Teachers, students head back to virtual classrooms

A relatively empty entrance to Canyon High School on the first day of school. The district moved to a distance learning format due to COVID-19. Photo by Dave Caldwell.

In a back-to-school day unlike any other before it, the first group of Santa Clarita Valley K-12 students and teachers returned to the classroom via a distance learning format Tuesday.

The William S. Hart Union High School District and the Castaic Union School District booted up their computers and online programs for the first day of the school year. The Saugus Union School District is set to start classes Wednesday; the Newhall and Sulphur Springs Union school districts are set to resume Thursday.

For the first to return, starting in an online teaching environment was a new experience for teachers who weren’t involved in the previous year but, naturally, it’s being treated as a learning opportunity.

“Obviously, today is a day that no teachers expected in their career,” said Dave Caldwell, the public information officer for the Hart School District. “The first day of school in a situation that is unprecedented. It’s a day where everyone, teachers and students alike, are learning a new way to do something. It’s a very interesting first day of school.”

The Hart School District is operating on a schedule that was approved by district staff and board members earlier this summer, guided by Public Health restrictions that banned in-person classroom instruction for now. Junior high and high school students will be meeting online with their teachers in periods throughout the day, taking breaks along the way such as they would if they were on a campus.

In addition to watching lectures or lessons from their teachers throughout the day (with the teachers being either in the classroom or working from home) students will be submitting their work through online platforms.

District officials have said in the past that the expectation is for teachers to be teaching in a professional and timely manner, and students would be taking it as seriously as they would be if they were on campus. Attendance will be taken and grades, rigorous classwork and expectations will follow suit.

“Kids and teachers have butterflies, yes even older kids and young or old teachers. This is a new beginning,” said Linda Storli, Hart District governing board president. “So much excitement. Today … is like no first day in the history of the world. Yet, many kids got up and put their favorite outfits on and began school as it is today.”

At Canyon High School on Tuesday morning, students were given the opportunity to connect with one another by showing off two or three items from around their house/room that their identity is associated with.

“That was just so fun to get to know the kids that quickly, hear them talk and laugh together … It was really fun,” said Canyon High Assistant Principal Wendy Aird, adding she joined in on one of the calls to participate herself.

As for attendance on the opening virtual day, Aird said she did not have the attendance reports in front of her during the early morning interview with The Signal, but that the numbers in the class she saw “looked about right.”

“Without the connection, education is very difficult,” said Aird. “Our new thing this year is that if students have ‘buy-in,’ they will log in,” she said.

Also a mother of two Santa Clarita Valley students, as well, Aird added that she acknowledged the experience would be different for them, but that the district and the teachers were working to provide as close to a normal experience as possible, given the circumstances.

“It’s different when you’re hiding behind a screen or just not logging in, so the kids being forced to do that (turn their camera/microphone on and attend class daily) so that they’re present and learning,” said Aird. “And the teachers can monitor that and I feel like this is a good option.”

“If this is the option we have, this is a fantastic option,” she added.

Officials with the Castaic Union School District, which has also adopted a distance learning model similar to the Hart District, said that despite the new learning environment they’re excited for the potential of the coming weeks.

“While the start of the school year is not exactly how we would prefer, we are extremely excited to start the new year with our virtual learning platform,” said Steve Doyle, superintendent for the Castaic district. “Our amazing staff has worked diligently to create structures to make every student successful this year.”

Doyle said the teachers have all received training and professional development opportunities in order to better be prepared for the coming school session, hoping that these new tips and tricks will help them better engage with students and enhance their learning experience.

“Our families and staff have remained positive, flexible and are modeling perseverance as we move forward,” said Doyle. “We understand that we will have some bumps along the way but we are confident that we will have a great school year.”

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