In the wake of months spent teaching remotely and navigating through COVID-19 guidance from the state, schools across Calaveras County have begun reopening their campuses under various models – each one unique in its approach to achieving a safe yet practical learning environment.
“We call our model a hybrid blended system,” Copperopolis Elementary School Principal Josh O’Geen explained during an Oct. 23 tour of the school. The previous Monday, 160 students returned to campus in two cohorts – each receiving three hours of in-person instruction, either in the morning or in the afternoon. Wednesdays are still dedicated to remote learning, with students reporting to school only to pick up a meal or any needed materials.
Sixty students at the school have opted out of in-person instruction and are continuing with a distance learning model through two teachers who volunteered to work from home. In selecting two teachers out of 12 to provide distance learning, O’Geen says the job was first offered to those who prefered to stay home due to compromised immunity.
On campus, students remain in small groups with their classmates and teacher, following color-coded arrows on the ground to limit paths of travel and utilizing “mummy arms” while walking in line to maintain distance between their peers. All students above first grade are required to wear masks, which are provided by the school office if needed.
Classes take “mask breaks” outside on the track where they can walk at a distance, but recess has been eliminated.
O’Geen says that creating a plan for class, bus and meal schedules was difficult but ultimately went “smooth as silk” in its execution. His “all-star” staff was actively involved in the planning process and took two days to participate in a “dress rehearsal” before students arrived.
Fifth grader Kadence Maness says it is “pretty cool” to be back on campus with her friends, besides “the whole mask thing.” The 10-year-old shares a classroom with just six other peers, a set-up which she has enjoyed thus far.
“I think it’s a little better to have a small class because then it’s easier for (my teacher) to call on a kid,” Maness said. “Then my hand won’t fall off waiting for all the other kids in the class.”
Maness said she found distance learning as effective as in-person, but she missed socializing with her friends.
For George Rivera-Bettencourt, another fifth grader in the class, remote learning was “boring," and adapting to the new system on campus has been frustrating.
“I don’t really like the fact that we all have to wear masks and stuff, and we have to be 6-feet apart,” Rivera-Bettencourt said. “Now, we can’t really share anything, and we have to be separate.”
Still, the 11-year-old says he prefers to be on campus, where he can “at least” see his friends.
Second and third-grade teacher Jessica Handgis says she hasn’t had to answer many questions from her students regarding the new rules since their return.
“They seem to have adjusted really well,” Handgis said. “They’ve never questioned me about it. … They all seem to understand that it’s something they have to do.”
Handgis says one of the biggest challenges in adopting a hybrid blended model was creating schedules for each teacher, which required coordinating drop-off times for siblings at Copperopolis Elementary and at Mark Twain Elementary School in Angels Camp, where Mark Twain Union Elementary School District (MTUESD) middle school students from Copperopolis returned to afternoon-only, in-person instruction on Oct. 19.
“I think a lot of the parents and kids wanted to stay with their teachers, regardless of time,” Handgis said. “(The planning) was crazy… but it was one of the most amazing things that I seriously think I have ever witnessed. We really like each other at this school, and we work really well together. And Mr. O’Geen is wonderful because he allows us to really collaborate and share our thoughts and opinions.”
According to Handgis, reuniting with her students has been “100 percent” worth the difficulties of planning schedules and cramming a day’s worth of instruction into three hours of class time.
“Just hearing them laugh, hearing them talk, ask questions. So much stuff that we took for granted,” Handgis said. “They’re so happy to be back here. We’re only here for three hours, and they never want to go.”
In each classroom on the small campus, there are different adaptations to COVID-19-era teaching on display.
Kindergarten teacher Tessa Pyle wears a microphone to instruct students more clearly through her mask as they learn the alphabet. She has also continued using Collaborative Classroom as a visual tool in teaching her students in the classroom – an online program which she began utilizing during distance learning.
“I liked it and carried it on because of the great visuals,” Pyle said.
A few doors down, teacher Anna Davenport teaches another Kindergarten class in an empty classroom, working on an online platform called Seesaw to assign video lessons to 10 students who have continued with distance learning.
“The families watch when it works for them and send recordings of their children completing the lessons,” Davenport said.
In the mornings, Davenport teaches an in-person class, splitting her time between the cyber and the physical worlds, as many teachers now do.
“COVID has been a real pain, but it’s also taught us a lot that’s going to benefit children,” O’Geen said. “The teachers and I have become much more tech-savvy, and the students have, too.”
One advancement that O’Geen believes will outlast the pandemic are the websites created by teachers to provide easy access to lesson plans for students at home.
Fourth-grade teacher Joan Fairman still utilizes the website she and fellow teacher Adrianna Hatfield created on Google Sites during distance learning.
“It was pretty quickly that we got it up and running,” Fairman said. “As you know, teachers spend a lot of time working outside of the classroom.”
Developing the site was a challenge that paid off in convenience, both inside and outside of the classroom.
As new methods of in-person instruction fall into a rhythm resembling normalcy, there are other daily heroes on school campuses that should not go unmentioned.
Lead Custodian Jill Canepa cleans the bathrooms every hour and sanitizes classrooms after every daily transition.
In the cafeteria, MTUESD Food Services Compliance Coordinator Nikki Lusk and Food Service Worker Amy Kilgore arrange 10 meals per week meeting all nutrition guidelines to be distributed and eaten at home by all Copperopolis Elementary students, including those who have chosen to continue with remote learning.
“I think it’s extremely important, especially because a lot of these parents are working and these are things that, you know, are grab-and-go,” Lusk said.
Providing those mandatory meals has been made a bit easier during the pandemic due to the extension of Seamless Summer, a federal summer lunch program for schools that offers free meals to children of all ages.
“It’s been really awesome,” Lusk said.
Currently, only two school campuses in Calaveras County have yet to reopen, as Calaveras High School and Gold Strike Continuation High School have delayed reopening until mid-November due to a staffing shortage caused by controversy among staff over the return.