Friday, March 13, was the last day that Anderson Valley Junior/Senior High School’s 213 students physically went to class. Social distancing regulations were tightening as the corona virus spread, and Principal Jim Snyder said that he spent a lot of time that weekend talking with county school superintendent Michelle Hutchins and other school principals about what they should do as Bay Area schools began shutting down. The Covelo and Mendocino school districts closed their schools right away that Friday though schools throughout the rest of Mendocino County remained open. Counties and school districts have some leeway in interpreting statewide guidelines, and Governor Gavin Newsom had not so far issued a binding executive order that would have forced the closures. The initial county decision for Mendocino County out of that weekend was to close schools for Monday and Tuesday only, but was quickly followed by first the interim decision to keep them closed through spring break (which ended the first week in April), then finally to keep them closed for the rest of this academic year.
“I think we made absolutely the right decision at the right time,” said school principal Jim Snyder. “Schools are the places where people gather together, especially in small communities.”
As it turned out, closing the schools was the easy part. Figuring out how to continue students’ educations on the fly was and still is the harder part. “We had zero prep time to prepare academically,” Snyder said he told his staff. ‘If we had had a year to prepare for this we could have used the entire year. It was like building a plane while you’re taking off.”
Serving students in a rural, mostly low-income community like Anderson Valley has advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, the student population is small enough for teachers and staff to keep in touch with families. “One way we’re supporting our families is that every student has an advisor and that advisor reaches out to families every week,” he said. When asked about how rising unemployment among those families is increasing their needs, Snyder said it’s still early to tell, especially without seeing students in person. “I’m wondering if we’ll see an uptick in need in the next few weeks,” he said, adding that families call the school with a variety of issues. “Our families can call us because we have ties to a lot of resources. If we can’t handle something we can find someone who can.”
One need that appears to be growing is for free or reduced lunches, which actually includes both breakfast and lunch. Because a high percentage of Boonville High students qualify for the federal school lunch program, all students receive them. When the school closed, meals could be picked up every school day through a drive-through set-up between 11:00 and 12:30. That schedule quickly went down to food pick-ups three days a week to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus. Starting Monday, April 13, on the first day following spring break, food pick-up will be once a week, on Mondays only. “What we basically had to figure out is how to provide the same level of service to the kids for their meals,” Snyder said, adding that the amount of food is the same, just provided less frequently. “We’re getting more and more families showing up,” he said. “Last week 120 families showed up for meals,” roughly double the number from the week before.
Then there’s the so-called digital divide. Boonville High now has a website, avhsonline.org, where students can pick up assignments and email their teachers. And every high school student has access to a laptop. But having a computer is just part of the equation. “About a third of our families do not have reliable internet,” Snyder explained. “And a lot of those who do still deal with caps on data and other restrictions.” He said that bridging this divide requires that families be served by both email and phone calls. “Equity is the number one concern. You have to provide the same level of opportunity. Google is providing lots of things but there is no way for 100 percent of our students to get on line.”
Snyder and his two admin staffers put together the paper packets that roughly half the school’s students pick up regularly. He said that the three of them are the only ones on campus. When students return their work, also on paper, the paper is held for five days before it’s handled to make sure that it can’t transmit the virus, which Snyder says can’t live longer than that on paper. “It’s really to protect our teachers,” he said. He added that they are also looking at thumb drives for students to use to receive and return assignments.
Where can technology be helpful and what can it not replace? This is a question Snyder says he asks himself during the socially isolating reality of today’s rejiggered education system. He said that students tell him that the hardest part for them is not being around peers and friends. “I hear people say that kids are on phones too much, they don’t know how to socialize. It’s not true. They’re using social media but miss their face-to-face interactions.”
“In order for education to really be successful three [groups] must be involved: teachers, students, and parents,” Snyder said. He added that he hopes that this current crisis will underscore the importance of those relationships and the need for them to work together.