Learning pods offer students that first, safe step back to campus

Selena Hernandez, a bilingual instructional aide at Oak Crest Middle School in Encinitas, works with her students.
Selena Hernandez, a bilingual instructional aide at Oak Crest Middle School in Encinitas, works on a video dance routine Thursday with her students.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The small, self-contained groups provide in-person help for students who need extra support


Amid the chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic, a handful of students are finding a sliver of normal school life through learning pods, small groups that attend school on campus together, getting extra support for the challenges that COVID-19 has thrown their way.

The students identified for learning pods include some of the most vulnerable: special education students who need in-person services and may not tolerate long hours on computers; English learners, who require support to learn in two languages; and students whose grades have dropped during virtual learning. Others lack a suitable study environment at home, or face social or emotional issues worsened by the pandemic, and really need time with classmates and teachers.

While most students in the San Dieguito Union High School District study via Zoom classes, small groups have returned to campus in learning pods for in-person instruction at campuses including Oak Crest Middle School in Encinitas.

There, a small number of students work together four days per week, with strict COVID-19 protocols in place. The students and their teachers wear masks, wash their hands frequently, and check their temperatures upon entering the campus. Classrooms have room capacities posted on their doors, and student are spread apart from each other.

About 70 of the 800 students enrolled at the school have participated in the learning pods, which launched in October, Principal Katie Friedrichs said. It’s not bustling middle school life as they once knew it, but for many students, it has been a welcome return to near normal.

“I remember the first day they came back on campus, they were running to their classrooms,” said Tiffany Hazelwood, director of school and student services for the San Dieguito district.

The pods are set up as limited, self-contained cohorts, where students remain with the same classmates throughout the day. They’re still doing virtual learning, but they’re doing it with teacher support in a quiet setting with reliable internet access.

“I think they’re happier, their moods are good, they’re so positive all the time,” said Kasey Galik, an adaptive physical education teacher at Oak Crest Middle School in Encinitas. “They’re so excited to see us. They light up.”

Throughout the fall semester, many districts have struggled to reopen campuses to in-person learning. Some have opened schools in hybrid models, only to shut down again as COVID-19 cases rose and staffing problems related to quarantines compromised their ability to provide in-person instruction. Others, including many middle and high schools, have remained closed as educators tried to puzzle out systems to keep staff and students safe with multiple class periods and frequent movement throughout the campus.

In the meantime, some districts have begun to bring back limited numbers of students who need the most support. The Escondido Union High School District, which has not reopened to all students, began offering learning pods in the fall. The Vista Unified School District provided similar support early in the semester, before opening fully. Vista temporarily closed campuses to most secondary students after Thanksgiving due to staffing shortages, but is maintaining in-person support for small groups of students.

Maya Lomeli teaches her adaptive physical education class at Oak Crest Middle School
ENCINITAS, CA - DECEMBER 10: On Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020 in Encinitas, CA., Maya Lomeli taught her adaptive physical education class at Oak Crest Middle School worked with her 7th and 8th grade students as well as with students doing remote learning. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

It’s not a full return to on-campus instruction, but a modification of virtual learning. Students in the learning pods work on pace with their classmates at home on Zoom, doing the same assignments and receiving the same instruction.

In the physical education at Oak Crest Middle School, several students practiced dance moves for a video they are creating to the song “Sunday Best” by the band Surfaces. Students at home simultaneously rehearsed the routine with Galik’s co-teacher Maya Lomeli. They will record their individual performances and combine them for a video aimed at boosting both their fitness and morale.

“It’s all about how in life, you struggle sometimes, but you get back up,” Galik said. “We’re trying to bring fitness, health and emotional well-being for our students.”

At another classroom, several special education students watched a video about emotions with their teacher and aides. One girl, with bright red hair and a colorful tie-dyed mask, kept glancing back at her teacher with a beaming smile.

And in the school’s multi-purpose room, a group of seventh- and eighth-graders took a science test at desks spaced about 10 to 12 feet apart. For these students, all English learners, the pandemic has compounded challenges upon challenges.

The class consists of recent young Guatemalan immigrants, many of whom lived in rural villages before moving to the United States, Friedrichs said. For most of them, who grew up speaking indigenous dialects, Spanish was their second, not their first language, making English their third. And some had little or no formal education before attending school in the U.S., so they had to learn elementary level skills including writing and computer use, in middle school.

Being able to come back to campus was crucial for these students, who may lack space, technology or academic support at home, said teacher Mandy Oliphant. It’s also satisfying for her to work in person with students who need the extra help.

“A lot of time the family environment (for studying) isn’t there, so it was really important that we opened up for them,” she said. “I am happy to be here. It warms my heart.”

The learning pods provide in-person instruction and support for vulnerable students, and also serve as a pilot for broader reopening next semester. Starting in January, all students in the San Dieguito district who wish to go to school on campus will be able to come back one day per week, school officials said. That will look much like the system in place for learning pods, but with more students on campus at one time.

“It will still be in the distance learning model,” said Deputy Superintendent Mark Miller. “It will be an expanded version of what you’re seeing here.”

— Deborah Sullivan-Brennan is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune