A 65-inch screen is propped on a chair in Holtville High School teacher Keith Smith's classroom so that he can better view his students while teaching his online classes Aug. 17. | PHOTO COURTESY OF KEITH SMITH
HOLTVILLE — For Holtville High School teacher Keith Smith, the first day of fall online classes were really focused on creating a sense of normalcy for his students.
“I have my classroom setup exactly as if students were going to walk in on the first day,” Smith said. “I want the students to feel like they are at school as much as they can.”
Smith, a civics and U.S. history teacher, addressed his 120 senior students from his familiar green Viking podium at the front of his empty classroom. Although much of his class appeared the same, Smith did include a 65-inch screen in his room, which he placed near the front podium to better view his students while they attended his live daily sessions.
“As a rule, students are going to have their cameras on as they are participating in class,” Smith said. “It’s very important for everyone involved to stay on top of things and communicate. If there is something you’re struggling with, don’t wait but communicate.”
Smith is one of several Holtville Unified School District educators who returned to teaching either in their classrooms or in their homes Aug. 17, as distance-learning measures continue to be followed countywide to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“Teachers and counselors have been working very hard towards preparing for the first day of school,” Holtville High School Principal Anthony Arevalo said. “We are excited to see our students again as well as to have meaningful discourse with them.”
The biggest priority educators and administrators had while starting day one of live online classes was making sure each student was able to properly connect with their teachers, explained Arevalo.
“The most difficult aspect of the first day of school will be in relation to having all of our students login to their Google classrooms for their Google Meets sessions,” Arevalo said.
Smith’s daughter, Vera Smith, a Holtville high school junior, was among the students who logged in for their first day of classes from home.
“She wants to be here,” said Smith of his daughter. “It’s been a struggle for her and a great number of kids.”
Smith offered his daughter the same advice he’s been passing on to his own students.
“Attitude is everything,” Smith said. “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it.”
Likewise, for Holtville High School teacher Bonnie Sorenson, building her students’ confidence and getting them to be actively engaged in the class curriculum has been a fundamental part for her as she returned to educating Aug. 17.
“The advice I am giving to my students while preparing to return to class virtually is to remain confident, calm, follow new procedures attentively, (and) do the best they can,” said Sorenson.
Sorenson, the instructor for four courses including anatomy and physiology, anatomy honors, integrated science II, and integrated science II honors, was one of the many Holtville teachers who decided to hold her live classes from her home.
“I had to access link codes from our school’s system through my computer to communicate with my students,” said Sorenson as she recalled using live video conferences to meet her students rather than personally shaking their hands as they entered her class.
Sorenson organized a place in her home where she could hold her classes online, making sure that her computer camera was placed in a fixed area where the background, lighting, and outside sounds would be properly set up to avoid any unnecessary disruptions, she explained.
“I believe while we keep those high incidence numbers of cases of COVID-19 patients here … we must always prevent instead of suffering the risk of contamination in our schools with our students, teachers, staff, administrators, and everyone in our communities,” Sorenson said.
In moving forward, Sorenson hopes to continue to work closely with fellow educators and school staff to provide the best-possible educational experience to her students.
“Let’s navigate it together safely, positively, learning, and caring for everyone so we can all reach our goals, and no one is left behind,” she said.
These sentiments were also shared by Patricia Harrison, principal for Pine School in Holtville. 17.
“As a staff we will work together to overcome all obstacles that we come across,” said Harrison. “The staff at Pine School are all here with the goal of ensuring that our students are successful.”
In addition to their united front, all Pine teachers will also be working out of their classrooms this fall, Harrison explained.
“I am very proud of the work that Pine teachers did last year to end the year strong and am very confident that they are up to the challenges of the new school year,” she said.
Harrison’s faith in her staff was mirrored by Lupita Perez, principal of Emmett S. Finley Elementary School, following the first day of online classes.
“Distance learning may be new, but as our mission statement reads, ‘we will create lifelong readers and learners’ with staff modeling this for the students,” said Perez.
She also noted that only one-third of teachers can return to campus to work from the convenience of their classrooms. However, the administration has also provided teachers with additional technology support when they’ve needed it, she added.
“I do know that many of our teachers have created classroom offices at home that they have set up with their instructional materials and visual aids to help students learn,” Perez said.
A majority of Holtville administrators, including Perez, have also stressed the importance of all students making the conscious effort to attend and participate in all their courses.
“It is extremely important that they be present, engaged and ask questions of their teachers,” Perez said. “I cannot stress enough how important it is for students to make daily connections with their teachers and peers … (It) is essential for their social-emotional and academic well-being.”
In looking toward the future, all administrators have also mentioned that although they want their students back at school, they will be following the local, state, and federal guidelines regarding distance learning until it is deemed safe to re-open to students.
“I would like to thank all parents and community members for their support and patience,” said Perez. “We are excited to blast off on our new mission and encourage the community to be a part of it.”