School districts host cohorts of students most vulnerable during the pandemic

It began with special education students and extended onto migrant students, English learners, and foster/homeless students.

The COVID-19 pandemic closed school campuses and forced over 11,000 students in San Benito County out of classrooms and onto online classes. Before being able to reopen, some school districts offered small, on-campus group instruction, referred to as cohorts, to serve the most vulnerable students. 

Christian De Jesus Cardenas, 15, is one of about 70 San Benito High School students that had been attending campus for four hours, four days a week leading up to the school reopening on April 19

“Me han ayudado mucho,” De Jesus Cardenas said. “En lugar de hacerlo en mi casa, como casi no se las cosas entonces me han ayudado mucho aquí.” (They have helped me a lot. Rather than doing it at home since I don’t know the material they have helped me a lot here.)

He said had he been only doing virtual classes, as many students have done since mid-March of 2019, his grades would not be as good as they are now as most of the material is new to him and needs that extra help to understand it.

Christian de Jesus Cardenas. Photo by Noe Magaña.
Christian de Jesus Cardenas. Photo by Noe Magaña.

It was especially beneficial for De Jesus Cardenas to be on campus as this is his first year attending school in the United States. 

San Benito High School Director of Special Education Paulette Cobb said among students that were attending school, the rate of Fs decreased by 11% and 18.6% among students who stopped attending in-person instruction at any point during the pandemic.

With many different groups of students needing extra support, San Benito High School invited special education students first and began on-campus instruction on Sept. 28. 

The district later expanded to include migrant education, English learners and foster/homeless students in hopes of lessening the learning gap during the pandemic. 

“One look at moderate-to-severe special education students’ critical skills, the gap is a lot bigger than general education, English learners and foster wellness,” San Benito High School principal Adrian Ramirez said. “We’re looking at it from a lens of equity. The pandemic exacerbated the gaps for access for all students.”

Cobb said students would come to class and log on to the virtual classrooms the school set up for distance learning where the teacher instructed remotely. However, the students on campus had aids in the classroom who also helped them with their work. 

As time went on, more students started to be on campus, as well as some teachers who volunteered to be in the classroom.

As of February, SBHS had 41 special education students split into seven cohorts on campus. Cobb said over 84 special education students were invited to attend classes on campus. Additionally, the school hosted 32 other students that are English learners, in migrant education and foster/homeless. A total of 81 students were invited in these groups. 

During the same time San Benito High School started hosting cohorts, Anzar High School and North County Joint Unified School District also took the same approach.

“We saw that there was a need to bring students in so that they are engaged because there was some disengagement by some of our students,” Aromas-San Juan Unified School District Superintendent Michele Huntoon said. “And quite frankly some of our students do better at school than they do at home for a myriad of reasons.”

While both San Benito and Anzar started by hosting special education students, North County Joint Unified School District started with a four-hour Saturday school session for any students that needed extra support. North County Joint Unified School District Superintendent Jennifer Bernosky said 67 students showed up for the first session.

An additional Saturday school session was created for migrant education students soon after, in which 40 of 71 students in the program showed up.

A student during Saturday school at Spring Grove. Photo courtesy of Superintendent Jennifer Bernosky.
A student during Saturday school at Spring Grove. Photo courtesy of Superintendent Jennifer Bernosky.

“Any time the kids come to campus you can tell they are excited to be here,” Bernosky said, adding that the district also held other cohorts during the week for English learners and special education. 

 The North County Joint Unified School District reopened on a morning and afternoon instruction model a month after starting Saturday school. Bernosky said the district still offers Saturday school for those that need extra support where about 90 students attend.

Hollister School District (HSD) also offered on-campus cohort instructions in November at Ladd Lane Elementary School. HSD Superintendent Diego Ochoa said 50 students were spread out into four classrooms. However, it only lasted about a month as there was an uptick of positive COVID-19 tests being reported during that time. 

“We decided for safety reasons to go ahead and have our students all return to distance learning and we’ve remained on distance learning until now,” Ochoa said. 

Hollister School District returned to in-person instruction with a hybrid model on April 12. 

If it was up to San Benito High School, Cobb said they would have liked to have all students on campus.

“Most kids would like to be here and we would like to have them here but we can’t,” Cobb said. “We have to follow the guidelines. We have a capacity and we looked at who we could bring back.”


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Noe Magaña

Noe Magaña is a BenitoLink reporter. He also experiments with videography and photography. A San Benito High School alumnus with a bachelor's in journalism from San Jose State and a Liberal Arts Associate's Degree from Gavilan College. Noe also attended San Jose City College and was the managing editor for the City College Times, the school's newspaper. He also was a reporter and later a copy editor for San Jose State's Spartan Daily.