Education / Schools

San Benito High School prepares for possible reopening in January

Superintendent Tennenbaum, Principal Ramirez and other staff explain how returning to in-person instruction would work.

San Benito High School could reopen as early as Jan. 11, if San Benito County is able to remain in the red tier of the state Blueprint for a Safer Economy through December. The school is currently gathering input from families on a return to in-person instruction through an online survey.

At a Nov. 10 meeting, Superintendent Shawn Tennenbaum told the Board of Trustees he was pleased with the way the school community responded to the challenges it’s faced over the course of the pandemic. He and several staff members presented plans for how the school would be reopened. 

“We’re looking at not only our students, but our staff members,” he said. “There’s been an uptick in positive cases around the country and, in particular, in California. We are seeing those positivity cases rising. We’re still in the red tier, based on the information we’ve received.”

As of Nov. 12, 1,563 people in San Benito County have tested positive for COVID-19 since February, 73 are active patients, 1,475 have recovered and 15 have died. The county’s current positivity rate is 3.1%.

In a scenario where SBHS opens for in-person instruction in January, staff and students will be required to wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks. PPE is now included in the school’s dress code policy, and if a student does not want to wear a face mask, they will be offered alternative education with a remote-learning schedule. The school will require a doctor’s note for anyone who cannot wear a mask for physical or medical reasons.

“As we return to a hybrid schedule, our students will be actively screened,” said Assistant Principal Laurie Chavez. “We’re going to put out some family education videos for our parents to pre-screen students at home. We’re making sure our parents are aware of what they should do before they send their students to school.”

Chavez said there will be new instructional signs and protocols throughout the campus that will have to be communicated to staff, teachers, students and the community. The campus will also be divided into seven parts, which will have separate entrances for active screening. Once at school, any student with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or other symptoms of COVID-19 will be taken to a monitoring area established in the locker room to wait for a ride home.

Paulette Cobb, director of special education, explained that feedback the school received from its students indicates they do better when seen in-person, particularly in improved attendance.

“We’ve really seen our teams pull together,” Cobb said. “Our classified employees and safety team have worked together to make sure our kids are safe and productive each day. We’ve had a great opportunity to practice for the larger groups of students that we intend to return to our campus.”

Principal Adrian Ramirez spoke of lessons learned from having small cohorts on campus.

“It’s been an advantage to have students on campus because we’ve been able to see, on a small-scale, things we may not have expected in terms of logistics of having students on campus,” he said. “We realized that organizing even small cohorts is a complex process; there’s a lot of moving parts in terms of active screening and following all the protocols.”

Ramirez told BenitoLink that the majority of the on-campus critical support cohorts are targeted for special education students. 

“We currently have four cohorts within our special education department, anywhere from moderate to severe,” he said. “We’re also in the planning stages of bringing on our STEPS [Specialized Therapeutic Educational Programs and Supports] program, so the majority of our cohorts are within our special education program.” 

Ramirez said students need prompts in order to assure they follow safety guidelines, and that it takes a consistent effort from every adult to remind students to keep their face coverings on, maintain physical distancing, and to enter the campus only at designated locations.

“That’s a challenge for any school, but that’s just something we have to continue as routine,” he said. “As we bring in a new cohort there are details we have to stay on top of. Right now, as we’re in a small cohort on campus we have to pay close attention to ensure we don’t have one student co-mingling in two cohorts, such as a student in a small cohort on campus for academic support, but also participating in an athletic conditioning cohort. Per our current guidelines, we’re aren’t able to allow that.”

Those same guidelines apply to staff, with an example being that a sports coach cannot be assigned to a small academic cohort.

Personnel challenges extend to how San Benito High School will accommodate students who require a bus to travel to and from campus. Normally, a school bus can transport up to 50 students, but this will be reduced to 28 students, according to Kristy Bettencourt, maintenance operations and transportation manager.

“We’re going to have to be creative when we’re routing our students,” she said. “We’re going to have to use a zig-zag diagram and practice siblings sitting next to each other. It’s going to affect home-to-school, as well as athletics, so transportation will be really challenging.”

There’s also the challenge of disinfecting the campus itself. Abraham Rivera, custodial supervisor, said it will take an average of two-and-a-half to three hours to clean between cohorts in a class. If a custodian is absent, grounds personnel will assist.  

Tennenbaum said the next step will be to continue monitoring the county’s positivity rate and tier.

“It’s now red, and if the board were to take action in December it would allow us to move forward,” he said, “but if we backslide into the purple tier, we will bring that information back to the board on December 15.”


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John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]