Education / Schools

Schools keep rolling with the COVID punches

San Benito County educators discuss how the pandemic has changed operations over the last two years.

It’s been two years since educators across the nation were forced to reinvent teaching because of COVID-19 and adapt to distance learning. Now students are back on campus and on March 12 the California Department of Public Health lifted the universal masking requirement for K-12 and childcare settings.

Though the absence of mandates has been well received by most educators and families, COVID-19 has left many impacts on public and private education. From distance learning to hybrid learning, and from regulated in-person instruction to original in-person instruction, educators have seen a variety of challenges—and benefits—along the way. 

Though all schools had restrictions, private schools adapted faster because of their smaller class sizes, greater access to technology and early waivers granted by the state to continue in-person instruction. 

Like all schools in the county, Sacred Heart Parish School had to abruptly shift to distance learning. Though Principal Rachel McKenna said the school had enough technology for each student, she admitted that it’s been a challenge “to pivot and adapt in a quick time frame” over the last two years.

“The pandemic brought us to a place of great grief,” McKenna said. “Sacred Heart responded together as a school family through our faith and, in my opinion, we came through stronger.” 

Sacred Heart’s waiver for in-person instruction was approved by the state in fall 2020, allowing students to have space, resources and smaller class sizes, she said.

“Our parents believe in the value of an in-person and safe education,” she said, noting that enrollment has grown since 2020 and is now at 216 students. “During the 2020-21 school year, Sacred Heart’s flexibility provided both in-person and remote instruction for all students to stay on track, which mitigated gaps in student learning.” 

Sacred Heart adopted a new English language curriculum this school year as a part of its strategic plan to advance student learning, McKenna said. The school also received funds from the Emergency Assistance for Non-Public Schools program to purchase small-group and differentiated learning educational programs. STAR Renaissance testing has monitored student progress throughout the year, and scores in both math and English language arts have shown high growth and achievement, she said.

Hollister’s Seventh Day Adventist Christian School (SDA) was affected by the pandemic just like others in the county, and “basically finished out the 2019-20 school year online,” said Principal Chester Sears. “But we were able to have our graduation in person. The county let us do that with some exceptions to the rules. The students actually got to be there in person and wear their caps and gowns.”

With a population of only 28 students in grades K-8, SDA had two separate cohorts once returning to in-person learning. 

“We actually kept the two rooms separate,” he said. “We had different lunch times and we had different recess times. We had Zoom options because we just weren’t sure how things were going to go. They were more happy just to get together, and be together as kids. I mean students, you know, kids need kids, right?”

In-person learning at Seventh Day Adventist School during California's mask mandate. Photo from SDA School website.
In-person learning at Seventh Day Adventist School during California’s mask mandate. Photo from SDA School website.

As far as academic progress, Sears said the students who normally struggled in class were the same who struggled online. He did point out, however, that one student’s test numbers went up. 

“She discovered reading since she was stuck at home, and her reading went through the roof,” he said. 

SDA uses Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) testing to track students’ academic development.

“We test three times a year; fall, winter, spring,” he said. “MAP testing has it set after a set number of weeks of instruction, it’s not just whenever we want. And so you can see where they’ve come from over time.”

When R.O. Hardin Elementary School, which currently serves 438 students, began distance learning, Principal Lilia Espinoza said students were suddenly forced to learn how to use technology—a skill many had not yet learned. Parents, too, needed to learn how to use educational platforms such as Google Classroom. 

“This was a big challenge,” Espinoza said. Unfortunately, our access to students was limited. We serve a population of students whose families trust and rely on our staff, wholeheartedly. We also have many students with language needs, so it was difficult to access lessons without the realia, facial expressions, social cues and proximity that is lent to students in an in-person lesson.”

Espinoza said that prior to the pandemic, R. O. Hardin had begun a new intervention program. The school’s team of intervention specialists was fortunate to be able to restructure lessons for online learning. She and her assistant principal, Gabriela Vallejo, also took intervention groups during distance learning and met with them daily for an hour. 

“It was our best hour! In the chaos of distance learning, we still saw growth,” Espinoza said.

Once R.O. Hardin returned to in-person learning in 2021, Espinoza said the school continued its intervention plan for students who needed it. Student progress is monitored, and every K-3 student receives intense reading instruction at their particular level.

“Our staff has learned a ton of technology strategies that engage students in learning,” she said. “They have caught a glimpse of our students’ home life. They have connected with families and learned new ways to communicate.”

Espinoza said that though attendance dropped dramatically because of “exposures, positive test results, quarantining classes” she has also seen positive outcomes. She said she considers this year as the school’s “baseline” year. 

“I will be patient and wait for the greater strides as we see our kindergarten students move forward through the grades and exceed our goals we have set for them,” she said.  

Though masks are no longer required, students and staff continue to have mixed feelings about them.

Seventh Day Adventist School students during California’s mask mandate. Photo from SDA School website.

“Students and most adults continue to wear them,” Espinoza said. “There are a few that hang them under the chin, but that’s where they’ve been all year! We just don’t have to remind them anymore that they have to pull it up over their nose.”

SDA’s Sears said some of his students are more than ready to remove their masks.

Some of them asked me, ‘Can we have a fire and burn these?’” 

The answer, he told them, would need to come from their parents. 


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Jenny Mendolla Arbizu

Jenny is a Hollister native who resides in her hometown with her husband and son. She is a graduate of San Benito High School, and received her BA in Literature from UC Santa Cruz and MA in Education from San Jose State University. Jenny is a former elementary school teacher and has written for the Hollister Freelance, San Benito and South Valley magazines. She enjoys bringing informative and educational news to San Benito County, as well as spotlighting local community members and businesses. On any given day, she can be found performing with SBSC, singing with the Hollister VFW, or working out at Cold Storage CrossFit.