “Also, the amount of time I would have with my students would be cut in half. Right now, I see them every day for about four hours. In a hybrid model, I would see them two days a week. The other three days, they would be working independently. I would not be comfortable returning to in-person instruction.”
Though she would prefer to continue distance learning, Hagins admits it’s been more work for her as a teacher and said it was “extraordinarily difficult in the beginning.”
“Every piece of curriculum had to be prioritized and reformatted for virtual instruction as we have less time and contact with the students,” she said. “Learning how to figure out what the students know and don’t know has been the slowest to adapt. We have all settled into a groove now. I have almost 100% attendance on a daily basis.”
Still, Hagins said she understands her students miss being in the classroom and concedes that together they’ve felt tired after four hours of screen time. “Zoom fatigue is real!” she said.
“Staying safe is hard, but the alternatives [to distance learning] are harder.”
Hagins’ daughter Mary, 18, graduated from San Benito High School this year. She decided to withdraw from Northern Arizona University until the pandemic is over.
“Her dad and I all agree that these disappointments pale in comparison to the loss we may have experienced had everything stayed open or the stress of the uncertainty of her being in the dorms,” Hagins said.
Though some rural and private schools in the county have opened for in-person instruction, Hollister School District, Aromas-San Juan Unified School District and San Benito High School campuses remain closed to the general student body. SBHS and HSD have some small cohorts of special education students on campus. ASJUSD is conducting a parent survey on a return to some form of in-person instruction, and SBHS is also surveying parents and students about opening in the spring semester.
In Santa Clara County, the Franklin-McKinley School District in San Jose has decided to extend their school closure through June 15, 2021. Mariana Alvarez, a principal in the district and parent to children attending HSD schools, thinks campuses remaining closed is the best option.
Alvarez sent in a written statement to be read during public comment at the Nov. 17 HSD board meeting. Her statement read:
“I am both an educator and a parent. I have served on my own district’s Health, Wellness, and Safety Committee, since June of 2020. I think back to sitting in our early meetings, about what it would look like to bring students back to school and I do not believe it would be safe to do so at this time or in January. I know that Hollister took additional steps to walk campuses, and create individual plans for each school, and that is reassuring. I also know that students and parents are not predictable. As we’ve entered the flu season, compounded with ongoing allergies, it is difficult to delineate symptoms and have clarity on a person’s health. Regardless of what is messaged, students will be sent to school when they are ill. Our county has recently seen the number of cases rise again, and I believe that through holiday gatherings, those numbers will continue to rise.”
Per the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy, schools may not reopen fully for in-person instruction until the county has been in the red tier for two weeks. Schools that already opened when the county was in a less-restrictive tier do not have to close unless there is a 5% infection rate within the school itself.
To continue with distance learning or move to some degree of in-person instruction during the pandemic is a continuing debate. Inequities in public education have been amplified for those who struggle with distance learning, or do not have adequate devices with internet access, or do not have a stable home environment that supports distance learning.
As a consequence, some parents are clamoring for schools to open up. Ashley Neuman created a private Facebook group entitled “Hollister parents for change” and has circulated a petition for HSD to return to in-person instruction that has garnered 204 signatures as of Dec. 4.
The HSD Board of Trustees is expected to discuss possible reopening plans at its special meeting on Dec. 8. The public is encouraged to participate by phone—(831) 630-6320 to enter the public comment queue—or email sent no later than 5 p.m. on the meeting date to [email protected].
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