One Year & 23 Days Later, Campus is Reopening for In-Person Learning

Isabel S. Wedll, Co-Editor In Chief

Lila Cohen, Co-Web Editor

19th March, 2021

A stairway at Arcata High School that was once known for being packed with students, now how signs to remind to students to “please maintain distance”. (Photo Credit: Isabel S. Wedll)

On Tuesday, March 9, the Northern Humboldt Union High School District Board approved the plan and date (April 5) for the return of in-person learning. This specific board meeting, held over Zoom, was attended by a variety of people within the district. 

For many, this was their first time attending a board meeting, which can make it confusing to comprehend what is going on. Many first-timers wonder who is the board and what do they do? Well, the board is composed of five members; they are President Theresa Grosjean, Trustee Dana Silvernale, Trustee Brian Lovell, Trustee Aristea Saulsbury, and Trustee Cedric Aaron Jr. Each member of the board is elected into office by the residents of the school district. Their job as a collective is to serve the community by making decisions on behalf of the community following their vision, mission, and goals, which can be found on the district website. 

The board met with an agenda of important topics; the main one being the plan and date for all high schools in the district reopening for in-person learning. 

Superintendent Roger Macdonald displayed the framework for the hybrid face-to-face model, specifically made for students who would like to return. He began by showing the data of a survey taken in February. There were 918 responses all from Arcata High, McKinleyville High, Six Rivers Charter High, Mad River High, and Pacific Coast High. The options people could choose were returning to on-campus learning, distance learning, or continuing with the limited small pod program on campus. Macdonald emphasized that the majority of respondents were in favor of returning to in-person learning, then he proceeded to explain the plan. 

“I would recommend that we approve this plan, but I also recommend that we recognize that things can change,” Macdonald said. 

According to the plan presented by Mcdonald, AHS will be offering a Face-to-Face Hybrid (F2F). The curriculum plan is set to start April 5, the Monday after spring break. To reduce risk, the administration is trying to limit the number of students on campus by splitting the school into two groups so they will alternate weeks of Face-to-Face and Distance Learning. This implements the idea of Stable groups, which is where a predetermined number of students will share the same teachers and classrooms and essentially be in a pod that could be as many as 300 students each. 

Macdonald explained that he feels secure in the precautions taken on campus because, “In addition to the air filtration systems, we will be using masking on campus, combined with physical distancing and handwashing (foaming in and out of classes),” he described. In the proposed reopening plan, there will also be a health kiosk at the front of the school to check students’ masks and health before entering campus. Other options for learning curriculums such as Distance Learning (DL) and Independent Study (IS) will still be offered through the end of the semester. The only change to the DL model is that there will be a reduction of 10 minutes for each class period to match the F2F hybrid schedule that ends at 1 p.m. For all students, no matter the curriculum, Wednesdays will remain a distance learning day.

After Macdonald’s presentation on the new schedule, members of the board were allowed to ask questions about the plan and factors surrounding it. Trustee Cedric Aaron Jr. shifted the conversation by focusing on students’ mental health affected by the pandemic and distance learning. He asked how mental health services are going to be provided during in-person learning for those who need it. 

“For those students, I don’t feel like instantly school reopening is going to improve their mental health. It’s not gonna be like gone,” Aaron Jr. stated. Macdonald proceeded to explain that the student services team is developing a plan in the coming weeks for what would be the best format to support students’ mental health. 

Then Trustee Dana Silvernale and Trustee Aristea Saulsbury asked a few more questions about how the plan will work. Saulsbury focused on how the plan is similar to others used in the area. Macdonald explained that the model is very common for how schools are returning to on-campus learning. 

“Depends on who you talk to, to be honest. It’s quite controversial how things are going if we are being honest about it,” Macdonald stated. “[You] can have two conversations with two different faculty members in one school, and they can have a dramatically different, um, opinion about how things are going.” 

Eventually, the conversation was shifted to public comment. To assure that there was an opportunity for everyone to be represented, 15 minutes were allotted for the district staff to speak, and 15 minutes for parents, students, and other people to speak. 

Arcata High science teacher Shannon Kresge was the first person to speak. Kresge expressed that she was thankful for the board, and for “[letting] science lead.” Then she began to list her concerns about reopening the school. Her major concern, though, was the exposure of the students and community. 

“What you’re about to roll the dice and make a decision on is greatly increasing the risk to our students and community members,” Kresge said. “We could, by your decision, have students and community family members die, and that doesn’t sit well with me.” 

Up next was Arcata High math teacher Wendy Zamboni. She expressed the same sentiment as Kresge to the board about waiting for reopening, especially after all the teachers were vaccinated. Zamboni’s concerns focused more on how teaching, classroom norms, and overall material will have to change, again, to fit the in-person learning environment. These factors on top of state testing, finals, and AP tests would lead to a loss of time for instruction. 

“It’s not a whole lot of face-to-face [instruction] for the amount of stress and anxiety that it’s going to create to try to make it happen,” Zamboni said. 

Arcata High science teacher Alyssa Kell spoke after Zamboni. She echoed the concerns and gratitudes that Kresge and Zamboni had previously expressed to the board. Kell’s own concerns focused on how the plan does not entirely follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California Department of Public Health guidelines for reopening schools. Specifically, how there are three layers of safety: small stable groups, masking and distancing. The plan for reopening does not follow the small stable groups because although they are stable, predefined groups they are by no means small with the estimated group size to be around 300 students. 

McKinleyville High Social Science teacher Tiffany Bullman proceeded after Kell. Bullman was an outlier amongst the teachers. She advocated for the return of in-person learning. “I know this isn’t going to be easy, ah, for any of us. Teachers, this is gonna be hard and we are always asked to do hard things. But I have faith in us and I know we can do it,” Bullman stated. “[I] really look forward to seeing some of my students and actually getting to know them on a different level.”

The public comment section shifted towards non-faculty attendees, which consisted of parents and students. 

McKinleyville High sophomore Summer Johnson was the first person to speak. She expressed her thankfulness to the district for developing a plan for in-person learning. Johnson said that she has been waiting for the opportunity to return to campus since we went online. Johnson went on to say that a majority of students want to return to campus, which can be backed up by the data Macdonald showed earlier in the meeting (to clarify the data Macdonald presented was from surveys taken by parents, not students).  “[The] ones [students wanting to go back] they do realize the risk they’re taking and they’re willing to take that risk to go back in-person,” Johnson said. “So as much as ‘yes, the students may be putting themselves at risk’ they’re making that choice. And as a student, I would like to have my voice be heard that I’m willing to make that choice.”

Many parents spoke afterward expressing their concerns about how distance learning has affected students’ mental health and the gratitude they hold for the reopening plan. They also asked several questions about how certain aspects of the plan will work. 

Afterward, more parents asked clarifying questions about the plan. There was an emphasis from a majority of the parents for school to ‘return back to normal’. Many expressed that even with the teacher’s concern about the plan, they felt that things needed to go back to ‘normal’. 

McKinleyville High junior Cicely Jones was the last student to speak during public comment. Jones told the board that she is a very active student by participating in sports and serving as an officer in multiple clubs and for the junior class. She expressed that the number of families and students wanting to go back to campus was irrelevant. “The number of people who want to go back is so much less important than our safety,” Jones said. She went on to further explain that she does not have any great options when it comes to school. 

“I feel like my option is either to go to school, um, around those people with a plan I do not trust,” Jones explained. “[or] to stay home, distanced learning and experience learning that is going to be subpar to the learning that I would experience if I were in class.” She went on to explain how this plan is not fair or equitable in her opinion for students who do not want to risk their health by going back. “[This] plan, um, is forcibly disadvantaging a large amount of our student population that doesn’t feel safe going back to school.”

After Jones’s statements, the meeting proceeded onwards as the conversation went back to the board and Macdonald. Trustees asked several questions parents brought up to Macdonald about the plan, and he proceeded to answer them. It all came to vote, once the discussion ended. All five board members voted to approve the in-person learning plan and date to return to campus. 

Now that the decision has been made to reopen the campus, students are faced with the decision. The new reopening plan Proposed by Superintendent Macdonald is admittedly a compromise for all students. All students will be losing 10% of their class time and will remain on Zoom whether in class or at home. The benefit of returning to campus for many students is that they will have additional support from teachers and staff. There is also expected to be an increased interaction with peers than what students have experienced from the DL model at home. Another benefit of doing in-person learning for students is that there will be more accountability for students to focus in class without the constant temptation of things like social media, video games, Netflix, etc. However, when deciding to return in-person, many students are worried about how effective the enforcement of mask mandates will be and social distancing enforcing, even though Macdonald reassures students that, “Students who choose to not follow the masking policy for returning on campus will return to distance learning.”

 Melanie Zapper, Arcata High mathematics and arts teacher, also pointed out that, “going back to school will not mean less screen time.” Students will still be expected to be on their class Zoom whether at home or at school. It’s also important for students to realize they will only have 10 on-campus periods for each class left before the summer break. 

The benefit of staying home for many students is that they are able to stay in the routine they have maintained since August and protect their family from the potential exposure to Covid-19 that could come with on-campus learning. 

The negative aspect of staying home is that the students on Zoom will no longer be the primary focus of their teachers and the in-person students may interact in the class without them. We are also expecting that the new learning format may take time for teachers and students to adjust to before it starts to run as intended. 

For teachers and students, the opinions on returning to in-person instruction vary. Many teachers are against going back, but there is a minority amongst their colleagues who are in support of it. Tiffany Bullman, one of the teachers who spoke at the board meeting, is for in-person instruction. 

“I always strive to do the best that I can for my students, and I fear that my students won’t get the best of me as I juggle teaching both groups,” Bullman wrote. She then went on to explain how in-person classes will positively help many students by being around their peers and trusted adults. “School isn’t going to solve the wealth of mental health and socio-economic issues in our society, but it will help some of our students,” Bullman said. Like many of her colleagues, she misses being in a classroom with students, having conversations with them, and the overall environment of teaching in-person. Bullman stated that she’s looking forward to a classroom with students and will hopefully get to indulge in the pleasures of teaching that have been abducted by Zoom. 

As for students’ opinions regarding the reopening plan, senior Maddie Lankarani has been one of the most vocal. Lankarani also attended and spoke at the board meeting, stating a list of questions and concerns she has about the plan to go back. She told the Pepperbox that she does not plan to go back to campus and is against the school reopening. With the timing of school reopening, AP exams will be taking place, leaving many students at a disadvantage when it comes to preparation for the exams, Lankarani expressed. She has also spent the past month communicating with students, teachers, and people within the community about this situation. 

“Many teachers have reported, ‘political pressure’ as a significant factor in the decision for opening up,” Lankarani stated, “which I do not believe outweighs the risking the lives of students and our community.” She went on to say that nurse Johnny Kell has been honest about the realities regarding going back to school in-person. “He is the only medical professional we have on campus, therefore making him more qualified than many adults in charge.

When asked about his general feeling about reopening campus, Mr. Kell has expressed he “want[s] to proceed with caution. I believe in our student body and their ability to be compassionate and empathetic toward others. In this case it’s being thoughtful about the seriousness of the situation.” 

Alyssa Kell, AHS science teacher, was the next follow-up interview conducted after the board meeting. Through our interview, Kell emphasized her concerns about the plan and how it will affect unvaccinated students and members of the community. 

“My foremost concern (far above any others) is for the safety of unvaccinated students and community members,” Kell wrote, “Our District’s plan does not carefully adhere to public health guidance regarding cohorting or podding (maintaining small stable groups).” She then went on to reiterate her point that the CDC and CDPH emphasize the need for small stable groups especially for high school reopening plans. 

Many students have expressed their opinions to Kell about the reopening of school. “What I am hearing from students, especially Seniors, is that they would like to prioritize planning COVID-appropriate social activities like Senior Picnic and some kind of graduation ceremony,” Kell said. Even with her opinions surrounding the plan for reopening, Kell wrote that she hopes that events like the ones she mentioned can occur, and current freshmen can have an opportunity to connect to campus before their Sophomore year. 

Meanwhile, freshman Natalie Lehman is excited to be on the Arcata High campus for the first time. Even with her concern of catching COVID-19, for Lehman and many other freshmen, this is their only chance to go to high school before their sophomore year.

“I am looking forward to knowing the school better and meeting other freshmen,” Lehman said. “I am also looking forward to meeting the teachers.” 

Lastly, Shannon Kresge was willing to delve into her concerns with an interview. This time, with the plan for reopening approved, now the concerns became very real. 

“I am concerned that condensing the schedule with shorter breaks, and all three blocks before lunch, will make it even harder for students to be present and engaged,” Kresge wrote. She went on to emphasize that concern for students at home too. With school and Zoom fatigue combination, she also went on to express other concerns about COVID-19 safety protocols. “I am concerned with enforcement of policies to keep you safe,” Kresge said. “Before the pandemic, students were not even held accountable for dress code, so I fear they don’t have the manpower or necessary repercussions to deal with student issues.” The safety protocols being obviously more important than any dress code, since they deal with the prevention and spread of COVID-19. Whatever the case, there are still a lot of details and regulations that need to be created before April 5.

Returning students to campus and beginning this hybrid model is a big step toward ‘normalcy’ and the pre-COVID lifestyle. Whether this is a good choice for you or not, remember the decision to return is unique for each person and each student will have a different interpretation of the pros and cons of each model and what it would look like to return. 

Most likely, school nurse Mr. Kell hypothesizes “teenagers will be offered the chance to become vaccinated most likely before next Fall and every infection that can be avoided should be avoided.” For everybody the level of risk and necessity for returning is different, so we must be mindful and respectful of other students’ decisions.  

“Student safety,” is my biggest concern about returning, Monge describes. “We all need to follow the protocols for returning to campus to make sure we are taking care of each other.”