Updated Feb. 21, 2021
Even as the COVID-19 cases in San Bernardino County have dropped over the past month, small groups of students have already returned to local campuses for distance-learning support.
The distance-learning support in cohorts is completely different from any in-person instruction, except for one important positive – students are back on campus.
It is a small number and a very specific group of students, but 428 students of the Yucaipa-Calimesa Joint Unified School District’s approximate 8,700 enrollment are back on campus as of Monday, Jan. 25. Those numbers were provided at the Feb. 17 special board meeting.
“Our school site teams were so excited to see our students on campus,” Superintendent Cali Binks said in an email about the first day. “Who would have thought it would be snowing on the cohort start day! There were smiles for miles.”
School board members approved cohorts for students who need support in December, after the district was denied its waiver application to reopen elementary schools for in-person learning by the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. The waiver was denied because of the county’s high number of COVID-19 cases at the time.
Small cohorts are groups of no more than 16 people, including at least one teacher, who meet daily for targeted support and intervention services. They are in addition to distance learning.
“I think maybe there was some confusion about what these cohorts were. I think some people thought they were students coming back to school with a teacher,” said Eric Vreeman, assistant superintendent of Business Services, who oversaw the safety and health protocols for the cohorts.
“What they really are, I kind of refer to them as distance-learning hubs, where students from multiple grade levels are in the same classroom on their Chromebooks, participating in distance learning with their teachers. But they happen to be doing it on our campus under supervision of adults so there is more support,” he said.
That extra support, plus being on campus, are the main differences between cohorts and distance learning. As Vreeman pointed out, in both, students receive instruction and participate in class online.
In the cohorts, students sit at their desks, six feet apart and wearing masks, and listen to their teachers on their Chromebooks with headphones because the cohort might be comprised of students from three separate classrooms or grade levels receiving different instruction. A substitute teacher and sometimes one or more aides, depending on the needs of the students, are there to provide support.
The district is using substitute teachers in the cohorts because homeroom teachers are instructing not only their students in cohorts but their other students as well. For example, a teacher might have 30 students in their fifth-grade class. Four of those students, who need additional support, are in a cohort. The other 26 students are at home with distance learning, receiving the same instruction as their classmates in the cohort.
“There is school support for the distance-learning hubs, but it is not a single teacher with a single grade-level teaching their kids,” Vreeman said.
The students in the cohorts were identified by the principals at each school site and then parents were contacted to see if they were interested.
“We have good reports from site principals regarding our cohorts” Binks said. “Everyone is happy to have students back on campus.”
Safety and health protocols
Among the safety and health protocols, in accordance with the California Department of Public Health, the district has implemented are slightly staggered start and end times for cohorts to keep students separated in their own bubble, so to speak.
Vreeman went over the other safety and health protocols the district has implemented. They begin each day with an electronic COVID-19 screening that parents fill out before students get to school. It includes questions on symptoms such as fatigue, a cough, a headache and exposure to someone who has COVID-19.
“If they get to campus and they haven’t filled it out, there is staff there that will ask the questions on the spot,” he said.
All the students are also temperature checked before entering campus. Some campuses conduct temperature checks while students are still in their vehicles, while others take readings as they enter the gate. Buses are being used for students with disabilities, who are among the students needing additional support. In those cases, bus drivers take temperature readings before students take a seat, Vreeman said.
“They are definitely taken before they get on campus,” he said of the early morning protocols. “It just depends, each school is set up a little bit different for their drop-off and pickup, just based on location, the staff we have available to do the temperature checks.”
Once students get to their classrooms, they stay with that group throughout the day.
“The cohorts with 16 people in them, they stay together, they don’t mix with other cohorts,” Vreeman said. “For example, at Yucaipa High School, we have seven cohorts currently and they are all on different parts of the campus when they take their breaks and their lunch breaks, they don’t mix together.
“We bring in lunches every day into the cohorts. There will be a lunch area, but like I said, they don’t mix cohorts for lunch. Then, when they exit, they exit at different locations on campus. The pickup and drop-off are at a little bit different locations on campus. Our goal is to not mix the cohorts at all during the school day.”
While Yucaipa High has seven cohorts because it is the largest campus with the most students, the other district sites have two or three cohorts, Vreeman said. In total, there are 35 cohorts.
After a few weeks in place, the cohorts overall have gone smoothly, from the health and safety perspective, Vreeman said.
“Parents, I think, have been appreciative of all the safety protocols we have in place, as well as staff,” he said. “We want to bring students back to these distance-learning hubs as much as possible and as safe as possible too. The feedback has been very positive.”
When the cohorts were approved in December, it was asked if there was the possibility to expand following the initial rollout. Vreeman confirmed additional cohorts are being discussed.
“We are looking at starting more cohorts. It has been going well. We definitely would like to increase the cohorts,” he said. “Principals right now are identifying students that would benefit from the cohorts. We definitely plan to use more cohorts as we move forward.”
That may be changing, however, at least for elementary schools.
Vreeman made that comment last week. This week’s state data, released each Tuesday, show San Bernardino County’s COVID-19 cases have dropped to 24.4 cases per 100,000 residents, which meets the threshold to reopen elementary schools for in-person learning. The district also needs to file its COVID-19 Safety Plan, the state’s other requirement for counties in the purple or widespread tier to reopen elementary schools.
Even though the county’s COVID-19 cases would allow the district to reopen elementary schools for in-person learning, it is not clear how quickly that would happen. Cases remaining low, scheduling logistics and how many students, teachers and staff want to and are available to return to campus are issues that need to be resolved.
The district’s two-week Spring Break is also coming up, from Saturday, March 20, through Monday, April 5, and would it be possible and practical to bring back students before the break. A special board meeting was scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 17, to discuss the reopening plan for elementary schools.
The county’s cases remain too high to reopen middle or high schools, whose students are considered more likely to contract or spread COVID-19 than those younger. The district also has a middle school in Riverside County as well as San Bernardino County. That means the district will need to have cases in both counties get substantially lower before reopening its upper grade-level schools.
The district’s next regularly scheduled board meeting is 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 23.
To view agendas and board meetings, visit yucaipaschools.com