SB County’s Educators are United
When Gwyn Lurie approached me to write an occasional series on education, I jumped at the chance. It combines two things I love: thinking about education and working with Gwyn (she served on the Montecito Union School [MUS] Board during my first two years and made me think almost as much as she made me laugh). I never would have suspected that my first piece would be on how the county’s schools are working to teach kids through distance learning, just as the many parents reading this never suspected that they would have to balance work and their kids’ education while sheltering at home. But here we are!
Facing the dual disasters of the Thomas Fire and the 1/9 debris flow required this community to use skills we never knew we had. To be clear, these were tragedies and I wouldn’t wish them on any community, but I also believe that those of us who came together during that disaster are somewhat more resilient and able to face this very different threat of COVID-19 more effectively.
During those disasters, I learned how important it was to clearly communicate when disaster strikes. Lately, I have been sharing four words with my work colleagues, parents, and students. Gratitude. I am overwhelmed at how flexible, giving, and resilient our teachers, staff members, parents, and students have been. Essential. We have to be clear-eyed as a society right now and stick to the essentials. As educators, we are balancing the health and safety of our society with the need to educate kids (both are essential). Values. Though we are living through unprecedented times, our values remain constant. Opportunity. Don’t get me wrong, COVID-19 is truly horrible: people are sick and dying, families are separated, businesses are struggling. That said, we also have an opportunity as educators to show our students how much we love them, to do our part to protect the health of the community, and to learn new technologies and pedagogies to help our students learn despite the challenges.
Every educator in the county likely remembers where they were when they got the word that schools would be closing. County Superintendent Dr. Susan Salcido convened a phone call (this was a week before the ubiquity of Zoom came about) with all the superintendents as well as representatives from charter schools and private schools. Susan said it best: “Not one of us ever wants to close school. We know what it means to close school for students and for a community. We all leaned in and did what was needed for the safety of all.”
We haven’t stopped leaning in. Susan has continued to convene educators across the county in Zoom meetings to discuss food distribution, digital instruction, and more. According to Susan, “Coming together across the county was the only way to go about it. That is who we are as a county.” You may not know that this is not true of every county. Even though county superintendents are not “the boss” of the school districts (locally elected school board members fill that role) in my experience there are many who try to be. Not Susan. Unfailingly generous with her time, Susan believes in shared leadership and bringing everyone together, and that’s certainly what she is doing right now.
In fact, all SB County educators seem to be coming together to solve problems. The first problem that needed to be solved was how to feed our students. It may surprise you that (according to a recent study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) 10% of people in Santa Barbara are food insecure. Here in South County, Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD) opened many sites for food distribution, and even allowed students from MUS that received free and reduced price lunches to participate (yes, MUS has students who are food insecure!). SBUSD Superintendent Cary Matsuoka reminded me that, “Many families depend on [SBUSD] for breakfast, lunch, and dinner even in normal circumstances.” Goleta Union School District (GUSD) Superintendent Donna Lewis stated that these meals are “vital to the health and well-being of our students” and reports that GUSD served 7,000 lunches during their six-day spring break alone (she recommends the delicious lasagna, by the way).
Teaching from a Distance
SB educators helped to get the kids fed, but then we needed to figure out how to actually teach these kids from distance! Collaboration was once again key, and in this county, we all believe in sharing our best ideas and collaborating to support all of the county’s children. Across the county, packets were created, tech devices were distributed, hot spots were procured, and everywhere you looked there seemed to be a Zoom meeting or lesson starting. Like many of you, our teachers woke up one morning and had to figure out how to do their jobs while most of them were away from their workplaces, while their students were in their own homes, and (often) while taking care of their own families!
“I saw my teacher today!” exclaimed one child who was picking up a technology device from Dr. Anne Hubbard of Hope Elementary School District who personally passed out tech devices to her students from the district office. When her teachers began using Zoom for lessons, Anne was surprised at how impactful it was just for the students to see their teacher’s face. MUS is conducting Zoom lessons as well, and it has been remarkable to me how engaged students have been in these digital lessons, and how happy it made them to see their friends and their teacher. For teachers, mastering this new pedagogy has not been easy, but, in Anne’s words, everyone “rolled up [their] sleeves and dove in.”
I’ll be the first one to tell you, it isn’t perfect. In my opinion, distance learning cannot fully replicate the value of that personal interaction between student and teacher. This is especially true with the youngest students in the county. Can you imagine creating a distance learning lesson for a five-year-old? Let me tell you, it’s tough! That said, our students are worth it. Our teachers’ skills in this new methodology grows by the day and, for the most part, parents have been very supportive. Cary Matsuoka at SBUSD said the feedback “has been really positive, especially the master schedule for the secondary schools.” He noted how important the structure has been for families.
Social and Emotional Support
Alright, we fed the students, we taught them… the job is done now, right? Wrong. School is so much more. Dr. Anne Hubbard reminded me that in this “unprecedented time,” we need to take care of children socially and emotionally as well, especially as many are “picking up on their parents’ anxiety.” To that point, educators across the county are providing social and emotional supports. I conducted grade level social gatherings during spring break, and teachers and parents alike have hosted digital class parties. Last Friday we held our traditional “Friday Flag” on Zoom. Though social distancing keeps us apart, we are still united by singing our school son, and we all teared up at Kenny Loggins’ seemingly prescient lyrics: “I believe in miracles, you can see one here because we’re all standing together!”
Dr. Amy Alzina at Cold Spring School District told me, “Children need to connect. Parents need to connect. We must build into our schedules opportunities for kids to see each other so they know they are not alone.” She told me about how her 4th grade teacher held a digital “Pajama Day” and the giggles she heard of the children in their PJs watching their teacher wearing his bathrobe while reading them a story (through Zoom).
And we’re still not done. What about students with special needs? We need to take extra care with them. Goleta Union School District Speech and Language Pathologist Rebecca Ito sent tools and tips to parents, but is also conducting one-on-one sessions with students through phone call and through Zoom. She is doing this while taking care of her own two school-aged children. She is successful in this, because of a, “strong partnership with my husband and strong relationship with my schools.” She reminded me to “cherish the hidden opportunities,” and to remember to run, play, and really connect with my own children while sheltering at home.
And there we are, back at that word again: opportunity. One of the most important things we try to teach students these days is the importance of being flexible, resilient, adaptable thinkers so they can cope with ever-changing circumstances. There may never be a more a better project-based learning lab than this one, and students, teachers, and parents all have the opportunity to deepen their grit and hone their creative problem-solving skills. Educators across SB county are also working to take this opportunity to show our students how much we care about their learning and the health of the community. To every educator in the county, and to all those parents out there that are our “teaching partners,” I am grateful to all you are doing. We truly are all in this together, so in this first article in this occasional series: we all made the Honor Roll!