‘Cautious Optimism’ For SPUSD, Superintendent Says

Photo courtesy SPUSD
Sandra Matson-Fennell, Pedro Pinedo and Andrea Carless were among more than 200
South Pasadena Unifi ed School District employees who received COVID-19 vaccines on
March 5-6 through Keck Medicine of USC. They will receive second doses on March 26-27.

It was a year ago today that officials with the South Pasadena Unified School District took their first action to address the coronavirus pandemic, which was to start spring break early and figure out what happens after that.

One year later, after spending the majority of the time engaged in a remote teaching program, things are eking back to normalcy — a limited number of elementary school students have returned to their classrooms, teachers started getting vaccinated last week and officials expect to be able to bring some middle and high school students back this spring.

It all added up to a feeling of “cautious optimism,” Superintendent Geoff Yantz said.

“We still have a ways to go as a community, as well as a state, country and world,” Yantz added, speaking by phone Wednesday, “but it’s certainly moving in a positive direction. Just knowing how much effort and work and time needs to be invested in order to open schools and keep schools open and continue moving forward” is important.

The school board on March 12 last year decided in an emergency meeting that the district would start its spring break early. Students were told to bring everything home they would potentially need after classes ended the next day, an auspicious Friday the 13th. By this point, the NBA had suspended its professional basketball season indefinitely and the World Health Organization had declared the coronavirus to be a global pandemic.

The district eventually decided that remote teaching would pick up in April, following spring break. Chromebooks were distributed to students who needed them, and breakfast and lunch was served for free to any children in town who needed them. What started as a temporary pivot to distance learning became indefinite as it became clear there was not an end in sight for the coronavirus.

“It’s been an extraordinarily difficult year for everyone, whether it was closing down our schools on a dime or our teachers transitioning to distance teaching last spring,” board member Michele Kipke said in a phone interview. “I think there was some novelty and excitement in the beginning — learning at home, in your pajamas if you wanted — and that it continued through the fall, but after this winter break, it really became apparent to us how much of a toll it took on the kids.”

Although normally the school board’s president, currently Dr. Ruby Kalra, speaks to media, Kipke was interviewed because she was the board president at the start of the pandemic and for most of its duration.

“It’s been an incredible journey,” Kipke continued. “Our teachers have worked extremely hard to adapt to changing circumstances. From the start to where we’re at today, we could not have done this without their creativity and how adaptive and flexible they’ve been.”

Kipke, herself a district parent, lauded the families for having to often step in and play the role of teacher while, Yantz added, “most are working their own jobs, too.”

Naturally, many parents and their children were eager last month when the district was prepared to restart in-person teaching at its elementary schools almost immediately after county officials permitted it. The district was already planning its return at that point, having secured waivers to reopen doors, and its preparation paid off.

“They were just shaking with excitement and joy to be back,” Yantz said of the students. “It was something I hadn’t seen in a while. The comments I received from teachers who were there to greet the children, they had the same feeling.”

This week, Los Angeles County entered the threshold of coronavirus spread to potentially bring middle and high school students back, provided the county maintains that position through at least next week. Teachers also were made eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations on March 1, and last week began receiving their first doses through Keck Medicine of USC.

Athletic conditioning had resumed for older students in November, and in the past few weeks competitions for high school athletes have begun. At the middle school level, students have banded together to form remote and virtual clubs and projects as a way of interacting and addressing mental and emotional wellness issues.

“This is really a pivotal moment where things can continue down the road where we’re going, or we’ll end up in another surge,” Kipke said, also observing how the commercial sector is reopening. “Everyone in the community has a role to play in continuing the direction we’re going.”

Kipke observed that in spite of the early explorations of students being able to plot out their school days more freely and in the comfort of their homes, it remains apparent that in-person school is the ideal model for most children.

“I think what we’re learning is the social emotional impacts of not being in a school environment with their peers is just so detrimental to their development,” she said.

The onset of the pandemic last year exacerbated a problem that the district was already preparing to face, which was the state’s underfunding of small high-performing school districts like this one. Projections from the state became worse when it was unclear how the pandemic would affect tax revenues.

A year later, it turned out the state actually brought in slightly more revenue that it anticipated.

“Unfortunately, we had to make some very, very difficult decisions and lay staff off” last May, Yantz said. “Over the summer, the PTA organized a fundraiser to help us raise PPE in the event we returned in August, because the state was not providing any kind of support at the time.

“Subsequently,” he continued, “they’re doing somewhat of a lookback and providing some one-time funding for school districts this year that have opened. There are going to be some other increases to our general fund revenue, but we have to remember that we were cut last year and that this will restore only some of that funding.”

There were some positive developments in spite of the pandemic. A number of large projects were completed, including a renovation and addition to South Pasadena High School’s athletic facilities, upgrades to fire alarm and suppression systems and the installation of LED lights throughout the district. The school board also successfully purchased a new central office and is in the process of selling the current one.

The pandemic also provoked some positive developments.

“We weren’t a one-to-one district before this,” Yantz said, referring to the practice of providing one Chromebook to every student, “and now we are. Those tools lend themselves to different methodologies in the classrooms.”

Remote teaching, he added, likely will result in some long-term changes to how schools provide instruction, based on how teachers had to adapt to make the best of a bad situation for the past year.

“If this were something we experienced from one or two months, it may not have had the effect on instruction” we are anticipating, Yantz said. “In contrast, we’re looking at a whole school year and when it’s sustained over that time, the practitioners in the classroom have absorbed a lot of new techniques that they will consider in the future.”