Santa Monica High School/SMMUSD faculty members: Heather Wethern, Foreign Language department chair/Spanish teacher; Emily Kariya, H House teacher leader/language/social studies teacher; Ryan Hoffman, Math department chair/math teacher; Dr. Antonio Shelton, principal; Claudia Bautista-Nichols, president of Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association. Photo BY CHRIS MORTENSON

Local high schools persevered during the pandemic to help students succeed

By Kamala Kirk

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the educational landscape, creating many challenges for teachers and students. Schools had to quickly switch to a virtual learning format, finding new ways to keep students engaged while continuing to provide them with a high-quality education. Prior to returning to the classroom, educational institutions spent a lot of time planning and preparing to welcome students back to a safe learning environment while adapting to a new “normal.”

Over the past year and a half, the administrators, staff, faculty and teachers at Santa Monica High School (SMHS) and Venice High School have gone above and beyond to support students and their ongoing academic success. From learning advanced technology to establishing updated protocols, the schools and their students have continued to flourish throughout the pandemic.

When COVID-19 first hit in March 2020, both schools closed for 18 months during the shutdown. Dr. Antonio Shelton, principal of SMHS, said that when he and his staff were made aware that that would not be attending school as normal, they immediately asked students to take home their school-issued Chromebooks.

“Thankfully, we had issued them to students and had started the year off with all teachers having to set up a Google classroom,” Shelton said. “Having a Google classroom already set up for students made the transition to distance learning a lot easier in that regard. Our students were given an opportunity over several days to pick up items left at school to continue their education from home. This was not easy, but we made it work for our students. We also set up a schedule for students to pick up new and drop off broken Chromebooks.”

Similarly, Venice High School provided devices to students and teachers, as well as Internet access points, working closely with LAUSD to transition students to online learning.

“Both students and staff quickly adapted to the use of technology,” said Cynthia Headrick, principal of Venice High School. “VHS provided training for our staff, who in turn supported our students.

There was definitely a transition period and a learning curve, but we all came away with a greater adaptability and deeper understanding of the use of various websites, apps and the LAUSD Learning Management System (lms), Schoology. The growth that occurred with technology during the pandemic has transferred to in-person instruction and strengthened it. Staff and teachers worked endlessly to keep students engaged, whether through strategies to engage students in Zoom lessons or by placing multiple phone calls home.”

Staff at SMHS also learned new technology and incorporated social emotional activities into their lesson design to ensure that students were connected, according to Shelton.

“Although not perfect, we wanted to provide opportunities for students to engage in instruction and also give them a chance to interact virtually with their peers,” Shelton said. “I believe our students and teachers did the best they could with the resources that we had. Our parents, students and teachers were all supportive throughout the pandemic. We provided distance learning instruction through Zoom. Students and teachers all had their ups and downs during this difficult and challenging time.”

In April 2021, both schools reopened and welcomed students back for in-person instruction. While some things have returned to normal, many updates have been made in order to maintain a safe learning environment for students and staff.

“More and more of our students have gotten vaccinated and we test all students and staff every week,” Shelton said. “It is very important that we stay in school and support our students with instruction in the classroom, where we believe they learn best. Having interactions and collaborating with their classmates is just as important as providing instruction. Many things have returned to normal such as having lunch in the open-air cafeteria, students being able to sit in a classroom together and the sound of music on campus. The differences are that we are now wearing masks inside and outside on campus. Our concerts have been outside, along with our dances. All students have a computer and we use Google Classroom.”

In addition to requiring students and staff to wear masks inside and outside on campus to mitigate COVID spread, Headrick added that Venice High School is currently not holding large gatherings or assemblies indoors.

“Our students are fully engaged not only in our academic programs, but also our extracurricular programs including athletics, marching band, theater and choir,” Headrick said. “VHS is vigilant about keeping our students and staff safe from COVID. This means our students scan a ‘daily pass’ each day to show that they are COVID symptom free and have not been in close contact with a COVID case and are not COVID positive. We screen all guests, whether coming to campus during the school day or at athletic events.”

SMHS held a virtual graduation for the class of 2020, then had two socially distant in-person graduations for the class of 2021. When asked how students have responded to the pandemic and changes in their educational environment, Shelton said that SMHS students have been very flexible and adapted to the new normal of wearing masks and being tested for COVID weekly.

“The school experience is very different and people are very cautious,” Shelton said. “Students are more aware of the need to have protocols in place and they understand why we are requiring them to do certain things to keep our campus open. Students, teachers and parents all want to be in school and remain throughout the year.”

Headrick said that despite some initial hesitance and anxiety, students at Venice High School have also adapted well to the return to school.

“Students respect the wearing of masks throughout the campus,” Headrick said. “We are all grateful to be able to return to campus and experience school together.”

Venice High school’s campus modernization is still in progress and they completed their new state-of-the-art shop building and science buildings. Their football stadium is also complete and in full use, and the landscaping throughout the campus follows the zones of California and is being used by the school’s new horticulture classes. The new gym will be completed in December 2022 and the baseball and softball fields will be completed by the spring season. Venice High School is also building outdoor tennis and basketball courts along Zanja Street, which will be done in Summer 2022. The campus’ historic auditorium is under renovation and will be completed in Fall 2022.

“VHS is an amazing school filled with incredible educators and wonderful students,” Headrick said. “Our programs continue to thrive – STEMM Magnet, World Languages and Global Studies Magnet, Media Arts Academy, Sports Medicine Academy, Law and Public Service Academy, School for Advanced Studies, and our Dual Language Mandarin and Spanish Program. We at VHS are fortunate to have such dedicated teachers to lead the work of our Gondolier mottos: One Venice. One community. Rowing NOT drifting. Educating students. Changing lives. Building futures.”

Shelton added, “I see our students flourishing from the learned experiences throughout the pandemic. They have learned to adjust and navigate through difficult and trying situations. SMHS students have always been resourceful, thoughtful and social justice-minded. They became even more so during the pandemic and brought our students together. Many began to see more similarities amongst their classmates than differences, which makes SMHS a one-of-a-kind learning environment.”